People have higher or lesser amounts of that quality that is known as intelligence or more generally and perhaps more accurately as “smarts” because the former term connotes being good at standardized tests while the latter term means being good at having insight and turning that to the solution of problems of one sort or another. People think it is important to have smarts or at least be smart enough to manage their lives. They can claim to have emotional intelligence rather than book intelligence and to intuit situations rather than verbalize a description of situations. Fredo told his brother, Michael Corleone, that he was also smart, by which he meant that he could do things: strike up deals, carry out instructions-- even though those were just the things he was bad at. People can also define their smarts by relative comparisons. The higher functioning residents of a home for the retarded will regard the lower functioning residents as "dummies". Most people infer the intelligence or smarts of people by consulting whether or not they are articulate, can memorize or master procedures, whether they have a fund of general knowledge, and whether they are savvy about managing one or another situation, whether within a family or at business. An uneducated person can be regarded as smart if he or she can get relatives to do what is wanted of them.
Smarts, however, are not just a universal attribute, in some degree or other, of all people, and therefore playing an important part in social life, but are also subject to institutional legitimation because it is useful for any number of institutions to pick out those who are better at learning matters of some difficulty with more ease than others. And so schools administer IQ tests and college admissions officers consult SAT scores and the military tests recruits in any number of ways so as to ascertain the jobs into which they will be placed. Businesses engage in job interviews and people respond to rejection in the same way they do when their smarts have been rejected by objective testing: I don’t do well in stress filled testing situations, but I am still smart enough to do the job.
There is a fundamental sociological problem in dealing with the discrepancy between assessed intelligence and actual intelligence and this is not just a matter of having to resign oneself or resist a designation as more or less smart because it violates a sense of self-worth. Rather, it has to do with what individuals are in for if they are designated as smart or at least smart enough to be regarded as having the role of being a smart person in their school or in their neighborhood or on the job. While it is true that people can take pride in that role or be bullied for occupying it, it is also true that people designated by that role are in a position where they have to try to live up to the role or else understand themselves as not living up to it whether because they do not think they are as smart as they have been cracked up to be or because they have decided to cast aside that verdict as one they do not care about and so will avoid the designation, perhaps living their lives with their lanterns shining under bushels or else faking it out by finding ways to get other people to cover for lapses at work.
So being smart is one of those attributional roles where a trait can only be ascribed to a person on the basis of limited evidence, as is also the case with evil or most moral emotions but is not the case with being tall or a truck driver, where the evidence of a role is definitive. Attributional roles are those in which a person has to take up a posture towards one role rather than just inhabit it or not. Some people will remain modest about their smarts; some people will flaunt it, as some women will flaunt their beauty; some people will be very matter of fact about their smarts and just treat it as a gift for which they take no responsibility; some people will treat smarts as more about hard work than about talent. All the while, everyone acts as if they are smart enough for their other roles and most people will have to work more or less hard to be smart enough for their roles, even if only some people have to live up to one’s role as a smart person.
People avoid having their smarts questioned by avoiding conversations which might reveal how little they know about something; people prove their smarts by referring to facts and authors with which they are familiar and so give the gleam of expertise to people who don’t know those facts and authors; people improve their smarts by working to master subject matters that are arcane or just suddenly relevant, sometimes without letting on that they are making the effort. Much of being smart is therefore an example of what Erving Goffman called “backstage work”: the activities we engage in outside the purview of the audience so as to prepare for stepping into a role, though people might feel guilty about having to work to appear smart, and so give away that they are intellectually deficient, while people do not feel guilty about getting dressed in the morning even if they might feel embarrassed if a stranger caught them doing so.
However much people have been properly credentialed for their smarts, whether by IQ tests or graduate degrees, or the repute of their peers, people have to constantly re-prove or re-earn that designation in the eyes of their peers or superiors or even in the eyes of a generalized public. They are only as smart as recent performance attests, whether that means a lecture given to students, a paper offered to a professional journal, or the state of the store of general knowledge available to call on at the family table. A smart person is always proving that they deserve to keep or improve their relative ranking, a spot in the top ranks never assured. Someone who does not live up to early promise is someone people at one point thought was smart unless there are extenuating circumstances to excuse why a person is still smart but somehow got stunted. Smart people have to be smart enough to keep up with their peers, to belong in the company of their peers or change their context so that they are smart enough to function as smart people within a less selective pool. Einstein in his later years prided himself on still being better at mathematical puzzles than his also esteemed colleagues, though one might have thought he did not any longer have to prove himself, and Scott Turow only began to think of himself as smart again after he had left Harvard Law School and gone back to Chicago to practice law. Lesser lights than Einstein will point out that they are pretty good at chess or some other pastime that requires concentration, memory and the other characteristics of smarts, or simply take note of the fact that Vladimir Nabokov, in addition to being good at language and literature, was an expert on butterflies, which also requires concentration and memory.