No one wants to attract attention for appearing stupid. It’s not something to strive for.
We’d all prefer to be the best and the brightest in our personal and professional lives. There’s a reason that one of our worst fears is public speaking: we’re terrified we’ll make a mistake that makes us look foolish in front of others. It’s embarrassing to look dumb. But you’d be surprised at how easy it is to do.
Try as we might, sometimes we engage in self-sabotaging behaviors that undermine our authority and make others look down on us—they make them think we're less intelligent.
The worst part is that these are very common human traits we’re all prone to. The key to avoiding them, though, is self-awareness. With just a few simple tweaks to your social habits, you can make yourself look sharper and more competent in no time.
With that in mind, let’s look at the worst of these habits, why we do them, and how we can fix them so that those around us will see us for how bright we are.
Dressing Down in Professional Situations or Important Events
Who doesn’t want to be dressed comfortably at all times? In modern society, business casual is more accepted than ever, but don’t forget the “business” part. If you dress slovenly, or wear clothing that doesn’t fit the occasion (or is ill-fitting), you can expect to be looked at with disapproval.
If you don’t have a lock on your sense of style, it can hurt you: a 2014 study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology put 128 men of diverse age and backgrounds through simulated business negotiations. The big reveal? Those who wore suits were perceived as more professional and assertive. Those in casual attire were more unsure in their delivery and failed to attract similar respect from their peers.
So before you walk out the door, do a double-take in the mirror. Simply ask yourself, is this really right for the event I’m attending? If the answer is no, or you find you don’t have the proper attire in your wardrobe, it’s time to go shopping.
Remember when your parents nagged at you to stand up straight? It’s for good reason: Great posture is linked to success. And slouching is at the top of the list of the ways your body language can betray you in important social situations.
Power and authority are really expressed through height and space.
Leadership Coach and Body Language Expert Carol Kinsey Goman says slouching causes those around you to see you in a less than flattering light, because it “looks like you have no energy and confidence, that you’re not as smart because you’re not sitting up.”
Goman also adds that this is another issue that can negatively affect how women are viewed in the workplace.
“The biggest mistake women make is how we condense our bodies," she says. "... Power and authority are really expressed through height and space. ...The more space you take up ... the more competent you look.”
To aid with this, she recommends women take up as much space as possible (such as placing feet squarely apart or stretching their arms on armrests of chairs).
Excessive Nodding and Head Tilts
It may sound odd, but how you hold your head in a business meeting or casual conversation can radically alter how others view you.
Women tend to nod our heads like little bobblehead dolls.
Goman notes this can be an issue that especially undermines women’s confidence. One example is head tilting, which is fine in small doses, but when excessively denotes submissiveness.
“It's like my puppy [who] I used to take for walks," she says. "... when he’d see a great big dog, he’d tilt his neck as if to say ‘Go ahead, bite me, [hurt] me. Because you’re bigger I know you could anyway.’ It’s a really subconscious view of vulnerability.”
Goman adds that excessive head nodding is also a no-no: “It's a nonverbal cue that says ‘I’m listening,’ ... but women tend to nod our heads like little bobblehead dolls. ...It just looks like we’re agreeing with everything. Because men tend to nod only when they agree, but we nod to encourage someone to keep speaking. ...So that makes us look like we’re agreeing with everything and don’t have an idea of our own.”
Communications success strategist and body communication expert Sharon Sayler notes other things to avoid: repeatedly looking down makes others view us as shy, while continually looking up can make us appear aloof and arrogant. She offers a simple fix: “Always keep your chin parallel to the ground.”
Misusing Words and Phrases (and Verbal Pauses)
We all want to impress, so adding some fancy words to our lexicon will make people take notice. This can backfire horribly, however, if you don’t have a good grasp on the words you actually use. You wind up looking pretentious and foolish.
And it's not just misusing fancy words that can make us look stupid, but common words and phrases as well.
Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker explored the most commonly fumbled words and phrases in his 2015 book The Sense of Style, and it’s an illuminating look at how easy it is to get tripped up over everyday language.
Common blunders include confusing plural words for singulars (criterion vs. criteria, datum vs. data), or words easily mistaken for each other (disinterested vs. uninterested, fortuitous vs. fortunate).
And one of the prize offenders is literally the word "literally," which is constantly being used mistakenly for "figuratively." It’s been abused so much that Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries are now acknowledging its informal usage.
Another way words can backfire is the verbal pause. Sayler says the excessive injection of “uh,” “ah”, “you know,” and “basically” all undermine our authority, but it a common error: “I've been to corporations where the majority of people there use the word ‘basically,’ ... they don’t realize that it's not used in common everyday language in the business world, and it makes them look less than intelligent.”
Language Softeners and “Outsourcing Success”
Sayler also cautions against what she calls a “language softener,” i.e., self-deprecating comments like “well I’m not sure about this idea, but…”, may cause your contribution to be passed up for someone else’s more confident pitch.
She also adds that these type of statements “minimize what you say next. ...It makes you look less intelligent.”
To avoid this (and other self-sabotaging issues), she recommends taking several deep breaths, which help clear your mind, relax your face, and regain your focus.
Having said that, she warns to avoid excessive mouth breathing, which is also denoted as a sign of lower intelligence.
Goman discussed another concept that can hinder success in the workplace (which tends to affect women more than men). She calls it “outsourcing success,” or the inability to accept a compliment. If one deflects praise for their work by replying along the lines of “anyone could have done it,” or “it was my team,” this tends to “make them look less confident, competent and less smart." So when someone compliments you, the best thing you can do is say “thank you” and own that success.
Being Overly Judgmental
If you think ripping on someone you dislike will make you look better in the eyes of others, think again. In fact, it’s one of the most self-destructive habits to engage in if you’re trying to get ahead at your job.
Gossiping makes you untrustworthy. A lack of compassion is often seen in tandem with a lack of intelligence. Lacking the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes generally means you’re oblivious to your own faults.
Not only that, but it makes people less likely to interact with you, as they realize they could also be in the firing line.
Another reason to avoid judgmentalism: sometimes our negative assumptions are based on inaccurate information, and when you’re eventually confronted with the fact that your comments were off-base, you look twice as foolish. And don’t be surprised to find out that others are talking negatively about you, too.
Using Profanity At Work
Despite recent studies show that those that curse are the smartest, using profanity at work still isn't a good look.
This is the biggest no-brainer on the list. We realize the occasional on the job curse word is pretty inevitable. And it can defuse tension at the office and take the air out of the situation. But excessive cursing is still perceived by many as lacking in class.
In a 2012 Career Builder survey, 64 percent of employers said they had a negative view of employees who curse, and 57 percent said they’d be less likely to promote cursing workers to higher positions.
In other words, if you’re looking for a new job and drop the f-bomb during the interview, don’t count on getting a callback.
Keeping all these pointers in mind will make your daily interactions far more positive and beneficial in your life, both personally and professionally.
Just remember to be the best version of yourself you can be to help improve how intelligent you’re seen in the eyes of others (and yourself). And whenever you’re in doubt about how you look in public, always remember...ahhhhh...to breathe.