Recently, due to several misguided decisions, I found myself having a sleepover with five friendly but ambitious dogs. The entire night was one long dominance display. No sooner had I settled each pooch onto a separate cushion than the biggest one got up, grabbed a chew toy, and stood over the others, proclaiming (in dog language): “I am Bjorn! And I am Pack Leader! For this toy is mine! And I own this toy! And the toy is my property!” and so on.
It reminded me so much of Harvard, I got a little misty.
We humans use many “toys” to claim dominant status in our own packs—cars, clothes, houses, job titles—but one of our favorites is knowledge. In our school system’s educational meritocracy, having answers means winning praise and attention. This has given rise to a certain breed of human, commonly called the know-it-all, which tends to frequent university settings. Know-it-alls can be good companions, but the breed also has many annoying behavioral problems that must be dealt with decisively if you’re going to have any peace. Before we discuss training techniques, here’s a short list of ways in which know-it-all behavior problems are often manifested.
The “Right as Might” Assault
In dog packs, being big and strong is the quickest way to dominance. In humans, sheer physical power, though useful, is often trumped by being right. Many know-it-alls have high IQs, but such low EQs (levels of emotional intelligence) that they actually think people admire them for saying things like “It’s a common misperception that, as you so quaintly phrased it, ‘You never know what’s going to happen,’ but that rationale applies mainly at a subatomic level of analysis, while in a macro setting, Laplace’s model of a mechanistically determinate universe remains a remarkably robust predictive cosmology.”
In a few paragraphs, we’ll discuss appropriate responses to such comments. But your initial response to a know-it-all assault like this one should be to remain calm and resist the urge to bite.
The “God Is in the Details” Display
Detail-oriented know-it-alls don’t sit around memorizing textbooks. Instead they correct others’ versions of events, often missing the whole point of a conversation in their obsessive focus on minutia. Their conversations frequently go something like this:
Ordinary person: So there we are at Breakfast Buffet, having waffles, and this guy comes in with a gun! A semiautomatic! And he’s waving it around—
Know-it-all: No, that’s wrong. You weren’t having waffles. I had waffles. You had the French toast.
Ordinary person: All right, whatever. Anyway, this gunman is yelling, “Where’s my wife? Where is that two-timing slut?” And then—
Know-it-all: I’m sure you didn’t have waffles, because when we got our order, you said to me, “Darlene, now I wish I’d ordered the waffles, because those are some good-looking waffles you got there.” Remember?
Ordinary person: Okay, okay. So anyway, then he starts shooting at the pie counter, and there’s pie flying everywhere, and—
Know-it-all: You’ve never had waffles since that time in Hoboken when you had the hiccup problem.
Detail-oriented know-it-alls have been known to sustain a conversation like this, with periodic interruptions, for up to 50 years. Most of their friends simply talk over them, though if you have a detail-oriented know-it-all in your immediate circle, it helps to have a choke chain available for emergencies.
The “Answer for Everything” Reflex
Some know-it-alls may be so rabidly committed to displaying fact-based dominance that they claim expertise about things they have no possibility of knowing, like this:
Ordinary person: I have this friend, Raoul, and he’s been driving me nuts, because—
Know-it-all: I know. Totally into the machismo thing.
Ordinary person: But…you’ve never met Raoul.
Know-it-all: Oh, honey, I know all about Latin men.
Ordinary person: Raoul is Swedish.
Know-it-all: I knew that.
This strain of know-it-all has answers for every question except: “How the hell do you presume to know that?”…
The “I Can Fix You” Frenzy
Another typical know-it-all behavior is to insist on solving your problems for you, even if you don’t want them solved or, in fact, see them as problems. Fixer know-it-alls will persist in making recommendations the way a Chihuahua might persist in making amorous advances to your leg. Here’s how they operate:
Know-it-all: Hey, you look a little down in the dumps. What’s wrong?
Ordinary person: I’m really all right. It’s just that I’ve been visiting my parents, and they’re getting old and sick, and it got me thinking about age and mortality and the impermanence of everything.
Know-it-all: You know, I used to worry about those things, too, until I started getting colonics. Have you tried that?
Ordinary person: Oh, I don’t think I need—
Know-it-all: You’ve got to. Hey, tell you what—I’ll call my favorite hose attendant right now. We’ll get you hooked up later this afternoon. Ha ha! Hooked up! Get it?
Ordinary person: Really, thanks but no thanks. I—
Know-it-all: And if that doesn’t work, we’ll go line dancing!
Be forewarned that courtesy will not work on a fixer know-it-all. If you plan to have a conversation with one, you should carry a spray can of mace. Which brings us to the instructional part of this article…
You can see this nerdy yearning in books like Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code, which are about know-it-alls who wind up in ridiculously contrived circumstances where their knowledge of dinosaur behavior or Catholic symbology actually comes in handy. Such opportunities are rare in the real world. For instance, my family cherishes the know-it-all euphoria we felt when I discovered a small but terrifying creature in our basement and my daughter correctly identified it as a Costa Rican tailless whip scorpion. (Of course, we had no clue what to do with it. We named it Vivian and placed it under 24-hour surveillance until someone thought of sucking it into the vacuum cleaner.)
How to Deal with a Know-It-All
You can begin training the person to be a calm, loyal companion by employing one or more of the following responses:
1. Fight to win.
If you’re in a feisty mood and you’re confident you can beat the know-it-all at the intellectual dominance game, you may decide to argue your rival into submission. This is what we’re trained to do in school, but I use it only as a last resort, since it tends to leave both contestants growling, angry, and bleeding from wounds to the ego. Choose another method for know-it-alls you want to remain part of your immediate pack. If you do decide to exert dominance, say something like: “Laplace? Mechanist determinism? Oh, please. Unless you plan to ignore all of postmodernism, as well as both Heisenberg and Kant, it’s incontestable that uncertainty and subjectivity are experiential absolutes. Ergo, I stand by my position: You never know what’s going to happen.”
2. Change the stakes.
If you want a know-it-all to stay in your pack, there’s a better way to deal with a dominance challenge than wading into the IQ challenge. Approach your know-it-all at the level of EQ. Know-it-alls are weak as puppies in this area, so be gentle. In a soft, nonaggressive tone, say: “Pat, I think you’re showing off your brain to get social acceptance. The thing is, that really doesn’t work. Think how you’d feel about a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about their net worth.”
The know-it-all will respond, “Don’t you mean ‘a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about his or her net worth’?” Say, “Pat, you’re doing it again.”
If a few such prompts have no effect on the know-it-all’s behavior, you may have to consider an appropriate shelter, such as a research institute or a Tolkien convention, where the organization helps place know-it-alls in better homes. But don’t do this without trying the next technique.
3. Put your know-it-all to work.
I’ve seen this gentle social training succeed on others and, more to the point, on me. That’s right: By breed I am a know-it-all. But ever since a kindly teacher took me aside and explained that my behavior was the social equivalent of leprosy, I’ve tried hard to overcome my genes. Sadly, I passed on many know-it-all traits to my children—even my son with Down syndrome, who, when I corrected him for skipping numbers on a kindergarten counting assignment, gave me a withering look and said, “Hello, I was counting by fives.” My kids and I are “useless factoid” know-it-alls. We rarely dress ourselves correctly, but we know all about, say, the mating rituals of penguins. It’s not that we mean harm; it’s just that we’re a working breed, like German shepherds or bulldogs. What we want most is to be of service.