I was listening to Matthew Parris’s programme Great Lives on Radio 4 yesterday. He began like this: “I don’t choose whose great life to explore, I only choose my guest, and when she told me this week she’d nominated an obscure Hungarian doctor of the mid-nineteenth century, whom you’ve probably never heard of and I certainly hadn’t, I did wonder whether it might have my listeners lunging for the off switch….”
I guessed who he was talking about and mouthed ‘Semmelweis’* and then slapped this supposedly educated man for not being familiar with the name and for assuming that no one else would be either. I thought for a moment he was just being ‘British’, i.e. he didn’t want to appear to know too much, but he genuinely didn’t have a clue and I'm sure the word ‘obscure’ was his, not his guest’s.
If you’re ignorant, it’s not such a good idea to assume that everyone else is too – especially on a supposedly ‘intellectual’ radio station. It makes you look stupid and patronizing.
It’s not a good idea to do that in writing either. A little while ago, someone who discusses translation on his blog wrote an excited post about how he’d discovered – after over ten years in the UK – the meaning of a fairly common word. It made him sound so silly!
It’s always better to overestimate the knowledge and intelligence of your listeners/viewers/readers. It makes you look generous and it makes them feel good.
*If, by any chance, you don’t know who Semmelweis was, look him up: his story is absolutely fascinating. Women owe him an awful lot.