Why being book smart doesn’t always translate to emotional intelligence

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“He’s book smart, not street smart!”

Ever heard someone turn this phrase? I know I have!

That’s because (harsh truth alert), smart people aren’t always the best at reading people’s emotions.

If you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory, you’ll know what I mean.

Sheldon Cooper is without a doubt the smartest person in the series. But if you tried talking to him about how you feel, he’d stare at you blankly, get super uncomfortable, and probably tell you the harshest truth ever.

But just because you’re as smart as Sheldon, you don’t have to act like Sheldon in the face of emotions.

People like Sheldon (i.e., are book smart) can have emotional intelligence. The same as people with emotional intelligence can be book smart.

It’s just that being book smart doesn’t always translate to emotional intelligence.

Why? Let’s find out…

Emotional intelligence vs intellectual intelligence (IQ)

First things first, emotional intelligence isn’t the same as intellectual intelligence (AKA being book smart). Emotional intelligence (EQ) means the ability to understand and express emotions.

In practice, this means you can tell when someone is nervous, sad, or angry – without them having to tell you. You pick up on subtle social cues for any and everything – from the way someone is sitting to the tone of voice they’re using.

Like have you ever been at a party and you can just tell that someone is nervous? Or that they absolutely don’t want to be there? Or even that they secretly hate the person they’ve come to the party with?

Yeah, that’s emotional intelligence – also known as being street smart.

Other examples of emotional intelligence in a person include:

  • The ability to apologize (and recognize that you’re in the wrong)
  • Controlling your emotions
  • Having empathy and expressing sympathy for others
  • Being able to get along well with people (and make conversation easily)
  • Feeling curious about others
  • Letting go of grudges
  • Controlling your impulses

Whereas people who are book smart can’t do these things – unless they have emotional intelligence, too. Instead, they’re more likely to:

  • Have a high/good education
  • Have high general knowledge
  • Think logically and rationally (i.e., they’ll tell you the harsh truth)
  • Be very analytical and problem-solving (even when it’s not wanted)
  • Possess an excellent memory (again, even when it’s not wanted)
  • Easily understand facts (not opinions)
  • Comprehend complex data and information (and happily show it off)
  • Use a wide vocabulary (not caring if they alienate people in the process)

How do you build emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence comes from different places. It can come from books and studying, like being book smart does.

For example, someone who reads fictional stories every week, particularly ones that dive deep into people’s emotions and feelings, can build their EQ from it. I know I grasped a lot of my emotional intelligence and empathy from reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books growing up (if you know, you know!).

You can also develop more EQ through practice (or study). Like if you journaled your emotions every night to understand how you felt. Or if you practiced talking about your feelings with people you trust.

A bit like how Sheldon learns to be sarcastic, through practice…

Of course, your upbringing helps, too. If you were raised in an emotionally supportive environment, you’re more likely to build EQ from a young age.

Like if your parents or teachers asked you “How does that make you feel?” a lot. Or if they encouraged you to talk about your feelings when you were emotional.

In summary, the main ways to build your emotional intelligence include:

  • Read fictional stories, particularly those that deal with complex emotions
  • Express your emotions regularly to people you trust
  • Journal how you feel about different things that happen during the day
  • Question your own opinions and why you believe those things
  • Spend time alone with just your thoughts
  • Meditate regularly

What causes a lack of emotional intelligence?

There are different arguments for what causes a lack of emotional intelligence.

From a neurobiological perspective, our brains are hardwired to respond to empathy in different ways. Which kind of means you’re born with a certain level of empathy (the higher the empathy in a person, the more likely they are to be emotionally intelligent).

But, at the same time, the environment you’re brought up in is largely responsible for helping you develop more or less empathy.

Like I had a friend growing up who’s parents would sit her down every night and ask her what happened during the school day. Whatever she mentioned, even things like “She had French homework” or “[Person’s name] was off sick”, they asked her how she felt about it.

There’s no way on Earth that she didn’t grow up with more emotional intelligence than most from her parents doing that with her every night…

But anyway, I digress. The main causes of a lack of emotional intelligence in a person include:

1) Childhood trauma or a non-emotional upbringing

The main thing that can hinder the development of EQ is trauma. Any traumatic experience can deeply impact a person, especially when it happens at a young age.

Usually, trauma helps a person develop more emotional intelligence. Because they’ve experienced more in their life, they understand (and can empathize) with how other people feel. Which is partially what it means to be emotionally intelligent.

But sometimes it can go the other way. It can lead to a kind of “numbness” when it comes to other people’s emotions and their own. Especially when the trauma involved any kind of neglect or abuse for expressing their emotions. Like if they were shouted at every time they cried…

2) A lack of real-world experiences

Another thing that doesn’t help you build EQ is if you haven’t experienced much “life” yet. More so, if you haven’t experienced much pain, hurt, grief, or sadness.

For example, an ex of mine lived a very sheltered life. He’d never had anything “bad” happen to him in all his life. He’d never felt or experienced true hurt or sadness. He’d never had one single argument with any of his friends. He’d never even lost a grandparent or owned a pet.

So when it came to talking about my mum who’d passed away, or responding to his friend’s text to say he had depression, he was at a loss for words. He didn’t know how to empathize, express any emotion, or even respond, in most cases!

Basically, he struggled to understand other people’s emotions because he’d never experienced half of them himself. This lack of real-world experiences hindered his ability to put himself in other people’s shoes to imagine how they must be feeling and what they might like to hear.

3) A negative view of expressing emotions

I don’t want to keep bringing up my exes, but the same one who I mentioned above had a pretty toxic view of emotions. He was told his entire life that it was “weak” and “unmanly” to show or express your feelings.

The main feelings being sadness, of course, as anger didn’t seem to be much of a problem…

This meant that whenever I shared anything that upset me, he’d say something dismissive or give me the silent treatment. Or worse, he’d tell me I was weak for feeling these things!

This was because he had a negative view of expressing emotions – which, in time, made him numb to them (known in psychology as Alexithymia).

Usually, a negative view of emotions comes from external sources. Like my ex – his views came from his dad, school, friends, work, etc.

4) Low self-awareness

Another thing that causes a lack of emotional intelligence is low self-awareness.

If you can’t identify your own emotions, you’ll have a hard time identifying anyone else’s. And if you can’t identify other people’s emotions, you’ll have a hard time identifying your own. It’s a vicious cycle, really.

Low self-awareness in a person can look something like this:

A man is queueing in a long line at the supermarket. While he’s waiting, three different people run over his foot with their shopping cart.

When he finally reaches the front, the cashier tells him that she’s run out of bags and needs to get more. He explodes in a fit of rage. Why? Because he lacks the self-awareness to see that the physical pain he’s in is causing him to react so badly to what the cashier said.

Generally, the younger you are, the less self-awareness you have. As you get older, you develop a better sense of self. Particularly after you reach the age of 25 – as this is when your brain fully develops and matures.

5) Narcissistic personality traits or a lack of empathy

The final thing that causes a lack of emotional intelligence in a person is a lack of empathy. Empathy is largely considered to be something that we’re born with, which can then be developed as we go through different stages of life.

So if you have the “brain structure” to facilitate empathy from birth, you’ll likely develop more of it depending on your life experiences.

It’s why Sheldon Cooper develops more compassion for his friends as the series goes on. He has the “brain structure” for empathy, he’s just never practiced it until he meets his current group of friends.

But empathy is also something you can be born without. And regardless of what you experience in life, if you don’t have the “brain structure” for it, you won’t develop more of it. This is known as narcissism. And it can be the biggest hindrance to someone developing true emotional intelligence.

Final thoughts

Does it all make sense? I hope so! The gist of it is that just because you’re book smart, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence requires more empathy, self-awareness, and even security in oneself to manifest itself in your everyday. And there are lots of reasons why someone might not have much of it right now.

The good news is that emotional intelligence can be developed in most people. Just because you don’t have it right now, and you spend most of your time annoying people with your harsh truths and facts, that doesn’t mean things have to be this way forever.

You can build and grow your emotional intelligence over time. You just need to learn how (see above), commit to it, and practice, practice, practice. 

Amy Reed

Amy Reed is a content writer from London working with international brands. As an empath, she loves sharing her life insights to help others. When she’s not writing, she enjoys a simple life of reading, gardening, and making a fuss over her two cats.

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