Most of us like to think of ourselves as pretty clever. But what’s not so clever is acting superior to those who make blunders or don’t know as much as you do (or think you do) about a particular subject. There is a fine line between helpfully correcting someone and being patronizing, and in the interest of civility it’s best to exercise caution should you feel the urge to be didactic.
The other day I was at a gathering in which someone mentioned the word “posthumous,” which means after death. I overheard a woman asking what it meant. While I did hear one person snort in derision—I guess he is a walking dictionary!—her companion did the right thing and calmly explained without any judgment or condescension in his tone. I was glad that he did not tease her or talk down to her. After all, we all have lapses in our vocabulary!
Another point to consider is when someone uses a word incorrectly or butchers the pronunciation. For instance, I knew someone who would always say “sub sequent” rather than “subsequent.” It drove me crazy, I’ll admit, but I didn’t feel it was my place to correct her, especially since it was a word most people seldom use. If she were an employee or client, I would of course tactfully point it out—which is sometimes as simple as repeating the word in your response with the correct pronunciation—but in many cases it is not worth making the other person feel self-conscious. If, however, you are talking with someone and they state erroneous facts, you can correct them by saying something along the lines of, “Oh, I thought it was X who did this,” or “Do you mean this?” Sometimes by couching your statement in questioning tones you can turn the conversation into an intelligent debate, rather than a lecture. Bottom line: State your opinion, but don’t be so thrilled to prove other people wrong.
Being intelligent is a gift. With confidence and class you can appreciate what you know without feeling the urge to correct or pass judgment (publicly, at least) on those who don’t have your smarts.