Someone may have called you a know-it-all – maybe even to your face – and you are considering whether to listen to the criticism. This post might help you.
Or maybe you are tired of co-workers “mansplaining” or tired of “authorities” who enforce household or office rules, or tired of endless arguments about factoids that bore you. This post might help the people you despise.
How would you define a know-it-all?
“Know-it-all” is not a diagnosis from the DSM, but it is probably a defense system someone uses to protect themselves from further harm or uses to regain something that was lost or neglected. If you try hard enough, I think you can probably add “know-it-all” to descriptions of certain enneagram numbers (they are looking at you, number 1), or to several Myers-Briggs types (watch out NTJs). Regardless, most of us can spot the behavior in others (if not ourselves) when we run into it.
Someone will be correcting what we say (even our memories and feelings), or they will launch into detailed descriptions of their own (or our) history or book plots which only tangentially connect with what we were just saying, or they may appear to know more than everyone about any subject brought up during any meeting. One person complained a co-worker could not resist blurting out “That’s not right” when someone was sharing a thought. They did not blurt back, “Who made you the arbiter?” — but they were blurting in their mind. A person on the search for “rightness” often gets tagged a know-it-all if they always have the correct thing to say.
This “type” of person is so common there is a Wikihow article about them, which is helpful. Eze Sanchez just updated it in May. Here is his intro:
Smarty pants, wise guy, smart aleck – we all know one. Whether at family get-togethers, at the office, or in a social setting, know-it-alls are everywhere and they know everything. Sometimes it is utterly unbearable to spend time with these annoying individuals even if you have tried to engage, endure, or even empathize with them. In the end, it might be best just to avoid them, but if they are friends, family, or coworkers of people you know, it is still possible to come into contact with them. Therefore, you better be prepared to deal with them.
This is not a study or much of a lit review, but I offer nine reasons you might be, or at least come off as, a know-it-all. Eze goes on to be more empathetic after his intro above, and I also want to help us care for people who are messing up social situations or locked in self-destructive patterns they can’t see. Just “avoiding” know-it-alls or “dealing” with them is not good for them psychologically and does not reflect the way of Jesus very well, either. I hope this list will help you see yourself with kindness and also help us see one another with understanding and hope, rather than with more judgment.
9 reasons I am a know-it-all
- Knowledge is power and I want to be one up.
I think this is what we usually think about a know-it-all. They are power tripping. They are working on being greater than everyone or they think they already are.
The apostle Paul had a whole faction of know-it-alls spring up in one of the first churches. In his first letter to that church he wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). By his second letter he is saying, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am untrained in speech, I certainly am not with respect to knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you” (2 Cor 11:5-6). The know-it-alls were challenging their teacher!
In the info (and false info) age we live in, everyone thinks they are, can be, or ought to be a Google-aided expert. So life has become an endless argument. We are all know-it-alls in training. For example, Progressive Insurance is filling our football games with commercials about people “going to replay” to verify that they are right.
- I am an affirmation pig, since I am, somewhat hopelessly, still trying to get parental approval because I grew up in an affirmation desert.
I think this is much more likely than #1. Being a know-it-all could be a misguided approach to finding soul-food, just repeating a habitual approach that never really worked. If I am smart, I will get praised (for once).
- I actually have more knowledge than most people, but I have few social skills. I would like to be an expert for people. I learned stuff, but not how to relate. I might be “on the spectrum.”
Some people are just smarter and many people have worked hard to learn stuff. They might be bursting with it (ask any dissertation writer). Respecting them might be appropriate.
But some otherwise smart people might be less smart about how to present what they know. An Asperger’s/HFA mom wrote on a forum:
I can become hyper focused on topics and want to know as much as possible about them so that they, too, become part of my mental algorithm for connecting dots. I retain a lot of the info and am able to think about possible solutions to problems that others seem to either miss, or just don’t research enough to see. I try to impart topics to people in an attempt to help them (oh you have dry eyes- get your zinc levels tested) but it’s about 50/50 whether it’s received well, or taken negatively as if I’m trying to demean them with some perceived superior intelligence.
- Looking like I am smart is a façade to mask my insecurity. I don’t trust you to love the real me.
A lot of us reading this probably have this wound, which leads us to think we should be competing with the other know-it-alls for some kind of recognition that validates the persona we use to protect our vulnerability.
Married couples run into this when they are longing for intimacy. One person in counseling, who admitted they are something of a know-it-all, frankly said, “I married a know it all, so ‘active listening’ does not work well. We both have too many corrections and ‘but whats’ to get in there.”
- Performing knowledge tricks is the main way I have gotten attention my whole life. I had to compete.
This is a lot like 2 and 4, it just focuses on how we train children to feel attended to. Most of our training comes from a school of some kind. “One achieves what one measures” is a Western culture proverb. We measure the intellectual development of children and they are good at figuring that out. They may keep achieving smartness at your Thanksgiving dinner to get attention.
- I have no reflection time. I am mostly making up things as I go along. So anything you bring up I expand on as I am incorporating it. I might be dyslexic or a verbal processor.
A lot of people get their view of self by grazing in social situations, they never eat a home-cooked meal. They might not be correcting you when they are chewing on what you just said as much as spitting it back out as if they thought it in the first place. This might irritate you if they don’t “quote” you, but it could be taken as a back-handed compliment.
During neurodiversity week this year a dyslexic woman said, “My dyslexia has given me more strengths than weaknesses. My ability to read people’s emotions and situations extremely well means nothing can get past me, and I always know when to ask someone what’s up.” She may have trouble reading a book and having an inner dialogue about it, but she may be able to read you and quickly use what you say.
- I have to be right or I will go to hell. And I have to make you right or you might go there, as well.
Everyone who latches on to some kind of fundamentalism, religious or not, thinks what they know is salvation for themselves or others. Sharing their knowledge (or imposing it) seems like a gift to humanity. This reflects #3 in the sense they may actually have knowledge others need or should want. But it could also reflects any of the other numbers, only the truth behind it is subsumed under a religious or social justice rubric.
- I learned it was unwise to trust others, so I try not to need anyone. I know it all to be self- sufficient. And I don’t care what others think because they are untrustworthy.
Jada Pinkett was on the Today Show last week marketing her new memoir when she revealed she and Will Smith have been unofficially divorced since 2016. She said, “Why it fractured…that — that’s a lot of things … By the time we got to 2016, we were just exhausted with trying. I think we were both kind of just still stuck in our fantasy of what we thought the other person should be.” A know-it-all might be consigned to their own sense of truth and justice because they only feel safe alone. Kelly Clarkson sang about it once. It hurts to feel disdained. But before you take on a know-it-all’s scorn, you might want to see if you should feel sorry for how alone thye are.
- I am isolated because everyone else is a jerk. I project my own inner critic on others. It is especially hard to go to class or church because the leaders always have a flaw.
This is similar to the previous idea only the energy is going out, not in. A know-it-all might not think they are smarter than you, you are just receiving the knife edge of their projected self-loathing. They may see themselves as radically flawed or were taught to see themselves that way. It is so intolerable, they have to project the criticism on someone else. Any imperfection is fair game for them. I hope they are not reviewing your play or restaurant!
After collecting aspects of the common label: “know-it-all,” it seems like a less-than-useful description, doesn’t it? We’re all rather complex. So reducing our irritating behaviors into a single label might be the height of know-it-allism! Most of the time, what irritates us about others is also in us. But even if people are lost in their ignorance, malice or power hunger, a sympathetic, curious and life-affirming (but appropriately boundaried) realtionship with them will do more for the world than more judgment, cancelling and fearful self-protection.