What does intelligence sound like?

Yeah, this is going to sound pretentious
It's Eddie!

If Intelligence had a sound… what would it be?
Can you tell how smart a person is just by how they speak?

Ever since I was a child, I've been told I was smart. Even by people who hardly knew me. When I was in middle school and my parents took me to a counselor to talk about my social problems with other kids, almost the first words she said to me were "I can see you're a smart kid." Really? How do you know? What did I say in these 5 minutes we've known each other that convinced you of my intellect? What Bayesian algorithm led you to that conclusion?

I told you this was going to sound pretentious…

But this isn't about me, so traumatic childhood ordeals aside let's talk about that really interesting question: What does intelligence sound like? Humanity is full of first impressions and stereotypes, most of them based around appearance, but we also form impressions based on what we hear. What do we hear that causes us to gauge a person's intelligence?

I asked several of my friends and associates this question - trying to be as vague as possible, to avoid leading the question. Here are a few of their answers.

One of my friends referenced that rather ubiquitous meme that traces back to this quote from Tobias Gibson: "Great people talk about ideas. Small people talk about other people." (Note: the internet memes tend to insert a line about "average people" talking about "events", and I'm too lazy to search out the source of the addition.)

Another friend told me that you can't tell, intelligence doesn't have a sound.

One friend spoke of knowledge and knowing lots of things - gently summarized as "facts", which they then amended "useful facts".

One friend answered: "pure silence". (Is it telling that I'm tempted to ascribe a level of cleverness to this friend based on this answer? More on that….)

One friend's answer was summarized as "vocabulary". But then they back-pedaled, citing politicians as examples of people using large vocabularies yet lacking in intelligence. I couldn't argue.

My favorite answer was a young lady who, when I asked her "What does intelligence sound like?" she immediately responded "Me!" Is it my favorite because it came from a girl I like? Or do I like the girl because she gives the snarky answers?

And a few ideas I had myself.

  • Questions - I think that a person who asks questions is demonstrating a certain kind of intelligence. Isn't curiosity a fair indicator of intellect?
  • Vocabulary - I also considered vocabulary. Even in spite of the politicians, it does take some intelligence to remember unusual words and use them correctly.
  • Sarcasm - I don't know if sarcasm indicates intelligence, but perhaps it indicates wit. Is wit a kind of intelligence?

But now to that "pure silence" answer… What was it about that answer that makes me want to think the person who gave it is more intelligent? Is it because it's unusual? Is it a particularly thoughtful or thought-provoking response? Is it because the answer is counter-intuitive? Is it because I agree with the answer?

What does intelligence sound like?



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