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How to sound smart when you feel dumb

Oh, the things we do to save face. In all kinds of situations, but especially at work, we often avoid asking for help or advice for fear of seeming stupid. But a new study gives us some surprising advice that makes you look smart.

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Oh, the things we do to save face. In all kinds of situations, but especially at work, we often avoid asking for help or advice for fear of seeming stupid. If you are new to a job, you may be very cautious about making a bad impression or seeming under-qualified. If you’re the boss, you may be attached to presenting yourself as all-knowing, and as someone who doesn’t need help.


Your fear is a time waster

Fear of sounding dumb can cause us to waste time trying to figure something out when we don’t have enough information or knowledge. Or, we make mistakes because we try to complete a task that we don’t really know how to do.

In the long run, this is going to make us look even dumber, as well as costing us valuable time and money. All because we were afraid of looking dumb in the first place.

About the study

Luckily, our fears may be unfounded. New York Magazine’s Science of Us series just released a video (below) about what happens when we ask for advice. Scientists posed an experiment where 1000 participants were given a test of challenging brain teasers.

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Participants were given the option to ask the advice of a partner who had already taken the test. Some participants were told that they could ask for advice without any repercussions, while others were told that their grade would be lowered if their partner thought they were stupid.

Only one third of the participants who had to worry that their partner might judge them poorly were willing to ask for advice. When the partner’s opinion was of no consequence, three-quarters of participants asked for advice.

“Cycle of circular ego-boosting”

This part of the study reveals what we already suspected – that fear of appearing stupid is a major obstacle to asking for advice.

In another part of the study, test-takers received a message from their partner before the test. Half of the time, the partner simply wished the participant good luck. The rest of the partners asked the test-taker for their advice.

Subjects were then asked to rate their partners.

Partners who had asked for advice were rated as more competent than those who didn’t.

Scientists believe that, when someone asks us for advice, it causes us to feel more intelligent, and that confidence boost makes us judge the person who asked for our advice more favorably, creating a “cycle of circular ego-boosting.”

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Get respect (and help)

In other words, when you ask for advice, it doesn’t make you sound stupid. On the contrary, it makes it more likely that the person you are asking will find you to be even more intelligent.

So next time you feel clueless, ask for advice! Your coworkers will respect you all the more.


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Ellen Vessels, a Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for their wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.


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