The Failure Mode of Clever

So, apropos of nothing in particular, let’s say you wish to communicate privately with someone you’ve not communicated with privately before, for whatever reason you might have. And, wanting to stand out from the crowd, you decide to try to be clever about it, because, hey, you are a clever person, and as far as you know, people seem to like that about you. So you write your clever bit and send it off, safe in the knowledge of your cleverosity, and confident that your various cleverations will make the impression you want to make on the intended cleveree.

Two things here.

1. The effectiveness of clever on other people is highly contingent on outside factors, over which you have no control and of which you may not have any knowledge; i.e., just because you intended to be clever doesn’t mean you will be perceived as clever, for all sorts of reasons.

2. The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”

Allow me to offer a suggestion. If you are privately communicating with someone for the first time, as a general rule, the best course of action is to be polite and to the point. This is particularly the case if the reason you’re communicating with that person is because you are hoping to get them to do something for you, i.e., you’re asking for the favor of their time and attention and even possibly their money. That is not a situation in which you want to risk the failure mode of clever.

This is not to say that your cleverness should not eventually come out in your private communication; there’s a time for it, and usually that time is after you’ve established enough rapport with the other person that you know their receptiveness to cleverness in general, and your brand of it in particular. It’s “third date” material, as it were, not “first date.”

Indeed, the most clever thing you can do with your cleverness is to know when is the right time to use it. When in doubt, don’t. And if you’re not in doubt, ask yourself if you should be, especially if you’re communicating privately with someone for the first time. It’s just a suggestion.

80 Comments on “The Failure Mode of Clever”

  1. I knew, I just knew, that I shouldn’t have sent you that e-mail in decoder-ring-encrypted Klingon.

  2. So… I guess the Four Part Barbershop Gay Furry Strip-O-Gram was *not* the best way to get my critique of torture for interrogation’s sake in Stargate Universe across?

  3. Wait… said “clever” person _used_ the word “asshole” in their missive? Or was that more a description of their behaviour?

    Inquiring minds wanna know!

  4. I shudder to think how many pseudo-clever emails John is going to get today. I know I’m working on mine.

    PS, i do hope that he found my one email from about a year ago to be clever, and not assholeish. I’m sure he remembers it, because my emails are pretty, delicate flowers. And involve me stoned on cough meds.

  5. “The failure state of clever is ‘asshole.'”

    I am in love with this statement. I want to put frosting on this statement and eat it. I want to have this statement’s little statement babies.

    I plan to spread this truth far and wide around my little corner of the universe. I’ll give you credit and all, John, but this is going to rank right up there with my favorite quotations of all time. It may also be the only response I send to any number of the oh-so-very-clever emails I receive daily.

  6. Jim Millen:

    Even if there were a specific e-mail, my general policy is not to post e-mails that are intended to be private communication, even if they annoy me. I make exception for anonymous e-mails, however, since people who send anonymous e-mails deserve no consideration.

  7. I figure it’s sort of a lottery mentality. I mean, you must find SOMETHING clever, right? And if 1,000 people send you an email every day for a year, that’s 365,000 potentially clever notes. Since the downside is basically nothing for the people sending the notes (after all, if they cared much whether you thought they were assholes or not, they probably would do the right thing and send you a bottle of Glenfiddich or some such instead), it’s like a free lottery, where your chances of winning are low but nonzero. And look at how many people play the real lottery, at significant cost to themselves…

  8. Thank you, John. “To the point” and “non-clever” are the two biggest predictors of how much attention I pay to a request from a stranger.

    I love to do stuff for others, seriously. I don’t have time to do everything I get asked to do, but I try to do as much of it as is possible — which means that I need to minimize the amount of time I spend decoding rambling, overly clever requests.

    The thing I hate most about clever and rambling asks is that they make me end up saying “no” more, and I hate saying “no,” especially if there’s any chance I could say “yes.”

  9. John: Yep, quite right of course. Integrity worth more than short term juvenile amusement – which reminds me that’s a big reason I enjoy reading here. A pity 99.99% of the Intarwebz takes a rather different view…

  10. Er. Are you using a definition of “clever” outside of the usual one? Because how is it not clever to be polite and to the point?

  11. Even when you are annoyed you really do write good blog entries. That was a well written gripe.

    I don’t think I could write a gripe nearly that well if I worked on it for a week.

    I need to read more of your books.

  12. I got a bizarre email from Doug Lain the other day trying to get me to donate money to some random project. Given that you might run in the same science fiction circles as him and that your reaction described above mirrors my own reaction to his bizarre Facebook message, I can’t help but wonder if you’re referring to the same exact thing.

    Of course I don’t expect you to say “yay” or “nay” to this speculation, I’m just throwing it out there.

  13. Corollary the first part:

    1a. When being clever in written discourse, it’s best to remember that human interaction (read conversation) has non-verbal communication to aid in meaning.

    Corollary the second part:

    2a. Written discourse, of and through an internet medium is often available forever

    Meaning 1a: Don’t be clever

    Meaning 2a: A lot of people will learn of your non-cleverness

  14. The failure state of clever is “asshole.”

    I need to have that burned into my brain as a warning to myself!

  15. “The failure state of clever is ‘asshole.’”

    I want that on a t-shirt with some bit of clever art.

    Perhaps you can get Jeff Zugale to whip something up?

  16. See, now I’m paranoid that I may have done something like this (to someone else.) Ack. Thing is, there seems to be a fine line between genuflecting (which is annoying to both parties) and being overly familiar or casual. And I suspect that varies from person to person.

    While we’re discussing these sorts of things, though…

    John, as a Sorta Famous Person, what’s your opinion of the best way to handle rude fans?

    Do you prefer that there’s self-policing among fans (i.e., should other fans deliver a gentle upbraiding when necessary) or do you prefer to handle such things yourself? In other words, is it better for fans to try to keep you from being bothered when you’re so busy, or is it better to leave the admonishments to you?

    (FWIW, this is a hypothetical Generic Famous Person question, and not necessarily specifically about your fans, most of whom seem to be quite nice.)

  17. It would be interesting to know, if not the exact wording of the presumptive clever failure, at least what the general attempt at clever was. That way we won’t be tempted to make the same type of mistake…

  18. Sorry, man, next time I’ll ask before I do “Journey’s Greatest Hits” in interpretive dance on your lawn.

  19. I clever on first dates.

    But then, clevering is much easier in person than via pure text.

  20. Tal:

    “Do you prefer that there’s self-policing among fans (i.e., should other fans deliver a gentle upbraiding when necessary) or do you prefer to handle such things yourself? In other words, is it better for fans to try to keep you from being bothered when you’re so busy, or is it better to leave the admonishments to you?”

    In a general sense I don’t need anyone to defend me. I’m a big boy and can take care of myself.

    That said, the particular entry here is relating to private communication, so a group admonition would apply in any case.

  21. John @35: Right on this particular topic. I was thinking more like… People being loud and obnoxious at a con or something.

    Do you think your position might change if you were Much More Famous? If you were the Justin Bieber of SFF writers, and were constantly pestered and were getting tired of having to deliver mallets all the time?

  22. Tal:

    I suspect that I will never be famous enough for that to be a genuine problem. However if I became so famous that I couldn’t handle it personally, I suspect I’d hire people to handle it for me.

  23. Well shit. Now I know what happened with that email some months ago. Facepalm.

    It’s entirely true though. I used to live in constant fear of suddenly finding I’m too clever for the room. Because that’s when I can say goodbye to THAT group of potential buddies. *hangs head* Indeed this was a major contributor to my wallflowerish characteristics for many years.

    Now I use it as a filtration mechanism. It means I have fewer friends and no love life, but at least the ones I have appreciate me. #snark

    I’m afraid I will also be appropriating that line, John. With credit, because while I’ll cop to being an asshole, I try not to be a dick.

  24. I think you have defined the loss of formal politeness that exemplifies 21st century communications. 100 years ago, it would be fairly unheard of for someone to begin any communication by being “clever” or “witty”.
    Polite means making people comfortable. If you don’t know them – its best to stick to neutral pleasantries.

  25. The failure state of clever is “asshole” *is* quite a good phrase.

    I take it though not just as a reminder to consider the audience before subjecting them to what passes for wit in me-ville, but also as a reminder that some people that come off as a-holes are actually self-conscious and trying to be clever.

    Which isn’t to say that we should have an endless well of patience for people that are stepping over the line, but as someone who always seems to find myself with not quite enough patience, I find value in both sides of that coin.

    And yeah, I totally want it on a tee shirt.

  26. Lee Rockwood:

    Indeed, the reason I note this is to let people know that what they intend is not always what other people perceive. When I get a not-as-clever-as-the-writer-apparently-assumed e-mail (or whatever), I do assume it wasn’t their intent to be a jerk.

  27. Is there a Scalzi’s Law yet?

    If not, can Scalzi’s Law be “The failure mode of clever is ‘asshole'”?

    If it’s going to be quoted, and you KNOW it will, it should have a catchy name–preferably one with the originator’s name in it.

  28. With regard to Lee’s idea @42, how do you feel about a Cafe Press t-shirt with that quote and your name attributed to it, John?

  29. There is a Scalzi’s Law, which is actually more of a corollary to Godwin’s Law, which you can read here.

    I would have no objection to “The Failure Mode of Clever is ‘Asshole'” being henceforth known as Scalzi’s Law.

  30. I have this image in my head now of David Tennant emphatically stating: “because I’m an asshole.”

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    But, yeah, I’m personally familiar with the failstate of clever.

  31. I definitely support “The failure state of clever is ‘asshole'” as the new Scalzi’s Law.

    The old Scalzi’s Law, while amusing, is rooted in a particular meme and time, and will not necessarily be understood by future generations. The new Law is a fundamental description of human activity, and will be applicable as long as there are cognizant beings.

    Also, it will give me the opportunity to smack myself in the head and mutter “Scalzi’s Law, dipshit” whenever I fail at clever.

  32. Well, my mama always said, clever is as clever does…

    Or something like that…

  33. Scalzi @43: Oh, definitely. I didn’t mean to imply that I that you were being mean.

    I just think it’s cool that Scalzi’s Law(tm) works on two totally different levels, man.

  34. I think that if this is put on a t-shirt, the image that goes with it should be one pissed-off looking feline with bacon taped all over him, glowering (I think cats can glower, but I’m not entirely sure) at the reader, with the now-known-as-scalzi-law caption below it.

    Maybe a long-haired cat that’s soaking wet, just to get it in the proper glowering mood.

  35. Perhaps as not to neglect Cats and Bacon this could be known as Scalzi’s Second Law?

    (If I’m not being too clever.)

  36. This reminds me of Doctor Who 10. Whenever he was being particularly cheeky, he’d always smugly announce that he was clever and I’d want to smack him. Same principle, I think.

  37. So here I am writing a response to a post called “The Failure State of Clever”. Additionally, I don’t do “clever”. The classic “asshole” thing to do is spam. As it turns out, I am very happy with my latest YouTube video. Unfortunately, it is not done yet. I will have to spam you tomorrow.

  38. If you were the Justin Bieber of SFF writers

    Now there’s a truly sanity-blasting mental image.

  39. I second “The Failure Mode of Clever is `Asshole`” should be Scalzi’s Second Law (of Internet conversation).

    Bacon should remain in the first, because it’s far too delicious not to, unless all the assholes from the second can be formed into some delicious hotdogs, in which case a third law of condiments will soon be needed.

  40. Honestly, I wasn’t asking anything of you when I sent you that message last week! I just wanted to pass along something cool that might give you a warm fuzzy or two. If it sounded too clever when I sent it, my utmost apologies!

  41. Seth @59: If you let people know what’s in the hot dogs they’re never going to eat them…

  42. I can’t help but wonder if this could be in response to a fanfic contest submission? Of course I only wonder because I sent in my entry a couple of days ago.

    This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve irritated someone so much that they ended up sub-consciously writing me a hate letter without realizing it!

    Hopefully I am just paranoid…

  43. You’re just paranoid. I’m not going to complain about people trying to be clever in that contest — I hope they are clever. Also, a short story is not precisely private communication.

  44. Agreed, and I think it holds up well for in-person meetings as well. The first time I encountered Neil Gaiman at a signing (where he had been signing for hours and hours but was still incredibly warm and gracious – I don’t know how the man does it), I told him that I’d spent my whole time in line trying to think of something clever to say but had failed utterly, so I would stick with saying that I enjoyed his work tremendously and appreciated him signing my books.

    He laughed and said that it was the best thing to say, as people who were trying to be clever almost invariably (a) blurted out their rehearsed bit and sounded stilted and silly; or (b) just sounded silly.

    I’ve always tried to remember this when I’m meeting someone, even someone who isn’t famous.

  45. So, apropos of nothing in particular, let’s say

    Suddenly had a picture of Scalzi walking into my little store and saying “Nice place you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it. Hypothetically speaking of course.”

  46. Late to the party, but …

    You have just put your finger on the common defining trait of about 90% of the incoming non-spam email from strangers that I don’t answer.

    (And there was me wondering if I was just being a curmudgeonly prick for not responding to every piece of fan mail.)

  47. The failure state of clever is “asshole”.

    I do believe that you should trademark the statement…it’s going to be a T-Shirt very soon. Very good point and one we should all remember. So should writers of TV sitcoms.

  48. I think you’re kind of being an asshole by showing yourself so dismissive of someone just because their writing strikes you as witty. Might you be somewhat overly judgemental?

    Sadly that’s hard to tell without the original message you’re responding to..

  49. You know, every now and then something comes along to remind me of this post. (Usually something on that Ginormous Social Networking Site.)

    It’s a most excellent post.

  50. “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

  51. Sorry to be late to the conversation, but this post got me thinking. This would be a good filter to look at incoming communications through. If you get something that makes you think, “Asshole!”, then it might be worthwhile to consider whether the sender thought s/he was being clever rather than malicious.

    Seems to fit nicely with “Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others” (

  52. Now I am paranoid and going over all previous emails in search of clever.

    I’d like to suggest that “asshole” is also the failure mode of “charming”, which so many PUA don’t seem to realize.

%d bloggers like this: