Sheepishly, Kevin Adkins admits that when he’s insecure, he uses big words to appear smarter.
“Only when I need to impress the person,” says the 45-year old. “Dates with women? Definitely. At the grocery store? Not so much.”
A few years ago, when flirting with a stylist at the barbershop, he asked her to give him a “symmetric” haircut instead of just requesting that she trim it evenly. And when he gave an attractive woman directions, he made a point of telling her that the two options they’d discussed were “equidistant” rather than simply saying that both were about the same distance.
Adkins is among the myriad Homo sapiens who suffer from periphrasis. Translation: Many of us use longer words in place of shorter ones. Because folks know, consciously or unconsciously, that others form impressions of them after a glance or a short conversation, they often work harder to give the “right” impression. “People think, If I can show that I have a good vocabulary, I’ll sound smarter,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
The problem with this plan is that it can easily go wrong. “It’s almost a game that two people are playing,” says Eric R. Igou, PhD, a social psychologist at Ireland’s University of Limerick. “If the observer, person B, doesn’t have the same theory, it can backfire.” Person A may be perceived as pretentious instead of intelligent.
Using big words may also confuse listeners, which is definitely moving in the wrong direction. “People associate intelligence with clarity of expression,” says Oppenheimer. That’s especially true when it comes to the written word. A small study cited in Applied Cognitive Psychology found a negative relationship between complexity of writing and judged intelligence: The more writers tried to sound smart, the less intelligent they were perceived to be.
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