Every person is a know-it-all, at least in their ideal moments. We can all be arrogant. Sometimes this is expressed with gentle teasing, or even with a sincere desire to help. Unfortunately, most often (and remember, I speak as an East Coast USA city boy, so perhaps my perspective is skewed towards the majority of Americans), we express our presumed expertise with impatience, condescension, and frequently a curious sort of rage.
I have a few friends who believe they know absolutely everything. They must. Each of them tells me all the time. Take an example. I was discussing my quasi-history project, an editorial history of every President of the United States, collecting the different opinions people have had about each man, both in their contemporary times, as well as through subsequent histories. I mentioned my particular interest, much to my surprise as I started researching him, of Grover Cleveland. My friend immediately tore into an academic recitation of every bland fact that I already knew, correcting me when I told them that he was not the sort of man they claimed him to be. I called Cleveland a horrible man. I mentioned a number of the scandals that only came out after he was dead.
But they wouldn’t have it. I was wrong because their version (and how they had facts off the top of their head about someone as obscure today as the 22nd and 24th President is beyond me) told them otherwise. It did not matter that I had read several books on this President recently, nor that my larger historical research opened up even newer ideas about the culture and times the when the man reigned (We can hear my own know-it-allness trumpeting now). I was wrong, and our discussion grew increasingly acrimonious. It became a war over the need to defend our different ideas, as though our perspectives were so at odds on Grover Cleveland that it could end our friendship forever!
It is a silly thing, our need to pretend that we know more than we do. The real violence of such circumstances usually comes when several people are working on a difficult project together and none of the participants has any idea what to do. Someone will always take charge, assuring the rest that they have done this before, and if everyone does as they tell them then things will work out right.
Of course a situation like this, which will inevitably feature mistakes (let’s say we are building a fine cabinet, worried about its beauty, and following instructions in four different languages, none of which we fully understand even though one is our native tongue). Someone nails a piece into the wrong place, or a crack snaps open the side of a panel because a dowel was hammered in too far. The leader then sputters out something like, “No–no! You Don’t Know What You’re Doing!” And they might shove the person out of the way, muttering, “I’ll . . . I’ll do it . . . Here . . . let me do it.” This is meant to be conciliatory, but is spat out aggressively, burying the very idea of helpfulness.
These know-it-alls are constantly looking over your shoulder, panting for the moment when you make a mistake. In conversation, not knowing what you’re doing becomes not knowing what you’re talking about. And, what’s worse, once the know-it-all feels they have made their point, they turn off the conversation, refusing to listen to anything more you have to say, that dismissive, condescending laugh and wave of the hand banishing your version of truth.
Everyone wants to be right about something. We have a need to know more than everybody else, and offer our presumed wisdom to the world, often hearing praise and adulation that is not really there. We stand before a screaming crowd when we close our eyes, and we can hear them chanting our name like a rock star’s before the first encore. We know everything–everything! All the people need to do is ask, and we will offer them our gifts.
But what happens when a person like this is proven wrong about something? How will they behave? Will they smile and shake their head and admit that they were wrong? Or maybe they will deny this truth, but do the research on their own, eventually telling the person who exposed them that they were right. Even in this the know-it-all is bound to take command, having absorbed information so deeply, then modified it through their unquestioned beliefs and pretend they are the ones who know because something new has been added on. See? I know more than you. I am redeemed . . .
In most cases, however, the humiliated know-it-all refuses to admit their mistake. They have learned to somehow transform reality into their own version of events. They refuse to hear otherwise, even if the truth is right before them. They may even argue with the participant of a certain happening, telling them that what they saw is not what really happened. They get strangely theoretical. They become a type of philosopher, protecting their viewpoint by denying the existence of reality. “You can’t see the whole picture because you were only in one place. You have no idea what else was going on.”
“I read about this, so I know it’s true.”
“But it isn’t true. I was there!”
And then, will puffed up confidence, “So was the guy who wrote about it, and he was a journalist. He interviewed people. He got into what really happened.”
“No one interviewed me.” And this is where the know-it-all sinks into a cruel smile, shrugs their shoulders, and says nothing. There is the implication that the person before them was not important enough to be a part of the story. The writer had no use for them.
And what is worse, what the know-it-all is saying isn’t always true. It usually isn’t, their version of the truth taken so literally that they need to invent sources to justify their falsehood. Some time ago I was working on a novel called The Unfinished Writings of Desmond L Sullivan. This was meant to be a parody of the posthumous volumes that are released as a money grab after the death of a famous writer. The premise was a mock biography of a pretty horrible person. In addition, there were the actual unfinished writings: abandoned short stories, treatments for screenplays that were never written, a single line of a poem. And they were followed by pages and pages of academic criticism by a fictitious editor who happened to share my name. The whole thing was littered with fake footnotes and a bibliography of invented volumes written about Desmond. I give this as an example of how the know-it-all can justify their truth with a lie (and by the way, like its title, my book was never finished, abandoned when one of the unfinished stories took over my interest and became a book of its own, also unfinished in the bottom of a drawer.)
Sometimes we just refuse to listen, embarrassed that we made a mistake. And we tell those correcting us that they are the ones who are wrong. This is mere deflection, the sort of psychological defense mechanism that controls all of us at certain times in our lives. It is just another excuse why everyone else is wrong except for us.