It’s a criticism I’ve heard my whole life: “You think you’re better than everyone else.” “You’re a know-it-all.”
It started before I hit middle school, and it wasn’t long before the impact became clear. Dumbing myself down. Achieving less. Talking back to teachers. Not paying attention. Not doing homework.
If I could go back in time, I would give my younger self the words to explain why I constantly talked to people about ideas and things they did not care about, or why I used ridiculous words. I want to tell her to stop being ashamed and saying, “I’m sorry,” when people conveyed that she was an annoyance. And I want to explain to everyone who criticized her that she was just trying to connect.
I still carry that complex with me. Following social interactions, I worry that I said too much, too frantically. I constantly feel the need to explain, “I’m sorry, I’m just excited about this,” or that the strange word I just used is actually a genuine part of my vocabulary. When I’m in the middle of talking and the people I’m with stop listening, it’s devastating. Then comes the self-deprecation: I was boring; I was annoying; I was unlikeable.
In the feminist vein, it’s generally accepted that I’m not alone in feeling self-conscious expressing intellectual ideas, discussing the esoteric, leading a discussion, or asserting myself in a formal or informal debate. This especially comes into play in the workplace and in politics. Women are trained to beware of seeming bossy, stiff, know-it-all, and arrogant. This manifests in a muting of their true capacity to speak and lead with force. Worse, this manifests in their avoidance of stepping up to lead at all.
Looking at our most timely example, these competing tensions have played out constantly in Hillary Clinton’s career. Last year, Jimmy Fallon joked with Clinton, “Is it possible you have too much experience to become president of the United States?” Much like all comedy, Fallon’s quip strikes the heart of a real problem that defined this election again. Hillary’s extensive resume could not overcome her “likeability” deficit. Meanwhile, Trump, who is neither experienced nor conventionally likeable, will be our next president. Hillary fell victim to the “double bind” that all smart women do at some time, if not many times, in their lives.
Women who are competent and forceful… are seen by both sexes as unlikable, unfeminine, aggressive, conniving and untrustworthy – what Heilman called “your typical constellation of ‘bitchy’ characteristics.”
Studies have found that this hypothesis sticks. In one experiment conducted by professors at Columbia and NYU, an extensive resume was distributed to survey participants. Half of the resumes indicated the applicant’s name was “Heidi.” The other half called the applicant “Howard.” The resumes were all identical.
After the survey participants read the resumes, they concluded Heidi and Howard were both competent, but described Heidi as “overly aggressive, selfish and not someone you’d want to work with.” Howard was described as “likable and a good colleague.”
The likeability dilemma may soon come into play for all “intellectuals” as a (frankly terrifying) anti-intellectual attitude becomes prevalent in our general culture and, most disconcertingly, our Executive Branch (with the impending power accorded to climate change and evolution deniers, xenophobes, and white supremacists). I implore my fellow bookworms, geeks, nerds, and brainiacs to have the courage to refuse to fall in line.
If we want a role in civic life, we will perhaps all need to learn the tedious and exhausting balancing act that is “likeability politics.” But please, please, do not abandon your books. Do not abandon your inquisitiveness. Do not abandon your debates, your writing, and your experiments. I have felt the pressure to do this my entire life but increasingly recognize that if I succumb, I am shortchanging myself, my family, and frankly anyone who may gain even just a spark of wisdom or the slightest factoid from me.