The XX Factor

The Benefits of Playing Dumb

Each week, we debate a question in collaboration with the Washington Post Magazine . This week: Is it ever OK to play dumb?
Ann Hulbert : I find rewards in playing dumb with the quite old and the very young. “Stop me if I’m repeating myself,” my mother used to say, a rare request that I obeyed in her case but do my best to disobey in general with my elders. Who wants to see that mortified look when people realize they’re broken records or that their memory is going? And little kids really do say the darnedest things if you hold back, sometimes, from setting them straight.
KJ Dell’Antonia : I used to play the naive young lawyer when I was a prosecutor. I found that a certain silent, nodding, wide-eyed demeanor lulled a particular type of older, complacent male defense attorney into relaxing (and spending less effort on arguing a motion or making a case for bail, say.) And then I would sail in and nail them. It was entirely intentional and quite pleasant. Plus the bad guys would stay in jail and whatnot-so all done in the service of good.
Hanna Rosin : My terrible, horrible confession: I sometimes do it around stay-at-home moms, especially new moms, for fear they have not, say, read the paper that day (or maybe that month) and will peg me as one of those Washington workaholic types who never sees her kids.
Amanda Marcotte : I’ve played the helpless female driver to get out of at least three tickets. I call it “making sexism work for you,” and my guilt about it is assuaged by remembering sexism doesn’t brake for women 95 percent of the time.
Ellen Tarlin : I don’t recall ever playing dumb or ever feeling that I had to play dumb. I guess I’ve acted goofy while trying to flirt-trying to make conversation about things that I don’t care about, which has only ever resulted in self-humiliation. I suppose I’ve also played sarcastically dumb, trying to make fun of someone for being a jerk. But for the most part, if I’m being dumb, it’s completely sincere.
Laura Moser : I played dumb semi-frequently when I lived in England, usually to avoid getting slapped with a moving-vehicle violation. Once I was biking the wrong way down Portobello Road and actually got stopped by a police officer. You mean there are one-way streets here? That’s so quaint and Merrye Olde! Another time, when I was stopped for speeding I pretended I was having trouble with the whole miles-kilometers conversion thing, even though, um, we both use miles. I occasionally felt guilty for throwing my countrymen under the bus, but whatever. The English are already pretty sure that Americans are stupid, and I’m not above playing to stereotype.
Erika Kawalek : I play dumb when I’m reporting in the early, sniffing around stages of a story-always. I do it so that my own conclusions don’t stifle the reporting. Acting too sharp or like a know-it-all is a liability; subjects share less, or they assume you know more than you actually do. My professional motto is curiosus tamen stolidus -curious but dumb.