Annie Spratt

Use the Tip-of-the-Iceberg Theory in Conversation to Look Smart

In social situations people generally don’t have enough time to draw well-informed conclusions about your intelligence. What they are left with after a five or ten minute conversation at a party or over a casual encounter with coffee, is an impression. The Tip-of-the-Iceberg theory of Intelligence is exactly what creates good impressions, and that is often enough, because who is to know your intelligence is all surface, and that there is no substrate?

How does this work? Its very simple really, you just let people see the tip of what they assume is a large underwater edifice (metaphorically speaking). In reality there is no such thing. Say your boyfriend takes you out to Bill’s Donut Shack on Main (get the pumpkin & ginger); you bump into some members of his ultimate frisbee team and they bring their coffee over and crash your Sunday morning love-fest.

Some of them are a little on the bright side — remember this is ultimate, not football — and talk turns to politics, books, (gulp) archaeology (OK, in today’s intellectual climate I admit this does sound a bit rarefied, like a morning only to be had in Harvard Square). This is a perfect opportunity to dazzle them with a few one-liners about the New McCarthyism, or the runners-up for the Pen Literary Prize, or even the news of a newly-discovered Old Kingdom temple in Upper Egypt. Pretty soon everyone has shown their mettle, paraded their intellectual goods, and talk relaxes and returns to the usual things…who is sleeping with who, music, and someone’s weird wart-like-things on their feet.

If you’ve survived this assault of the brainiacs, its only because you’ve mastered the Tip-of-The-Iceberg theory, and persuaded those disc-hurling buddies of your main man that you are phenomenally bright. The message here — if one is to give an impression of intelligence — is that one should be a dabbler; know a little about everything, and a lot of something. Being able to casually throw out references to many things, like an Ultimate expert casually hurls the frisbee, means browsing shallowly in the wetlands of human intelligence, dipping into wildly divergent fields… a little ancient philosophy, a little eastern religion, a little chaos theory, a little macro economics.

You get the picture. Know where Ulan Bator is. Know who wrote The Jungle. Know what a Fractal is. If you are really lucky those three facts might just allow you to pull it off. Just for kicks, see if you can work those three themes into a conversation with strangers. Not only would it be a great mental exercise, seeing if you can dominate a conversation sufficiently to make it go your way, but you could also observe what effect it has on those with whom you are talking. Conversely, if you ever find yourself chatting to someone who provides precisely these three items, you know they have read this article and you are playing the same game.

Let’s consider the iceberg a little deeper. April 14, 1912. You know where I’m headed with this. That’s right, you can’t mention icebergs without thinking of the Titanic, they go together like coffee and cream. Actually more like ice and steel. Interestingly, there are photos in the webo-sphere which purport to depict the exact iceberg which sank the Titanic. Shortly before midnight on April 14, she struck one, and within three hours the unsinkable Titanic was lying on the bottom of the North Atlantic in two pieces; out of the 2200 people on board about 1500 were dead. In the next few days several ships snapped grainy black and white photos of suspicious-looking icebergs seen in the vicinity — along with wreckage from the sunken ship, and dozens of bodies floating in the waves. One of the icebergs in question had a massive red scar along its base.

When you are cruising in the Northern reaches of the Atlantic, (or in the Southern Ocean), you will start seeing them — icebergs, that is. Sometimes they are like mountains, falsely giving the impression that they are in fact bits of land — islands, randomly scattered around the ocean. Others are more obviously icebergs — small, drifting, melting things. Occasionally clusters of penguins will be hanging around on them, picking fish out of their teeth and making lewd comments to passing seals. But whether large or small, these frozen floaters have one thing in common: they contain more under the water than above. The density of pure water ice is ca. 920 kg/m3, while that of sea water ca.1025 kg/m3. This means that in your average iceberg, about 90% of the volume lies underwater.

What is the significance of this for our purposes? Well, the idea is that the Tip-of-the-Iceberg theory allows people to imagine a huge underwater edifice of intelligence, hidden, in other words, from plain view, but hinted at when you demonstrate a scattering of education about many things.

But why does this work, you might ask. Surely people can trip you up easily, ask you a few questions and find that they pretty quickly come to the end of your knowledge and have you stammering for something smart to say. As if the Titanic had simply hit some surface ice and run it right over. The answer is that most people are like you — they are afraid of appearing stupid. Being seen as dumb is something to fear, and an appearance of intelligence can be a very intimidating thing, so most people don’t question it. Having said that, you should remember that you can still get caught out here — you are not an iceberg; you have no massive under-water edifice of intelligence, that is why it is important to employ this tactic carefully and selectively.

The crucial difference between you and an iceberg is that you are all tip; the thing that sank the Titanic was all ‘berg. And an intellectual iceberg can sink you, if you get entangled with it — that is to say, if you mouth off in the wrong company about plate tectonics, as if you have more under the hood than you are showing, and one of those frisbee dudes happens to be finishing his Ph.D at Caltech in Geophysics. This could land you in an awkward position. The best way out, modeled effectively by Bridget Jones when stuck in front of the author Salman Rushdie, is to ask where the bathroom is. Then leg it.

But to delve a little more deeply into this theory we need to go to an intellectual heavy-weight, Ernest Hemingway. He pioneered a new way of writing, one based on what he called “Iceberg Theory.” Hemingway, before becoming a celebrated novelist, was for years a reporter, for papers such as the Kansas City Star, or later, in Paris for the Toronto Star. Here he came up with the notion that the real meaning of stories lay in their deep background, in what lay behind the headlines, or you might say, under the surface.

Hemingway’s idea was that just as with icebergs, the real meaning of a story lay below the surface, in what was often not stated. His reportage therefore focussed on immediate facts of the stories, not the wider relevance. When it came to writing fiction he believed that showing only the tip of the iceberg was more powerful than laboriously describing and revealing its giant bulk. This bulk is what gives an iceberg its power, and so it is with stories. Leaving that to the imaginations of his readers, Hemingway believed, created more powerful stories.

But there was more to it, he believed, than writing superficial stories: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” he said, “he may omit things he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as if the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Now, let’s unpack this a little. What Hemingway appears to be saying is that if you know what you are talking about you can leave out most of what has to be said (written) and the reader (listener) will somehow “get” what you are saying. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, then you will sound hollow.

I am going to go out on a limb here, and accuse Hemingway of superstition. He has failed to make a link between your referring to something (tip of the ice berg) and your deep knowledge of that thing (the ice berg itself). He claims instead that the link exists, if you are writing “truly enough” it is sufficient to use the tip, and the rest of the ‘berg will be intuited somehow. Look, just because Hemingway is a celebrated (and legitimately good) writer does not mean he didn’t talk crap from time to time. Just like Plato — and the rest of the ancient Greeks. Celebrated authors — especially dead white males — routinely said stuff that we now consider bullshit. This is one of those times.

It is purely superstitious to believe that you can assume a readership will go to deep places when you refer to the shallows, just because you have written “truly” enough. This leaves no room for good liars, and this is what we are training to be. The good liar can pull this one off: refer to something complex, rich and deep, and yet be simple, impoverished and shallow. For our purposes, Hemingway recognized that the iceberg metaphor was useful when discussing knowledge. The difference between him and us, however, is that he believed that if you had the knowledge deep-down, it would somehow broadcast itself — through extra sensory perception, perhaps — to the people around you when you revealed the tip.

There is simply no proof of this, and this is precisely why it is safe — under certain circumstances — to use the tip-of-the-iceberg theory in casual conversation. Refer to those deep things. Don’t delve deeply — you’ll find nothing. And move on quickly. That brush with the profound will leave your audience tingling with intellectual admiration. And if it doesn’t, well, then ask where the bathroom is.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

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