We've all been there: facing a lengthy, complex word that ignores the phonics we were taught in elementary school, unsure of not only its pronunciation, but also its meaning. These words, from autochthonous to esquamulose, are both terrifying and impressive. After all, if someone knows how to use them—and even say them—they must be quite smart. Yet before you begin stuffing every email and presentation with verbose prose, you might want to reconsider what others perceive to be intelligent.
Each of us has tried a number of tricks in hopes of impressing others and appearing smarter. One of the most common ways we attempt to show off is with complicated and rare words. After all, who isn't blown away by random knowledge?
Very few, as it turns out. As an English tutor, I often remind my college-crazed high school students that a $10 word like euonym doesn't win over as many people as they believe. They don't fool readers, whether they be college admissions officers or AP Literature teachers, into thinking the student is brilliant and well-versed in vocabulary. Rather, they grow suspicious—and they assume the wonderfully articulate student is attempting to woo them with fancy words to hide their work's lack of substance.
This principle applies to worlds beyond a high school classroom, though. And, as researcher Daniel M. Oppenheimer and his team found, the use of overly elaborate vocabulary in the "real world" does greater damage than a suspicious reader: it makes others believe the writer is stupid.
In Oppenheimer's study, the research team set out to examine why most undergraduate college students admitted to deliberately forcing fancier, more complex words into their coursework. The students, much like their high school counterparts, admitted that they thought more challenging lingo meant a higher grade.
So the researchers investigated just how effective this strategy was. They conducted a series of tests with participants: each individual was given a series of essays to read, and asked to rate the writer on complexity and perceived intelligence. The essay readers overwhelmingly noted that the "fancier" writers not only created products that were more difficult to read and understand, but that they were also considered less intelligent individuals. Because the readers couldn't understand the essay content when infused with challenging words, they automatically became biased about the writer's smarts.
This, as the researchers point out, means that a high competency in vocabulary can be a detriment. Whether you rely on scarcely-used words to impress others or not, the mere inclusion of words like accubation and oculoplania makes others biased—and they in turn believe that you are considerably less smart than your writing.
Although it's tempting to believe that others will only view intelligence as information that's impressive or new to them, this study shows that simple is truly best.
Rather than aiming to impress by being the smartest person in the room, try keeping your conversations, presentations, and writing straightforward. Use words you both understand and enjoy using, and consider your reader. Is your coworker going to know what you mean when you use remuneration in a text? If not, your fancy diction could unconsciously lead them to think you're simply trying to be more intelligent than you are. When we rely on the familiar, and speak in terms that others can relate to, we come off as smarter than before.
Go ahead, dumb things down. By filling your writing, whether in the form of emails and business documents or essays and blog posts, with impressive and potentially incomprehensible words, you're making others believe that you're not intelligent at all. Instead, use everyday vocabulary, and you'll actually show off your smarts.