My favorite word in the whole world is “sprezzatura,” Italian for “effortlessness or ease,” “careless grace” or “nonchalance.” In my life, it stands for the ability to do something difficult while making it look easy. This appearance of ease is totally destroyed by any intimation that wheels are grinding, brain cells are imploding, or flop sweat is forming. The “buzz” I get from a demonstration of sprezzatura is precisely that nobody knows I was sweating, or had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes, in order to appear totally at ease when one is clueless, it’s necessary to make stuff up. Is this actual lying? I think not.
After listening to my son explain his plans to win me a Mac by submitting multiple, fictitious e-mail addresses to an online site, my husband commented on the fact that he was not proud that our kid was a scammer. The party line is, of course, “stop doing that right now/ you are cheating people/that’s not the kind of thing we do in this family/it’s fraud/no, really, it’s fraud, I’m a lawyer, I should know.” During this stirring episode of The Family Justice League: Focus on Honesty, despite my sternness of countenance and firmness of position, I was keenly aware of the fact that Sam’s scammer genes come from me.
I am not a liar, and have, in fact, always been given to the immediate confession of wrongdoing even when I could easily have gotten away with whatever I did. I do, however, have a long history of what I prefer to think of as “bluffing.” This is a highly developed skill, and involves, at its core the use of a tiny bit of knowledge, coupled with the appearance of invincibility and trustworthiness in order to convince others that I know, or am able to do something that I probably don’t actually know, and can’t actually do. It probably developed in childhood as the result of living among a tribe of competitive know-it-alls, but it may also be genetic.
Sometimes, the ability to bluff is all that stands between me and humiliation and failure, and sometimes it is really just a parlor trick that I use to make myself look good. I have used it to my advantage academically, professionally and socially, and I am not particularly sorry. Honestly, would you rather have your lawyer say “I have no idea what to do about your legal problem, but if you give me a large retainer I’ll work like crazy and see what sticks when I throw it at the wall” or “‘Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll get going on this tomorrow?” Would you prefer, when you mention a recent bestseller, which you enjoyed, that I say “I’m really interested in that book because of the references to early Christianity” or “All of the reviews I’ve read indicate that my life is too short to waste time reading that book?” Does anybody want or need, for the sake of total honesty, to see the little man behind the curtain?
My earliest exercises in sprezzatura by way of bluffing came courtesy of my study of literature. I discovered at some point in high school that I could write an “A” paper on something like “Light and Dark Imagery in [Insert Shakespearean Drama Here]” with no more than a quick read and a focused search for words like, well, “light” and “dark” and the various permutations thereof. I really did read everything, and sometimes I wrote very deep and thoughtful papers. When I was in a rush, though, I found that I could string together my yellow-highlighted findings with a plausible and grammatically correct amount of blather (and a Thesis Statement) and get the grade every time. The greatest triumph of my Lit Bluffing life was writing the major essay of the Advanced Placement English examination about a book I had never actually read. This was not an act of desperation; several works of literature that I actually had read were listed as acceptable bases for the essay. The best answer (and the buzz), however, came from writing several pages about “Anna Karenina,” which I had not read, but about which I knew the story line and major themes from…somewhere in the literary ozone layer. I got the best possible score, and the certain knowledge that I could probably convince anybody that I knew anything. (Except math).
I was sorely tested in law school, where, for the first year, there was no sprezzatura to be had. I did not understand much of what I read, and came away with nary a kernel of knowledge that could be stretched into a successfully written three-hour essay exam in May. After that Fail, however, I came back strong. I learned what professors wanted to see, and how they wanted to see it, and became fluent in the application of the “skim and pick” to case-law in Corporations, Estates and Trusts, and Uniform Commercial Code. Like some predatory bird flying low over the ocean, I could swoop down, catch a holding or a distinction, and swallow it whole for later regurgitation. During that same year I was the member of a moot court team, which served to polish my oral bluffing skills. In response to a direct question that I could not actually answer, I learned to divert, to distract, and to appear to give an answer where there was actually nothing but the faintest puff of air. It was not lying; it was using my brain to avoid falling into a trap that would destroy my cause. It might, strictly speaking, have been more honest to say things like “I don’t like that question, your honor; it points directly to the major flaw in my case; could I just talk about something else instead?” It would not, however, have gotten me the “win,” the grade, or (in real life) the best result for my client.
These days I am limited mainly to social bluffing. In this incarnation, the game involves the reading of, watching and listening to many different kinds of things so that I know a little but about a lot of subjects. This means that when a conversation turns to college football, “Twilight,” carbon footprint, municipal bond proposals or making Greek Yogurt, I have a mental base of operations. I might have spent the last football game reading “Vogue,” but if I was in the room when it was televised, or if I skimmed the sports section, I can say something like “all those interceptions didn’t help” or “yeah, but Brigham was clutch in that last play” and I’m in like Flynn. I can also discuss movies I have not seen, books I have not read and food I have never eaten with great ease; I never (well, rarely) say that I have actually done the thing I have not done; I merely leave the impression that I probably did. In the unlikely event that I was cross-examined about a social bluff, I could certainly point out that saying that a movie “did not have a happy ending” is not the same as saying “and I know that because I saw it.” It’s amazing what you can learn by reading reviews.
I also, recently, engaged in food bluffing. I had discovered that I genuinely liked oysters, and had eaten them fried, broiled and in stew, but never raw. When a particularly sophisticated friend discovered our mutual love of the bivalve, and invited me to join her for (raw) oysters and beer, I panicked. I could, of course, simply have told her that I had never actually eaten a raw oyster, that I had no idea what to do, and that I should probably just order the shrimp kabob, but that would have been the very opposite of sprezzatura. Instead, I messaged my friend and reader Robert, who lives in oyster country and is something of an expert; he sent me clear, step-by-step instructions on everything from loosening the oyster from its shell to its placement on a Saltine with a dollop of hot sauce. After memorizing his directions, I engaged in the oysters and beer looking (I hope) like an old hand.
Perhaps I am setting a bad example, cheating people out of honest discourse and puffing myself up out of a pathological need for attention and approval. It may be that my life would be better if I adhered to a strict policy of truth-telling, even if it meant that someone might think that I was not all that I was cracked up to be. As it is, my husband is on to me, and has no compunctions about pointing out that I am blowing smoke; he kindly refrains from doing this in front of other people. For now, I think I’m not ready to give it up. I like it that people think I know stuff, and that I’m on top of whatever situation is causing me to develop ulcers. I’ll probably die while explaining that I suffer from an illness that rarely causes death, and that I know this because I checked it out on Snopes.