I alternately cringe, giggle, smile and hate myself when I think back at all the things I’ve pretended to understand.
There’s the expected, excusable, stuff of course: faking your way through a group presentation on Jane Eyre when you probably only read the first 20 pages and then just listened intently to the group discussion in a desperate attempt to soak up Important Plot Points.* Or nodding and using your Concentration Face as the professor explains the attachment of the greater anterior somethingoid process, because you know you can just ask the TA in lab on Wednesday and he’ll actually explain it so that it makes sense.
There’s the harmless stuff too: smiling and laughing politely when someone makes a funny that you don’t get – not because it uses an inside joke or another reference with which you’re unfamiliar but because the joke is just dumb, and probably doesn’t actually make sense at all – and the person making the joke is otherwise nice / elderly / in a position to determine your salary / all of the above so you know that it’s best to play along.
Or when someone just assumes you share the same frame of reference. Juanita is great at this. When I was a kid she’d quote something like, say, Mister Roberts to me when I was 4 or 5 and would be genuinely confused when I didn’t get the reference (I think sometimes she forgot that when I was born I didn’t come pre-programmed). So I just learned to play along with it, and then go through her VHS collection later to figure out what the hell she was talking about.**
The “just playing along” bit can get a little murky, though. Smiling and nodding along to pop-culture references you don’t recognize is fine if you see an immediate Out in the conversation: Oh hey I see Charlie over there I need to go say hi! Hi Charlie! Yoo hoo! Over here! Please acknowledge my presence so it looks like you need to speak with me please! Please? Charlie? CHARLIE! For fuck’s sake look at me!
But what do you do if there’s no Charlie? Or that asshat refuses to recognize you - Cheezus it’s like he’s deaf in both ears or something. Then you’re stuck, because the longer you’re engaged (or superficially so, as the case might be), the higher the odds are you’ll be expected to, ya know, participate in the conversation.
As “participating in conversations” is sorta my Achilles’ heel in social situations, this is where 99% of my “problems” originate. For so very long, just saying “I never saw that movie” or “I don’t know who that is” was basically NOT AN OPTION because (I assumed) that’d blow my shot to be part of any conversation. To me, the scenario would play out something like this: I’m in a circle with other people, talking about music. I say “Oh, what’s Digital Underground?” and the group goes silent, gives me the Stink Eye, and turns away from me in unison so they can better discuss The Humpty Dance.
(Note: if they just laugh my ignorance, it’s okay, because then I can play it off like I’m joking too. JUST KIDDING! I love his…their…beats? and use the break in conversation to steer it back to something I know. How ’bout that Smokey Robinson, guys? Motown is the SHIT!).
So… I just became good at playing along. Faking my way through. Giving the appearance of knowing what the hell people are talking about. I mean, it’s not something I needed to do all the time, but when the need came about, I rose to the fucking top of the occasion (Or at least I’d like to think so. Maybe it was too obvious, and my acquaintances too nice, to call me out on my bullshit).
Within the past five years or so, It’s been starting to dawn on me that all of the times I didn’t admit that I had no fucking clue what’s going on were, well, wasted opportunities. Opportunities to learn new things! To find other like-minded people! To just be fucking real, and not a version of myself! All very important shit, I’ve come to realize, because the longer you pretend to know everything, the harder it is to deal when you finally realize you know nothing.
Well, nothing is a bit of a stretch. I actually do know many of the words to The Humpty Dance***
*…in the days before the Internet, y’all (or at least, before it was such a Thing). I cannot even begin to fathom how easy it is for kids to cheat on shit like this now. One reason I’m thankful that I don’t have children: because it’s scary to think it might be possible for them to grow up and be even lazier than I was in school.
**…though IMDB.com would have been hella helpful in these cases. Maybe the Internet’s not so bad after all.
***You totally thought I was going to link to that song, didn’t you? Sorry-not-sorry.