The tempo of (in)competence

Whilst struck dumb by an audio instruction to recall a previously learnt sentence in French, I had a realisation. The sort that, whilst intriguing, isn’t pretty. Here goes: we correlate linguistic incompetency with stupidity.

I suspect I thought this because I was imagining the look on my own face at that moment–slack jaw, furrowed brow, eyes glazed, head tilted askew. The kind of face one imagines gracing a mountain troll when the hero(ine) vexes it with fundamental logic. The epitome of dumb.

I guess this is some subset of the outgroup bias (or it’s just a malfunction in my own cognition). An other who cannot (or struggles to) speak your native language whilst situated in your native country is unconsciously perceived to be of lesser intelligence. Obviously, this is nonsense, but it provides a weird window into the human psyche. It also raises a question: how does tempo relate to the perception of incompetence?

Imagine you’ve conducted three different interviews over the course of a single afternoon. Assume all persons gave the same answers to a set of questions. Person one did not pause before responding to any of the questions. Person two paused for two to three seconds before responding to each question. Person three paused for ten seconds before responding.

If we travel in time and insert our consciousness into the three separate moments where the first syllable emerges from each of the interviewee, what will we be thinking? Here’s my guess:

  • We won’t think anything about person one; there’s no time. Effect on perception: neutral.
  • We’ll think person two is thoughtful and considerate, possibly high status. Effect on perception: positive.
  • We’ll think person three is an idiot. We’ll likely be annoyed. Effect on perception: negative.

This is a blog post, not an Odyssean treatise, so I’ll leave you to ponder other scenarios. But to me, it does seem there’s a tempo that we associate with competence and its opposite. And it’s not as simple as fast; neutral, moderate; good, slow; bad. There’s way more nuance depending on the situation–an interview, a performance in a sport and the construction of a sculpture, will all have varying tempos of competence and incompetence. But it’s worth thinking about.

Imagine, cynic that you are in this hypothetical scenario, that a situation requires you to present the appearance of competence. Unfortunately, you lack the time to invest in gaining it in substance and opt to gain it in style. Outside of exploiting the halo effect, or relying on cronyism and/or nepotism, a good tactic may be to mimic the tempo of competence.