The ‘You’re So Smart’ Card

Men explain things to women. They also tell them that they’re smart. Disguised as a compliment, the ‘you’re so smart’ card is in fact a most condescending insult. The ‘you’re so smart’ card is the male expression of surprise, glee, and attraction due to a female using the most basic faculties of her mind. with the assumption her self-esteem shall be boosted as a result. It is the explosion of praises when a female has actually heard of so and so or such and such. When the female expresses deep understanding of a complex topic– such as when describing her PhD thesis, or demonstrating her knowledge of physics, she is told she has ‘a lot of confused ideas’. The ‘you’re smart’ card is reserved for when a woman indicates she has just a tiny bit more knowledge than had been taken for granted: just like a dog that can play fetch.

It was okay when teachers were surprised I read Kafka when I was 12. It’s not okay when an adult acts surprised when an another adult says they’ve heard of Kafka. In fact, taking the genders out of the situation only highlights how ridiculously artificial its nature is. Would this be a conceivable conversation between two adult males?

-You have all your ideas about the Israel/Palestine question wrong. Let me explain to you, so I can set things straight in your head.

-I don’t think I need explaining.

-Yes you do, because you don’t actually know most of the facts –and why are you making that weird look on your face? Anyways. After 1967 -you know about what happened in ’67?


-Wow, you’re so smart!

This verbatim conversation I had with an OkCupid date would only be conceivable in an absurdist play had it been in an ungendered context. The ‘you’re so smart’ card is perversely linked to the mansplainer card. ‘You’re so smart’ up to the extent where I need to explain you things. It is thus inextricably tied with power (or assumption thereof): the explainer has decided woman is smart, and explains her so. Her smartness cannot be independent of his recognition thereof. The  logic works in the mind of the mansplainer thus:

  1. Assume woman knows nothing, because she is a woman.
  2. Explain her the things she must understand, because explainer is a man.
  3. If woman shows she in fact knows what explainer is talking about, exhibit awe and admiration. She will be flattered and automatically feel attraction to the explainer, who has demonstrated he too is smart through his explaining. 

After suffering a terrible experience of being touched inappropriately by a ‘nice white guy’, I wrote a blog post about it (here). He must have really identified with the anonymous character, because immediately afterwards, I was sent the following message which revealed the bottomless pit of sadness which is his soul (it goes on, but I couldn’t read the rest because, as entertaining as it was, it made me want to vomit):


“I’m different from most people in that witty intellectual conversation is something that breeds an intense physical attraction to someone; I get turned on by good conversation, basically. I do meet people-men and women who are brilliant people like this but the women I meet here like that tend to be in relationships. So I definitely got too excited. I can’t pretend to read your mind and know what you thought but if I did something that you didn’t appreciate and made you uncomfortable, I’m truly sorry. I didn’t look at you like a piece of ass but as smart, interesting person I wanted to get to know better. I didn’t plan on coming onto you it just happened. Sorry if that made you uncomfortable.”

Being labelled ‘smart’, like being labelled ‘pretty’, is thus used to disempower the victim. ‘Well, I couldn’t help but touch her, what was she doing saying all those smart things? She was basically asking for it.’ This was just a minor case of sexual harassment, yet I am frankly frightened by what this form of reasoning could lead to.

The discourse in this sad letter is worth noting.

  1. The woman who has been disrespected is not a victim, but is at fault for being so ‘witty’ she excited the poor, vulnerable male. Boys will be boys, and smart women are irresistible witches.
  2. This lowest-common denominator reasoning is framed within the discourse of “I’m different from most people”. 
  3. It is thus bro culture parading itself as intellectual.

People get turned on.  This is a normal thing that one can’t always help. People normally don’t disrespect the bodily integrity of fellow human beings when they are turned on unless they are rapists. This is common human decency.  It doesn’t matter if one sees a woman as a piece of ass or as a ‘smart, interesting person’ (here meaning: ‘oh wow, she’s actually smart and she has boobs’ person): what matters are actions. The ‘you’re so smart’ card allows the user to appear feminist, as though he were escaping the logic of shallow bros who are attracted by appearance, whilst expressing a shocking level of misogyny. The ‘you’re so smart’ card thus makes sleazy cretins (think they) seem like gentlemen of good taste.

Imagine this absurd conversation:

-So the way you need to brush your teeth is…

-I know how to brush my teeth.

-Really??? You do have such nice teeth. You must brush them really well! Has anyone told you you brush your teeth really well?

-I know I can, so why would anyone need to tell me?

-I have to stop and say I’m so impressed by your brushed teeth, it’s a real turn-on for me.

-I’ve been brushing my own teeth since I was 4. I just do it in my day-to-day life.

-That’s really impressive! You know, I’m different from most people in that women with brushed teeth breed intense physical attraction to them. And I haven’t met that many women who know how to brush their teeth.

Intelligence is like brushing their teeth: it is not a rare, gender-specific trait, and is in fact used by most humans, of all genders, to go about their daily lives. Granted, some people don’t do so. But the ones who do don’t necessarily define their existence on it. And don’t like their existence to be defined by others as ‘that girl who brushes her teeth’. 

When a woman is called smart for demonstrating any knowledge at all, it implies the assumption that she had no knowledge to begin with. If spitting out a fact, a date, a reference leads to cries of admiration, it means the man thinks that’s the best she can do. Furthermore, there is the expectation she will be flattered by the remark, as though it were news to her, thus demeaning all her true intellectual achievements. The ‘you’re so smart’ card is the new politically correct ‘did you know you have beautiful eyes?’.  The ‘you’re so smart’ card is an insult to a woman’s intelligence, ’cause she’ll have to be really dumb to fall for that one. 

For the (primarily male) skeptic, let’s imagine you got a literal ‘you’re so smart’ card in the mail. How would it make you feel?

Drowning in praises.

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