You’re a grown-ass woman. You work hard, you play hard. You attend fabulous cocktail parties aaaaaaallll the tiiiiiiiime. (Related: Are cocktail parties really a thing? Cocktail dresses are sold all over the place but like, people just buy them and wear them to work, right? Riiiiight?? Mad Men?!?) Sometimes these parties are full of people you like and can drink an old-fashioned or seven with happily. Sometimes these parties of full of people who want to make you feel like a complete idiot, and will use all means of intellectual one-upmanship and snotty did-you-knows to do so. At some point you’ll probably want to one-up their one-ups, and you probably don’t remember everything you learned during the four years of your linguistics degree, so just follow these simple tips and you’ll be sounding like a jeen-yuz* in no time!
Forget the Old White Guys
The heavy-hitters of taught history (all old white dudes, obviously, because where would all our art and science be without them?) (done more sensitively for a wider range of people and uses, probably?) (#manburn) are too well known, making it easy for you to get caught. The bespectacled gent in the tweed might actually know a thing or two about Shakespeare or Epicurus, but he’s less likely to know bell hooks’—NO CAPITALS—work in intimate detail. Dropping in slightly more obscure or difficult to discuss figures and concepts means everyone will back down a bit. No one wants to get into heavy Derrida over drinks.**
Post-post-modernism, gender norms, Dadaism, anything in an aggressively over-pronounced foreign language, identity construction, the concept of MEANING (what IS it, anyway?), Syria and the ‘situation’ therein, paradigmatic shifts, non-linear approaches to anything, zeitgeists, Fellini-esque, Death of the Author, post/colonialism, Snooki. Just kidding about that last one, although not totally because I once had the MOST pretentious conversation about how Jersey Shore bears a number of similarities to 18th century French farce. 18th century French FARTS, more like.
Tutting, hmm-ing and the classic Meaningful Nod
Non-committal, non-verbal responses are a great way to appear as if you’re participating in a conversation that is going way over your head. Beginners can take babysteps towards a full “hmmm, yes” by adopting a light cough, or punctuating insightful comments from others with expectorations and Significant Eyebrow Movement. For the even more shy: await the mistakes of others. A bemused guffaw or knowing giggle is a surefire way to simultaneously convey the disgust or pleasure you would sincerely feel at such an intellectual faux-pas if you were more informed.
Consider swiping some art description cards from a local art museum. Carry them around with you and respond by reading off of one of them. Example:
Person 1: How’s it going?
You: Considered a progenitor of Modern Art and an originator of Cubism, there were nonetheless several recurrent themes in Picasso’s work. Instead of using traditional battle imagery as visual inspiration for Guernica, Picasso turned to the familiar arena of the Spanish bullring. Picasso was only three when his father took him to his first bullfight. The brutal choreography — fierce power and inevitable tragedy — had obsessed him since.***
Eccentric AND intelligent. SCHWING!
Misdirection is your friend
Bring up “the situation in Lithuania” or “Wilde’s lesser-known watercolour series”, or some other totally made up topic. Wilde’s lesser-known watercolours are a complete fabrication! YOU know that, but they don’t, necessarily. And they don’t know that you know that they don’t know. They’ll try to bluff, you know?
Ask for help (covertly)
A great method to steer attention away from your addled brain cells and gain much needed context when a tricky subject emerges is to ask someone who seems more knowledgeable than you, with an exasperated face—as if you’ve devoted countless hours of thought to it and are just looking for a second opinion—”So, where do you stand now on the whole Israel/hockey/Morrisey thing?” You’re so over it, you just want to see what their take is.
Know when to make your exit
If you do chance to stumble across a salient point (it can happen), do NOT look proud of yourself. Allow for one or two more people to say something, make your excuses, and split. “International woman of mystery” is better than “confusing mute”, na’mean?
There you have it, brainiacs. Now go enjoy your cocktail party and what I can only presume is your general Don Draper lifestyle! Or come hang out in the park with my friends and I while we discuss the complex forms of gendered identity-sculpting that occur nightly on the Geordie Shore. BYO Can of cheap lager.
*”Genius” or even “jeen-yuz” might be a bit of a stretch. But these tips will CERTAINLY teach you how to look like you want to look smart! And isn’t that really the same thing? (It’s not.)
**If you meet someone who does, in fact, want to get into heavy Derrida over drinks, you should maybe marry them.
***Credit where credit’s due.
~ Monica Heisey