I know the answers but can't respond fast enough

People in law school think I'm dumb because questions throw me off

Published May 4, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old law student currently living in New Orleans. I am in the top 20 percent of my class and I am involved in various organizations and journals. Not to brag, but my accomplishments are nothing new. I have always excelled in school and I have been told by numerous people that I am smart, intelligent, etc.

However, I do not act this way. When someone asks me a question, I mumble and look through my notes, and with great hesitance, give a half-ass answer that doesn't make any sense. But I know the answer! I am meek in study groups; when friends and I review, I cannot give a direct answer. I ask other friends what they believe and I either concur with them and or I try to tell them, unconvincingly, what I believe is the right answer. No one pays attention because I don't say anything with confidence. So if someone says the exact same thing, that person gets credit. I just don't believe in myself and what's in my head.

I believe this derives from my experience in middle school. Among my group of friends, I excelled the most in class. To fit in, I would deliberately say and do stupid things to get them to laugh. It worked successfully, as I remained friends with them for a long time, but I believe I compromised my confidence and self-esteem in the process. Also, I believe I stunted my intellectual growth, which prevented me from reaching my full potential.

As I got older, my stupid actions and words developed into an unassuming, but overall affable persona. Everyone likes me, but they don't take me seriously, especially when it comes to things that matter. And often times, albeit jokingly, they say mean things to me that just continue pushing me into a black hole of doubts and murmurs. But I am too scared to stand up for myself because I don't want to lose their friendship.

Cary, I know compared to your other entries, I am very lucky and blessed. My family is supportive and intact, I have fallen in love for the first time, and I know that I will have an illuminating future. But I need your help. I am too comfortable and terrified to move. Push me. Please push me to my better self.

The Stupider Half

Dear Stupider Half,

When somebody asks you a question, by what law do you have to answer?

If you have to answer, then it's not a question but a command.

Now, I know that on a written test, questions have right answers. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about how people treat each other in person.

A question can be a lie. It looks like it is asking for knowledge but its purpose is to place you in a position of relative weakness.

Really. People and their questions. Half the time, they're trying to trip you up or gain an advantage. So assert your dignity. You don't have to answer every question.

And if a question were truly a question, then wouldn't you be free to respond to it truthfully? What if your truth is a blank look, an expression of annoyance or of having been affronted? What if you are taken aback by the presumption of the question, or find it irrelevant or none of the person's business, or it just makes no sense to you at all? Aren't these legitimate responses? Aren't they answers?

If one claims that your response, which may be a rolling of the eyeballs or a dismissive wave of the hand, or a burp, is not an answer, is one not simply asserting that you have some duty to them to answer the question in the way they require? Aren't they arrogating to themselves the role of test-giver? Where does this power to demand a certain kind of answer come from? Who gives the questioner this power? What are the questioner's laws? They are not the laws of the state or the laws of grammar or reason or morality or ethics. They are just the questioner's laws.

Or is this power inherent in the asking of a question? If so, what is it about a bunch of words in a certain order that gives them that power? Why must we obey their implied logic? Many times these strings of words called "questions" are meaningless, and so any response to them will also be meaningless.

Nonetheless, if the mere asking of a question confers on the questioner some automatic power, you can always turn the tables and ask a question in response.

So you see where I'm coming from. And I think you are a particular kind of person who is put at a disadvantage in our particular culture, which is why I'm coming down hard on this whole questioning business.

This is interesting to me for many reasons. I think you may be an introverted intuitive feeling perceiving type, INFP. If so, you are unusual and often misunderstood.

Your judgments about other people and your insights about them are acute, and you actually care about them too. This caring is not an intellectual pose; it is an act of your whole being. Your own behavior is important to you, more important than peoples' opinions of you. So even though you would prefer for people to know that your innermost thoughts are complex and acute, it isn't worth it to you to blow your own horn, which would be untrue to your nature. Even though you complain of how your behavior is perceived, and the possibly negative effects it has on your social and business status, you are not going to change, because this is who you are.

That is a lot to take in. It flies against the modern assumption that personality is a tool, that social and business behaviors are learned and that if you're really a serious player in the world that you will adopt the behaviors that signal power and authority. Some people will probably tell you that if you don't do this, it's not because you're being true to your nature, but because you're basically weak and afraid. Well, I don't think you're afraid. I think you're being true to your good nature.

Wouldn't a rational person change her behavior to get tangible rewards? Why not? Why would a rational person recoil from adopting certain behaviors if it's clear that those behaviors are "winning" behaviors? What stands in her way? Is it timidity? Selfishness? Or is there something like nobility of soul, or truth of being, that is more important?

I think there is. This assumption is not just theoretical. Certain social values flow from it. It places the individual, and individual choice, very high in the hierarchy of values. It affords protection to those who are not blowhards.

Just because you are not like these other people does not mean there's something wrong with you. Much of this supposedly normal behavior is just our culture, our one little warped and not-all-that-admirable culture, a culture that values certainty, confidence, speaking up, saying what's on your mind, raising your hand with the answer, asking for the sale, going for the gusto.

The rest of the world is not necessarily like us. Nor is lawyering all about being glib and fast on your feet.

If you become a lawyer, then you will be producing work and other people will be reading your work and judging you based on the quality of the work. You do the work. There are loud lawyers and there are quiet, careful, case-building lawyers.

So I wouldn't worry too much about this. I think the thing of speaking up and taking credit and being the first one with his hand raised is a distinctly American value that will be viewed quite differently in cultures that value quiet restraint more than boasting and self-promotion.

You're in law school. You're surrounded by future lawyers. Everybody's building their cases and that's what they're doing when they're asking you questions: They're cross-examining you. They're giving you the third degree.

So screw them. You don't have to answer. Be an uncooperative witness. Plead the fifth. Just do what you came there to do: learn the law. Then after you've learned the law, go out and practice it.

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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