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I recently graduated college and I am now working as a programmer at a startup tech company for a year. I'm a competent programmer, but I'm definitely not a rock-star.

When I'm meeting other young adults or college students and I tell them what I do they often seem impressed and ask something like "so you must be really smart?" or "is what you do really hard?" I feel like saying yes would make me seem arrogant, so I usually respond by saying I think I'm doing well enough. This ends up being awkward and also undersells the actual work that I have done. So, how do I answer this honestly without being rude?

17 Answers 17

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I am Indian and it's considered good etiquette here to receive a compliment with indirect modesty.

So I have tended to focus on the specific requirements or challenges of the job rather than my own qualities like smartness, when somebody asks such a question. Example:

Q: "So you must be really smart?"

A: "Oh this job requires a lot of concentration, application and patience. Also involves long hours of hard work but I like it!"

Note how smartness is not mentioned in that response. So if the other person meant it as a compliment [more likely] then it has been modestly and tacitly accepted; and in the rare case that the person actually meant it as a sarcasm, it has been deservingly ignored with a perfectly serious reply!

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    It is not uncommon that being good at a craft makes you humble because you know how much you cannot do yet. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Sep 22 '17 at 12:55
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    Very true @Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen -- humble also because only we might know how hard we would have been practising for how many years to become even moderately skilled at something whose external end result alone is apparent to the casual audience. Whatever be that skill, of course. – English Student Sep 22 '17 at 12:59
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    One of my father-in-law closest friends is a 60+ old professor of civil engineering (specialist in concrete and cement) at the local university. He is tenured, and in a talk during a social gathering he regretted that he will retire soon but he has so much he wanted to learn about concrete. Guy has 20+ high rated books on the subject. @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen – Mindwin Sep 22 '17 at 13:38
  • I'd add "practice," to that list. (...lol. Did not read next answer before saying this.) – jpmc26 Sep 22 '17 at 23:22
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    There is a famous joke that goes practice, practice, practice @jpmc26 – English Student Sep 23 '17 at 1:28
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These are rather loaded question. The one about being smart, because "smart" is an incredibly vague and broad term that means lots of things to lots of people, and the one about whether what you do is hard, because how difficult something is depends on who is doing it.

Which is also why answering them with "yes" feels rude; considering yourself smart is very broad and saying what you do is hard usually sounds like a judgement of the person who asks (unless what you do is really hard to you, in which case you're essentially saying you're in over your head.)

My response is usually along the lines of

I'm good at what I do. I enjoy [my work], and I've practiced it a lot.

Which is quite honest, but also puts it into perspective. It's not that I'm "smart" or that the work I do is "hard", it's just that I picked a task that I'm well suited for due to my training, experience and inherent enjoyment of it.

Especially to young adults and students, reiterating that it's not about "being smart", but rather about practice and experience and also that it's only "hard" because you need to put in more time will be valuable advice.

  • Personally I feel like the "so you must be really smart"? question is not meant to be a "loaded question," but closer to a rhetorical question. And "Is what you do hard?" seems like a pretty straightforward question (is it hard for you? and the answer for me is yes, it's hard for me too). – Kimball Sep 23 '17 at 4:44
  • Be warned that "skips practices and drank the night before the game but still was the best player in the game" might seem a lot cooler in Western society than "practiced it a lot". – Džuris Sep 23 '17 at 10:14
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(A little late to the party...)

You could literally just reply with

Thanks!

This has two benefits:

  1. If what you heard was a compliment, it acknowledges that without affirming or denying it and allows the conversation to move on naturally without any awkwardness.

  2. If what you heard was sarcastic or otherwise less-than-courteous, it reverses the table and puts the other person in the awkward position of failing to naturally continue the thought.

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    I like this answer, but I still think it's important to acknowledge that what they said was in the form of a question. Perhaps, "You think so? Thanks!". – Quelklef Sep 23 '17 at 13:44
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    It's annoying when you say " Oh, thanks". Then they reinforce it with "No, really! You must be very smart" Then you're back to square one. I think this just affirms what @Quelklef said about acknowledgement. – n00dles Sep 23 '17 at 18:17
  • @Quelklef: I'd say the entire point is that you don't try to do that. It's very much meant to be a terse response without any affirmation or denial, otherwise it'd be feeding them to try to flatter you more. – Mehrdad Sep 23 '17 at 19:30
  • @n00dles: I don't recall that actually happening to me (if it has, it's been so long that I don't remember) so hopefully it's not a common reply. If that happened to me though I'd just reply with "Thanks, that's nice of you." and expect it to really end there. – Mehrdad Sep 23 '17 at 19:33
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    You can also take this as a starting point for talking about them. "I'm a programmer" "You must be really smart!" "Have you done any coding?" They're displaying interest in programming, so follow that lead. Talking about how you smart you think you are leads nowhere. Wish I could post these things as an answer now as I think most answers got it wrong. Not enough rep on this site though. – Lycan Sep 24 '17 at 9:25
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I'm a young adult that works as a programmer as well and when anybody asks me that question I usually reply with something akin to this:

It isn't about being really smart, more about an analytical and logical way of thinking and applying that to problems.

And it is the truth, I don't consider myself to be a genius, or really smart. In fact, I suck at memorising things for a long duration or in a high volume. But I don't consider myself stupid either, I'd put myself in the middle ground, where most people are I think.

But to many people, computers are still very mysterious machines that work or don't work depending on fate, even more so for those that make the stuff that works on them. I found that they default to thinking you are really smart just because you work with computers. (probably also the main reason why they default to thinking we are all computer technicians as well.)

Lastly, it can also be about how you tell people about your job. Do you say 'I am a software engineer' or 'I am a programmer'. Both are technically correct but I found that engineer has a heavy weight to it and makes people assume you are smart and are an actual engineer.

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Been in similar situation a lot of times, I have come up with a couple of responses that always works fine.

First of all, see if it sounds like a sarcasm or not. If yes, then the best option is here is to smile and change the topic.

If it's a compliment, say something like,

I'd like to think so.

or

I guess so.

or simple,

I am always curious and like learning things.

The last one would imply that you're smart without saying it directly. Always smile while replying, so they don't consider it rude.

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This sounds like SMALL TALK, not a serious question.

Some of the other answers touch on this, but I want to make it clear. This response is based on my own experience and research into small talk.

I encounter this exact same situation all the time. I too work in software (although not in a startup).

I don't enjoy my job, so I would often respond by saying that anyone with on-the-job training could do what I do. This would catch them off-guard. Similarly, saying anything too serious when it was an random comment, would not go over well.

They're probably not asking for your life story. Quite a few of the other answers are taking the question a bit too seriously, I think. They're really saying something like "Wow, I admire the skill-set that programming takes." or "I find that difficult".

Just about any response similar in tone to the asker, will go over well. This is essentially mirroring. If the person wanted to seriously discuss your intelligence, they wouldn't have brought it up like that. I'd recommend a humorous response to this to keep things light and further the conversation.

I say this all the time on here... small talk is more about how you feel in the conversation, not the content. Otherwise it'd be "big" talk. Focus on their feelings, not yours.

Next time, instead of focusing on how uncomfortable you feel, focus on making just one other person feel more comfortable.

Inc - Hate Small Talk?

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How about a variation on the following:

Smart enough to have X, not smart enough to have Y

For example:

Smart enough to have a degree, not smart enough to have a PhD.

Perhaps say it with a slight smile.

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    I struggle to think of a variation of this phrase that would actually convey "smartness" rather than dedication or motivation, as in your example. I have a PhD, but there are plenty of people smarter than me who don't. Even if that comment is mean to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I think it could risk coming across as insulting in some situations (e.g. if the listener does NOT have X). – user2390246 Sep 22 '17 at 9:46
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    @user2390246 I do see what you mean - but just because someone doesn’t have X, they could still be smart enough to have it. The reverse is (unlikely) to be true. In addition, this is people who are asking him if he is smart, directly. If they get offended by him effectively saying “Yes, fairly smart” then that’s their problem! – Tim Sep 22 '17 at 9:50
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    "just because someone doesn’t have X, they could still be smart enough to have it" - yes, exactly, but by saying "not smart enough to have Y", even about yourself, you are implying the exact opposite. – user2390246 Sep 22 '17 at 9:53
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    @user2390246: The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.. Having a PhD really doesn't say much at all about how smart you are. – Eric Duminil Sep 23 '17 at 8:49
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    In many cases a PhD consists of many parts patience and very varying degree of smarts. – mathreadler Sep 23 '17 at 9:49
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I am not sure how much stock I place in IQ tests, etc, but overall I test decently high. I am also an avid reader and I like learning, so I tend to read things I can learn from. As such I get told regularly in my real life things of this nature but definitely not computer related. That is not one of my areas of interest, in part it's laziness. My husband has been with me since computers were dial up and he works in IT, so I haven't ever really needed to know anything. That said, I know a lot on a lot of different subjects, have gone to university 3 different times (every time a totally different field) and trade school once and I will continue to add to it as I can. SE has been a wonderful breath of fresh air with all the well read and informative people as well.

It is absolutely awkward at times having people comment on certain things. Knowledge can be one of those for sure. I tend to respond with things like

I do know a lot, but I also have invested a tremendous amount of time in reading and researching and education, so it's mostly the work you put into it. If you want to do what I do, I am sure you could with enough interest and application.

Because this is truth. I might be intelligent, which helps me make connections between ideas that are congruent, or sometimes to be able to transfer application from one area to another, that someone else might miss. However, most of what I do know, most people could know, if they were interested enough to go looking. Most people won't go back to school, again, and try something totally new. It's just not how most operate. I enjoy it.

I do know in daily life, I have excellent problem solving skills. I am also pretty good at critical thinking. I also happen to think these things can (and likely should) be taught. I also know I am blessed with the sort of personality that isn't easily deterred and seeks challenges. I want to see what I am capable of. I think of it as intellectual optimism. I am not optimistic in general. I am likely to think it will rain on the day I plan an outdoor party, or have a tornado when we are on vacation, but when it comes to me and what I can handle, I am eternally optimistic, even when it seems I have no logical reason to be. I have failed 100+ times, but that isn't even a problem. Sometimes my failures have given the best lessons, so I oddly don't mind those either.

And not that it matters, but I really do have weather pessimism. I have the worst luck ever with weather at important times. I am also pessimistic in other areas, but weather is a constant one.

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    Do the first, penultimate and last paragraphs actually add anything to this answer? – user2390246 Sep 22 '17 at 9:50
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I am also a computer programmer in addition to an all-around egg head, so I have experienced this scenario many times myself.

There are two things I try to avoid doing in this situation:

  1. I want to avoid sounding arrogant.
  2. But I also want to avoid sounding insecure.

Striking the proper balance between those two extremes is the key to handling compliments smoothly. In other words, you want to respond confidently.

Question: "So you must be really smart?"

Response: "Programming does require a certain amount of intelligence."

or

Question: "Is what you do really hard?"

Response: "I enjoy the challenge of it."

Both of these responses are

  1. Confident without being conceited.
  2. Honest.

Don't undersell yourself. Don't oversell yourself.

Now, unfortunately, life isn't "one size fits all," so context matters a lot and these responses are not going to be appropriate in every conceivable situation. But I have found them to be generally good ways of responding to these types of compliments.

If you feel the context requires a more self-deprecating response, I would recommend...

Question: "So you must be really smart?"

Response: "I've got my boss fooled, at least." (Say it with a grin.)

Hope this helps.

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One of the important things is to be you. I think you have all the right elements right there in your question:

Q: Wow, you're a programmer at X? You must be really smart!
A: Thanks! Hey, I'm no rock-star, but X seems happy enough with my work

So, you've got a thank you. You've got an honest response in your own words. And you've got pretty much the right mix of humility and acceptance of the compliment.

Well done! Give yourself an up-vote!

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"So you must be really smart?"

Unless they are someone who would get into the specific details of your work, I'd think you don't have to worry about underselling / overselling yourself. Not to say this in a disparaging way, but from their standpoint, they probably wouldn't know any better.

As far as giving a humble response is concerned, it could be phrased something like this:

"Well, this is by far the only thing I know to help me pay my bills. :) "

If they persist with their adulation, you could offer a pretty generic reply:

"Yeah, there are some things once in a while that require a bit of extra attention. However, that's generally true for any other job too, especially when you start gaining experience in your field."

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I usually go with a smile and a shrug and then move the conversation along. The subtext being:

"I'm going to be polite and not praise myself; but sure, I am."

Simply saying "thanks" works fine too. It's a compliment in it's way, treat it like somebody telling you you've got great fashion.

Depending on the context, it's sometimes less a statement about you and more of a question about your job. In those cases I like to do a little programming evangelizing: explaining that it's less technical than it seems and that even if they're bad at math or computers they can learn. That some people hate programming, some people love it, and that it isn't about smarts per se. If they're interested I point them at resources they could learn from.

  • I like the last paragraph +1. But thanks or a shrug doesn't acknowledge their statement so they may repeat it. – n00dles Sep 23 '17 at 18:22
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If you want to sound polite then you can simply say, "it is more of interest and I've interest in software field and we are all smart in what interests us or what we like".

This is not only non-rude statement but also truth in my opinion.

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I'm surprised no one here has addressed the speakers: young adults and students. Consider they may be trying to choose their path and trying to gauge whether software development is right for them?

I would highly encourage you to adopt the mentality that they are seeking information about your chosen profession because they legitimately don't understand or have preconceived notions.

I'm a software developer who volunteers with middle school/high school kids, and new kids will almost always ask questions like these, because they think CS is some magical fairy realm that is unknowable to the masses.

Here's the sort of things I tell them:


Almost everyone is capable of programming. Just like almost everyone is capable of playing golf. There is difference between the best and worst, but anyone can do it... and often times it's dedication, patience and a willingness to learn that is more important than innate ability.

I know several brilliant developers who will never realize their full potential because they don't care enough to work at it. I also know tons of decent developers who can produce double the output of the former because they've put in tons of effort to learn their trade and bettering themselves. Being smart is no substitute for working hard... and if you want it enough, you can do it.


Ultimately, emphasizing those traits which are not innate, but can be worked on, is what empowers others. I see this as an opportunity to encourage others to consider joining the profession.

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Quite a usual occurrence. You can start with

Well I'm honored/flattered/complimented you think this way.

And then proceed:

Everyone can become skillful to what they like most if they really want to.

which is actually quite true. Or:

Well it requires algorithmic thinking, but I don't know if that makes me special or smart.

And make them comment on if they think algorithms are easy or not. If they think they are not, just tell them thank you.

  • Seems like a situational approach where someone wants to actually discuss actual smartitude, which is probably a relatively uncommon context. I suspect that such comments are more commonly intended as a polite compliment, so taking them too literally might seem egotistical. – Nat Sep 24 '17 at 14:28
  • @Nat I mention answers that I don't find egotistical and one can use them according to the situation and with the corresponding tone. – clueless Sep 25 '17 at 5:05
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Answer "No, not really".

If you answer yes, you'll be called on to fix any computer or vaguely computer related problem (printers, routers, faxes, etc) they may have in future for free, for ever.

Also answering in this way is modest and relatively seen, it's not brain surgery, rocket science, etc.

Being decent programmer requires a large amount of learning and a certain amount of aptitude or talent and means you are smart (at least with computers) compared with the average person. Explaining this all would however take to long and isn't appropriate in the context of small talk ("So, what do you do?").

An alternate answer could be "Well, I studied hard for 3(?) years and I'm still learning", though be aware of still becoming the 'computer person' as mentioned.

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Try accepting it.

You're really smart.

"Yes, I do have quite a bit of expertise about some things. Although, there are other areas in life where other people are quite a bit smarter than me." [Then, unless someone quickly steals the conversation away, immediately provide a clear example.]

A lot of people seem to think that you need to deny the compliment in order to not sound cocky. I don't think so. If people recognize a truth, it is acceptable to acknowledge truth.

If someone tries to give you a gift, whether it is in a box surrounded by wrapping paper or just a some kind words, does the giver hope that the receiver will reject the gift? Simply and genuinely accepting something nice that is offered, including a compliment, doesn't have to be a bad approach.

If someone compliments one of my strengths, of which I openly admit to having (including some notable ones), I've found people find me less arrogant when I demonstrate just how quickly I can counter by adding a recognition of where I lack, quite significantly inferior to even average abilities in some other area of life.

I just think about what I seem to fail at, or at least struggle with, where other people are easier? What are some tasks where I absolutely need to depend on other people who are more skilled in that area?

This usually goes well; people who give me compliments are able to have their compliments received. If someone is trying to check for clarity, they can have their ideas acknowledged and confirmed, without me needing to muddy the waters with words that imply I might not entirely agree with even as I say them. Yet, with a quick lesson in diversity, I point out how the strength is limited in some ways, and I introduce another aspect of my life, and the end result doesn't turn out to seem too haughty for most people's tastes.

When I've been successful, the concept of me seeming arrogant threatened my life quest of always being honest. The solution I've come up with is this surprisingly simple idea: When the truth seems like it might shine a nice light upon you, this approach of adding more truth lets you humbly manage to do what a person should always do with a correct compliment or any other form of truth: accept it.

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