12 signs someone is actually really smart, even when they pretend not to be

Who’s the smartest person you ever met? And how did you know they were intelligent?

In some ways, intelligence is subjective. 

We all know people who can be highly intelligent in some areas of life and surprisingly unintelligent in others. 

And as the famous Dunning Kruger effect demonstrates, we often don’t have a good idea of our own intelligence.

Just as some unintelligent people sometimes overestimate their abilities, many intelligent people may not realize how smart they are.

Plus, some highly intelligent people deliberately hide their intelligence. Maybe because they doubt themselves. 

Maybe because they don’t want people to treat them differently because of their high IQ. Maybe to avoid the expectations that come when people know you’re smart.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet quite a variety of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve noticed some signs of a person who’s hiding their big, beautiful brain.

Here are some signs you’re dealing with a smart person:

1) They use multiple sources of information

 Smart people don’t make up their minds right away. And they certainly don’t believe everything they read or hear. 

That’s because one of the keys to being intelligent is to critically evaluate where you get your information from, and use multiple sources of information to make up your own mind.

If you know someone who keeps up on the latest news by checking many different news sites, especially ones with different biases, it’s a good sign they may be more intelligent than they are letting on.

2) They are great at communicating ideas

 Being intelligent and being well-spoken are not always the same thing. However, intelligent people tend to excel at communicating ideas.

No wonder, when intelligent people question everything they learn, meaning their ideas are often firmly held. 

This enables them to clearly communicate ideas even to less intelligent people because they have a firm grasp of their thought processes.

3) They give considered answers to questions

Whatever you think of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, it’s hard to deny his intelligence. In a 2023 interview, Musk paused for a full 12 seconds before answering a question put to him by an interviewer.

Think about it. It’s a trait you often see in intelligent people

They take the time to think carefully about the question before answering to ensure they get all their ideas in order and provide a valuable answer.

There are other signs you’re talking to someone really smart, too. Such as:

4) They break down complex ideas to make them seem simple

Albert Einstein once said that all physical theories should be able to be explained so simply that a child could understand them.

And being able to explain complicated concepts in simple language is a strong sign that someone is smarter than they are letting on. 

Think of highly intelligent people like Neil Degrasse Tyson, who has made a career by breaking down the complexity of physics in a way ordinary people can understand.

There are several ways smart people do this. For example, sometimes:

5) They code switch

Code switching is the practice of switching from one form of language to another depending on the audience you are speaking to. 

We all do this sometimes. After all, you probably don’t talk to your grandmother like you talk to your friends.

Intelligent people are often excellent code switchers, and can adopt a different variety of language depending on the audience they are speaking to. This is one of the ways that smart people use their intelligence to communicate better with others.

Intelligent people also often have a lot to say, because…

6) They are curious

Curiosity is one of the classic signs of intelligence. Intelligent people are usually highly curious about the world around them, which is how they acquire even more knowledge than they already have.

Some of the greatest minds in history, like Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, were relentlessly curious about the world. Their powerful brains made them hungry for new information, leading to groundbreaking art and scientific discoveries.

7) They change their mind

12 signs someone is actually really smart even when they pretend not to be 2 12 signs someone is actually really smart, even when they pretend not to be

A powerful brain never stops thinking. 

And when it encounters new information, it absorbs that information and applies it to everything it already knows.

This is what smart people do, and it helps to make them even smarter.

Here’s why:

By staying open-minded and changing their opinions as they discover new information, intelligent people make sure that their ideas are as close to the truth as possible.

8) They know when they are out of their depth

Intelligent people know that they don’t know everything. Intelligence leads to the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which occurs when people don’t understand the limits of their own knowledge.

On the other hand, intelligent people know, often in great detail, the limits of their own intelligence and skill. And they don’t try to pretend to know things they don’t.

Instead, intelligent people treat the things they don’t know as opportunities to learn more about the world. Often, the smartest people display a lot of humility, which means…

9) They learn from mistakes

There’s no better way to learn than from your own mistakes. That’s a skill intelligent people usually have plenty of.

No wonder, when asked if he felt bad about his failed experiments, inventor Thomas Edison famously said that he hadn’t failed, but had only found thousands of things that wouldn’t work

That’s because intelligent people like Edison use failure to guide them toward success. Instead of feeling defeated, they feel energized to continue pursuing the truth.

That’s probably because…

10) They have a strong sense of self

Because they constantly question their assumptions, intelligent people tend to have a better-than-average understanding of who they are. 

That’s because constant reflection on the truth of their own beliefs means intelligent people know exactly what they think and why.

This helps smart people have a good sense of both their strengths and weaknesses. 

So instead of leading to arrogance, it simply means they know who they are and what they are capable of, and don’t get knocked off balance when things don’t go their way.

Often, it also means…

11) They are comfortable being alone

While it’s not the case that intelligent people are always withdrawn, it’s usually true that they are comfortable being alone.

The mind of a smart person is a busy place, and so intelligent people can often keep themselves occupied with their own thoughts better than those of us who aren’t as intellectually gifted. 

This means that intelligent people are frequently more comfortable spending time by themselves, as it allows them to do more thinking.

12) They are passionate about their interests

I have a relative who is a genius.

Every time I talk to him, he has picked up and usually mastered some new interest.

By the time he was six years old, he could name distant planets and stars in our galaxy and explain scientific concepts like light years and quasars. At 11, he quickly learned Latin and began teaching himself Russian for fun.

Some intelligent people have a narrow range of interests that they focus on very deeply, while others are interested in just about anything. But either way, smart people are usually very passionate about the things that interest them.

Final thoughts

Most of us like to show off our abilities. But many intelligent people try to hide just how smart they are.

Whether they deliberately hide their brains or just don’t see themselves as being all that smart, several telltale signs indicate you’re dealing with someone with high intelligence.

Think about the people you know, and how many of these traits they display – including yourself. You may be surprised how smart some of the people in your life really are.

Picture of Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley is a France-based writer with a passion for psychology, philosophy, science, and anything that attempts to answer life’s biggest questions.

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