Nouveau Notions

In its most derogatory meaning, the term nouveau riche describes a person of newfound wealth who doesn’t know how to “be rich”: he acts ostentatiously, spends conspicuously, and surrounds himself with unsubtle signals of his wealth that the “old rich” find distasteful.

In this vein, I’d like to introduce a related term: nouveau in-the-know*.

Someone who’s nouveau in-the-know has just learned something, and is eager to show off that newfound knowledge, even if it means ignoring or overlooking subtleties that only come with a period of further thought.

For instance:

  • Someone who has just heard about an event in the Israel-Palestine conflict and eagerly touts what he thinks is a solution — because he doesn’t know all the attendant issues.
  • Any irritating person at work who picks up a new technology and promotes it as a panacea without having a firm grasp on what it can actually do. “Ruby on Rails FTW!”
  • Your activist friend who learns about Asian sweatshops, and immediate goes on a crusade against them, without trying to understand the nuanced arguments both for and against sweatshops.
  • Sarah Palin, about 95% of the time she learns something new.

Have I been guilty of this infraction? Absolutely. It’s a dangerously easy trap to fall into,  more dangerous than simply being naïve, because you actually think you know what you’re talking about. It’s also a very quick way to expose your ignorance.

The best antidote is to shut your mouth when you feel you have learned something really big. Invariably your brain will start peeling back the novelty and begin considering the idea on its merits.**

Of course, there’s no good antidote for being around someone who’s nouveau in-the-know, except to relax, and patiently (and gently) challenge his argument.

If you are curious about how your brain can jump to incorrect conclusions based on what you think you know, take this 30-second quiz I’ve created:

* Alternatives: “nouveau knowing”, “nouveau knowledgeable”, “nouveau informed”, etc. All ugly. Suggestions?

** Relatedly, there have been countless times in college when a professor says something interesting in lecture, and a really insightful question occurs to me. I’m eager to ask the professor about it. But I sit quietly for a few minutes, and slowly my brain realizes exactly why it’s not an insightful question at all, in fact it’s kind of a dumb question, and if I just think about it for a few minutes, the answer would be obvious. Luckily I do, and my hand never goes up. Disaster averted!

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