DEAR MISS MANNERS: A couple of years ago, I finished an advanced degree in a rather specialized program from a prestigious university. Often, when I met new people and the topic of “What do you do?” came up, people would end by saying some variant of “Wow! You must be really smart!”
Now that I’m out of school, people still sometimes say this about my career. I’ve never figured out a polite and humble response, and always feel embarrassed. Saying “thank you” sometimes feels like I’m agreeing with them. If I try to dismiss the comment, it usually comes off as false humility. What should my response be?
GENTLE READER: The question is, as you have noticed, a booby trap, although the speaker may not have meant it as such. As with all ambushes, the proper response is to get as far away as fast you can -- figuratively, not literally.
Talk about how much you enjoy what you do -- “It is always challenging!” -- and then change the subject. It would be natural to reciprocate by asking what your interlocutors studied, but Miss Manners cautions against this. Learning that the flatterer is a dropout will make your predicament worse, not better.