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The Knowledge

How To Appear Wise

From ordering wine to taunting classic car owners, upgrade your cultural cache (and small talk) with this handy cheat sheet

There are few things worse than the sensation, mid-conversation, of a trapdoor opening beneath your feet as you’re suddenly confronted with the murky waters of your own ignorance. Yes, in this digital world, we should be better informed than ever, such is the speed and ease with which we can access information. But it’s often difficult to know, out of all those crucially important things you ingest via Buzzfeed and Reddit, which bits of cognitive flotsam will keep you afloat in that most terrifying of environments, real life. Here, unfortunately, you’re likely to find yourself face to face with a wide variety of sentient, unbookmarkable humanoids, whom you might be keen to impress. There are many potential pitfalls – social scenarios where you need to find something intelligent to say, and you don’t get the opportunity to think for a few minutes before you click “send”.

How to muddle through? It has been said that a little knowledge goes a long way, although Socrates (the classical Greek philosopher rather than the former Brazilian football captain) perhaps put it better: “To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” We’ll call that lesson one. With this in mind, we’ve put together the following guide to appearing intelligent, cultured, well-educated and captivatingly opinionated, even if you might not – currently – feel like any of those things. Good luck!

ORDERING WINE AT A RESTAURANT

You find yourself at a top-class restaurant with company you are trying to impress. There is no logical reason for taking charge of ordering for the table. But you do, and now you must deliver.

Luckily, help is at hand in the form of the sommelier – you will appear most wise by seeking him out and listening to his advice. A good sommelier will expect to be told, however quietly, what the purpose of your visit is and how much you wish to spend, and will be able to advise accordingly.

Mr Nicolas Clerc, master sommelier for Fields, Morris & Verdin/Berry Bros & Rudd, suggests that if, even after enlisting a sommelier, you still feel the need to broadcast your wine knowledge, you should try asking what he has discovered recently or which vintages are showing well. Then, if the prices are still a bit steep, suggest the sommelier recommend “something more convivial and easy” — he’ll get the message.

Do say

“I normally order champagne to start, white burgundy for the starter and a red bordeaux for the main course, but tonight I’m feeling adventurous, so I’m going to listen to your suggestions.”
(My mouth might be saying these words but look into my eyes — they are pleading for your help.)

“I hear that Germany and Austria have some spectacular dry whites right now, but what I’m really interested in are the gastronomic-style reds coming out of Spain and Italy. Do you have any?”
(I’m grandstanding, humour me.)

Don’t say

“We’ll take the second on the menu.”
(I’m cheap, but don’t want to look it. Exploit my embarrassment by selling me something at the highest profit margin possible.)

“Give us the most expensive wine you have.”
(I am clearly an idiot.)

AT A CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY

You’re in a typical white-cube gallery space surrounded by champagne-quaffing, loafer-wearing contemporary art cognoscenti. You’re alone and standing before a neatly arranged pile of dust that has been topped with a hammer, sundry nuts and bolts, and a half-eaten ice cream cone. Suddenly, you become aware of a presence at your shoulder. And then, the dreaded question: “What do you think?”

Fear not, for your would-be interrogator has committed one of the cardinal sins of the private view: asking for an opinion. There are no right and wrong answers in contemporary art, so avoid being drawn onto hazardous terrain by nodding repeatedly and issuing the get-out-of-jail-free response: “It raises a lot of questions.” Having demonstrated that you are comfortable with the “challenging nature of the project”, you can then walk on.

“An engagement with why a work might be hard to penetrate is a completely valid part of the aesthetic discussion,” advises Mr Luigi Mazzoleni, director of the Mazzoleni art gallery in London, which specialises in post-war Italian art. “Too much attention can give you away as an amateur as much as too little, so the tempered approach is best.”

Do say

“The piece works well within the space.”
(I don’t know what I’m looking at, but I used the word “space” instead of “room”, so I have a right to be here.)

“I’m intrigued by the artist’s visual lexicon.”
(I like the colours.)

“Has this work been shown publicly before?”
(I might not look like one, but can you be sure I’m not a serious collector?)

Don’t say

“How much is that one?”
(I’ve had enough free champagne and it’s time to go.)

“My four-year-old could have done that.”
(I’m a hopeless case.)

IN A BOARD MEETING

Instead of following the presentation on next year’s action points (see How To Speak Professional-ese for translations), you’ve been checking Instagram, which is never a great look. When you’re asked for an opinion, make like you’ve been attending to an important work-related message and then swing into action.

Economist Ms Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit And Success, argues that how you act (gravitas), what you say (communication) and how you dress (appearance) are the keys to winning the respect of your bosses.

In other words, it’s all about impression management. If you’re in the boardroom, it’s likely you’re in the company of creative, charismatic or dominant personalities, who, research suggests, are more adept at deception (and identifying it). The fact that you are reading this on MR PORTER suggests you know how to make a good first impression with your dress sense. But how do you bounce back from the “my bad” with the phone, and what do you say?

The first step is be convincing. Avoid non-verbal leakage (which can be as messy as it sounds). Don’t move your head suddenly when asked the question, touch your mouth, neck or throat, or shuffle your feet – they’re all giveaways that you’re mentally spinning. Verbal “tells” include repetition, offering too much unsolicited information (or padding) and qualifiers such as “If I recall correctly” or “If I am not mistaken”.

Try to stay calm. Grace under fire is a key element of “executive presence”, so establish eye contact, build empathy by addressing your colleagues by name and deftly pass the ball back by saying something vague yet direct, such as “Do all the stakeholders have buy-in?” Then, most importantly, turn your phone off and switch on.

Do say

“It’s great, but is it scalable?”
(I don’t really know what the word means, but I appear ambitious yet cautious and it’s someone else’s turn to talk now.)

“How will it play out across social media?”
(I may know nothing about this, but I bet you know nothing about Instagram.)

“I’d like to do a deeper dive on some of the implications and report back.”
(Give me a couple of days and I’ll come up with a decent response.)

Don’t say

“Sorry, I zoned out for a second.”
(I know we all make mistakes, but I’m too dumb to realise no one ever admits to them.)

“I agree completely.”
(If anything goes wrong, you can now blame me.)

AT A CLASSIC CAR SHOW

Although you appreciate classic cars, your knowledge of their mechanics and provenance is cursory. But that doesn’t stop you from starting an ill-advised conversation with the owner of a vintage two-seater racing car at the Goodwood Festival Of Speed. Why do you do these things to yourself, eh?

The object of his devotion, you have been breathlessly informed, is a 1954 Ferrari 375-Plus Spider Competizione, with a 4.9-litre V12 engine mounted in the front. Now is not the time to comment on its lack of coffee cup holder and parking sensors, but to ask the right questions. “Are all the parts original?” would be a good start, followed by enquiries about whether the car is still driven or for Concours d’Elégance events only. Finish up with some general cooing over the coach-building brilliance of legendary car designer Mr Battista Pininfarina and walk away… slowly.

Do say

“The earliest variants are always the best. It’s the car in its purest form. Just look at the E-type Jaguar or Lamborghini Countach.”
(My home, like yours, is filled with beautiful, undrivable old bangers.)

“The real opportunity for collectors is in 1980s icons such as the
BMW 5 Series or the Porsche 964.”

(The market at the top end has peaked. Sucker!)

“I’m not sure matching numbers really mean that much any more.”
(I have a working knowledge of a hot topic in classic car collecting, specifically that not all components in cars have numbers that match the VIN [vehicle identification number] on the chassis.)

Don’t say

 “Can I take it for a spin?”
(I’ve thoroughly misunderstood this classic car thing.)

“Not very reliable, are they?”
(My car never breaks down. But I do, often. In fact, I might cry right now.)

AT A DINNER PARTY

As the dessert plates are cleared and the cheese board arrives, conversation turns to philosophy. Your university (or high school) exam notes are a distant blur (especially since the host brought out the port), so what are you going to say to the earnest-looking chap to your left with the big chin and the even bigger questions?

British philosopher Mr Anthony Grayling might have insisted on reading literary works in the morning and philosophy in the evening, but your busy schedule (aka iPhone addiction) means your attention is occasionally diverted away from intelligent literature. Your first piece of armour is the knowledge that people who talk about philosophy are not philosophers.

“Ask questions, listen to the answers and take them further, if you can,” advises author Ms Marianne Talbot, a director of studies in philosophy at Oxford University. “The more you listen to the other person, the wiser you’ll seem to that other person. In philosophy, we discuss arguments in accordance with the principle of charity. This tells us that the person we are arguing with is sensible and rational, that he loves truth as much as we do.”

But what if this guy is intent on parading his knowledge, and highlighting your lack of it? “Try Karl Popper,” says Ms Talbot. “He said that no theorist can ever claim to know something positive. At best, we can know that something isn’t true when our attempts to falsify it have succeeded.”

Do say

“Was Professor Stephen Hawking right to have said that philosophy is dead because philosophers don’t pay enough attention to science?” 
(I see your philosophy and I raise you quantum physics.)

“Does modern philosophy have anything to say to today’s moral dilemmas? For example… [something topical]”
(You may have read Kant, but I’ve read the internet.)

Don’t say

“A priori”, “A posteriori”, etc
(I’m going to try and evade you with fancy words. Please take me down.)

“Wise men say only fools rush in.”
(I’m just a really big Elvis fan. Will that do?)