If you have ever spoken with me, you’ve probably heard me say, “sorry, I’m dumb.” I use this phrase relentlessly: before asking a question, after making a mistake, sometimes just to fill in silence. It’s a habit of mine, a crutch I rest on in a plethora of circumstances. I should clarify: I don’t think I’m dumb, and, even if I was, I wouldn’t really be sorry about it.
Why, then, do I use this phrase so often? I want to break down the rationale behind “I’m dumb” and whether it’s healthy, particularly for women and other minorities, to constantly tack onto the ends of their apologies. This is not just for my own peace of mind, but also because I know I’m not alone in my use of this crutch.
As a descriptor, “dumb” is born of and used with prejudice, originating in Old English as a label for people who could not speak. It adopted the sense of “stupid” around the 19th Century, borrowing from Germanic languages. Both these senses — people without verbal capacity and stupidity — can be traced back to an ancient Indo-European word relating to sensory impairment. Although a semantic distinction can be drawn between these senses, the world is arguably ableist. Many descriptors relating to unintelligence, including “idiot”, “moron”, and even more offensive words, come from the ableist notion that people with disability have limited mental capacity. This is unfair, and unkind, and a narrative I would never support.
So why then, does the phrase “I’m dumb” seem to bring me, and others, such comfort?
My first response is simply that I’m a human being that makes mistakes. Recently, I wrote “two hundred and twenty two” as “20022”, and couldn’t work out why it was wrong. I’m not really sure where the Pacific Ocean is. I somehow left 80 paper plates on a bus despite not letting go of them. There are plenty of reasons that I could make the mistakes that I do, and some of them are unflattering. If I misplace something, it could be because I didn’t care about it, or the person it belongs to. That isn’t true — I usually make mistakes because I’m distracted, or misinformed.
It is easier to outright excuse my mistake by labelling myself as “dumb” than to let whoever I am with infer that my actions were the result of apathy. I would rather be seen as foolish than unkind.
Secondly, being seen as “smart” or a source of guidance can come with a lot of pressure, even when intended as a compliment. I’ve had people get mad at me when I don’t know things, or felt their disappointment when I didn’t meet their expectations. Self-describing as dumb alleviates this pressure. It means that people don’t assume that I am infallible, and, as an added bonus, it means that they’re pleasantly surprised if I surpass their modest expectations. Calling myself “dumb” is freeing.
Additionally, as a consequence of shedding these expectations, I have found myself more able to ask “dumb” questions. Despite how much educators insist on the contrary, asking questions that are too simple or indicate a lack of awareness can come across as “dumb”. But these questions are very important. If you don’t understand one of the fundamental premises of an argument, you can’t understand the argument as a whole. I cannot, for the life of me, understand economics. It doesn’t serve me to pretend that I do just because I’m worried that my interlocutor will judge me for my lack of knowledge. If I self-describe as dumb, I don’t appear unaware of my own naïveté; they can’t judge me negatively for being uninformed if I acknowledge that that is the case. I actually learn more when I say that I’m dumb, because then I can get my dumb questions answered. To me, this seems like a win-win.
Finally, there is also something relatable about acknowledging the capacity to err — after all, everybody makes mistakes, and certain kinds of intelligence are privileged over others. The verbal acknowledgement of dumbness bridges this gap; perhaps, we can share a laugh about silly things that we’ve both done.
I have used these reasons, consciously or not, to justify referring to myself as dumb on a regular basis. I am not alone in this. I know many people who are academically intelligent who share this habit. Many of them are also women. I do not know how many use the same rationale as me; knowing that they aren’t dumb, but adopting the descriptor strategically. Many have likely been led to believe that their intellect is worth less than their peers’. It makes me wonder, then, if my use of this phrase is truly empowering, or if it contributes to a wider problem.
It is not uncommon for people in positions of power to undermine the intelligence and capacity of those they wish to oppress in order to maintain a power imbalance. Women are kept out of boardrooms and governments with the stereotype that they are ditzy and only concerned with trivial things. People of colour have historically (and continually) been denied educational opportunities on the assumption that they will underperform. People with disability have their agency stripped from them by those who assume their disabilities amount to incapacity. I do not want to contribute to a narrative that oppresses, and even though I’m applying the label to myself rather than someone I wish to undermine, I am enabling others to do just that.
Adopting negative descriptors may also lead to me internalising negative judgement about myself. Women tend to fall into linguistic patterns diminishing their own certainty — such as using tags like “if that makes sense” or “but I don’t know” — or being overly apologetic for asserting themselves. I posit that this stems from the stigmatisation of confident, accomplished women by a patriarchy that feels threatened by them. If the only way to have your voice heard without ridicule is to couch it in qualifiers, then you adapt the way you speak. The phrase “sorry, I’m dumb” is an apology for a lack of information or experience. It is absolutely not something I should be apologetic for (except in circumstances that result in actual harm), and it is also not a fair assessment of my own capacity. I, and every other person who feels compelled to undersell themselves to be heard, ought reject this pressure by refusing to label ourselves “dumb”. It misrepresents us and it allows others to treat us as though we are less than.
I do not know what advice to offer people in the same shoes as me. Calling myself dumb is comfortable, but I cannot pretend it doesn’t have broader implications for me and people who are routinely undermined. It is healthy to accept that I’m fallible and to alleviate unreasonable expectations that others may put on me. It is probably unhealthy to use language that has been used to oppress people like me to do so. Maybe it would be better to phrase it as “sorry, I’m not familiar with this subject”, or to thank people for their patience rather than apologising for my own lack of knowledge. Maybe we should work on celebrating women and minorities for their intelligence when we get the chance. Maybe we should treat “intelligence” as the nuanced, amorphous concept that it is, and stop treating it as a vessel for people’s worth. Maybe.
I’m not really sure though.