On Smart Shaming

Despite what’s been drilled into my head by certain family members and classmates for much of my life, I tried to own that having great ideas and being a smarty-pants isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Publish date:
January 16, 2012
shame, grandparents, family drama, acceptance, anti-intellectualism, personal history

During one of many recent phone conversations with my grandparents, they thanked me for a recent parcel. I write for a religious magazine focused on social justice, and because my grandpa is a retired minister, I sent him a copy.

Truth be told, I probably write for the magazine as a subconscious way to win his approval. He doesn’t quite seem to know what I do, and because he sometimes asks more questions about my partner’s job than mine, I’m not always sure he cares as much about his fave granddaughter’s career as he does about my man’s. Generational divides and Christian patriarchal norms can be tricky like that.

I’d totally forgotten that I’d even sent over the magazines until Grandpa reminded me.

“Hey, thanks for those!” he hollered. Then he said, “Not that we can always understand them.”


Suddenly, I was apologizing. “I guess sometimes my sentences are a bit convoluted -- er, long,” I stammered.

“Well, we can really only handle four- or five-letter words,” my grandpa said with a chuckle.

I laughed along with my grandpa -- what the hell else was I going to do? -- but I also felt like saying, “Well then, I’ve got some four-letter words I can teach you instead.”

Just like that, I was angry when I should have been proud. I felt shamed for doing my job and attempting to receive any sort of recognition from the folks who are supposed to love and support my ambitions the most.

I know that my grandpa was probably trying to hide some embarrassment by laughing it off. But smart-shaming, what I call it when we make one another feel humiliated because of intellect or critical analysis, is also incredibly hurtful.

For days after the incident, I walked around wondering what the difference is between ego and confidence, between quiet approval and vocal praise, between self-assuredness and seeking approval from others.

Should I not expect my aging grandparents to congratulate me? Is it unfair to hope that they’ll understand what I do and why it means a lot to me?

Around that same time, when a couple of different editors got back to me with assignments or contract offers, I was intentional about relishing their acceptance and approval. Despite what’s been drilled into my head by certain family members and classmates for much of my life, I tried to own that having great ideas and being a smarty-pants isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s an example of why this sort of thing gets to me. When I was getting ready to leave for a public university two states over, a high school teacher made a comment about how I was going off to get a “fancy education.” Her whole life was supposed to be about educating others, but she quickly turned hostile at the idea that I might have gotten too much of a good thing. In the Midwestern suburb where I’m from, this attitude is the pervasive norm.

So when someone chides me for being too smart, it stings. There’s a lot of baggage attached to those sorts of terms. It takes me back to the complicated feelings of adolescence, when being a certain kind of intelligent was OK, but too much knowledge -- even if you didn’t flaunt it -- somehow made you an elitist.

When my birthday/Christmas card from my grandparents arrived a week later, there was an extra note at the bottom in Grandpa’s handwriting.

Your articles were interesting. Thanks for sending them.

By the time I read that, my Gram had been hospitalized. At 80, she continues to battle lifelong psychiatric difficulties brought on and/or exacerbated by childhood abuse. At a routine appointment, the doc had decided she needed some time off from life.

While Gram was in the hospital, I spent several hour-plus stretches on the phone with Grandpa. We talked about money and career, gender roles in relationships, and how the world has changed. Mostly, Grandpa told me stories about the trouble he and Gram had due to money and her lack of understanding about the larger world.

As he talked, it hit me that Grandpa wasn’t downplaying my intellect. He was covering for himself, and mostly for Gram. He might have had trouble with a few of the bigger words in my articles, but he isn’t the one who struggles to understand me. Gram is.

My Gram, caught up in that old-world religious patriarchy I already mentioned, dropped out of college after my Grandpa proposed. She never pursued a career independent of Grandpa’s church work. In part, it was because she was never able to handle more than what they could do together, as a supportive team.

Really, what is she going to say when I send her long-winded articles about the evolution of modern marriage or the ability to find quiet time for God in a noisy, wired world?

She’s not a stupid lady. My choices to call my husband “partner” and pursue an independent career just don’t apply or make much sense to her.

Furthermore, not being able to read or comprehend the big words is not an indictment of me as a grandchild. It has nothing to do with respect or pride. It has nothing to do with love.

Sometimes, I forget that.

The day before she was scheduled to come home, the second day of the new year, I called Grandpa to encourage him. I was pleasantly surprised when he asked about a new job I just accepted.

“When do you start? Are you excited?”

I started talking about all the work I have this year, all of the cool, challenging projects and assignments I’m lining up, and he listened intently. Then I confessed that I often have status anxiety -- not the kind in which I worry about what other people think but the kind in which I worry about potential, about living up to whoever I’m supposed to be.

“I know what kind you mean,” Grandpa said. “And you’re gonna be just fine. You’re going to do fine for yourself. You, well, you will do just fine.”

In his understated, repetitive way, he said what I needed to hear. I told him that once Gram got home, they would be fine, too. We all will be.