For any of the Sherlock fans who also happen to be hanging around for my social psychology of the gifted and talented stuff, you may be interested to know that I think Benedict Cumberbatch has about eight million giveaway behaviors that say he's been so very smart from so very early on that he's never developed any good idea of normal. He spends a lot of time guessing what it is people expect from him, and judging by the quickness with which he apologizes when he startles someone, at this point he's rather resigned himself to getting it wrong.

Some of the confirmation is circumstantial. His native accent is from south-east London somewhere (for the linguists: non-rhotic, L-vocalization, intrusive Rs, Yod-coalescence, T-glottalizaton, but generally lacking th-fronting, H-dropping, or labiodental R, plus someone occasionally gets him to spit out a "gosh, luv" when he isn't nervous enough to suppress it -- it's urban Estuary) and it's probably terribly gauche to point this out, but this accent is not posh. It's working- and (increasingly middle-)class. He is not a legacy and with that background he certainly did not buy his seat at Harrow, which means he went to one of the most prestigious public schools in the country on the basis of test scores and recommendations. Clearly, he managed to impress someone -- probably a lot of someones -- very early on.

Some of it is also second-hand, from the reactions of other people. One of the things Cumberbatch was known for before Sherlock was the biopic Hawking. (It's quite cute. Watch here if you don't believe me.) Stephen Hawking has been adamant in the past that he really didn't care for the idea of a fictionalized version of his life going out on TV, and as far as I can tell the only way they got him to agree to this one is by giving him veto power over absolutely everything. He sent back one of the early script drafts with the comment that it was 'a rubbish soap opera'. Not only was Cumberbatch approved for the lead in that film, but he was asked back several years later to provide a voice-over for one of Hawking's pop-sci series -- Hawking is notoriously fussy about his voice, to the point where he vehemently dislikes the idea of upgrading his speech synthesizer, ever, and he's physically sat in front of a microphone in a booth when he does guest voices for things like Futurama, which is a mind-bogglingly odd thing to do when you think about it from the perspective of the audio engineer. Cumberbatch was asked about meeting Dr Hawking at one point and seemed rather wibbly and uncertain what the man thought of him, but having read pretty much his entire collected written output for the past twenty years, I think I can say with reasonable certainty that he thinks Cumberbatch is distinctly not a twit.

(Black Holes And Baby Universes, if you're curious, is the only one of his books in which Hawking speaks at any great length about himself. Coincidentally, it was one of the things I read when I was about ten that convinced me that being unbearably smart might not doom me to an unappreciated and solitary existence after all -- the other one being the collected Holmes canon. People speak of Hawking's brilliance as a pop-sci writer, and they are certainly not wrong, but very little is ever said about the fact that he's also tremendously funny, in the same dry, absurdist, half-mathematician half-anthropologist way that Douglas Adams and Alan Turing were. I rather suspect that the reason he hasn't published more social analysis is not that it isn't knocking around in his head, but that nobody's asked him for it. Anyone who has that many astute observations about how other people deal with his own scientific publications has also got a lot of opinions on how other people deal with everything else.)

Mostly, though, it is the way that Cumberbatch interacts with various other people that give me a lot of insight into how he's learned to interact with them in the past. He is not particularly insecure about using the normal scripts -- he's got hi, how are you, what are you doing on the telly now, aren't the other guests interesting down quite well for chat shows, and I don't think he's particularly bluffing any of it, at least no more than anyone else ever is. But he is, with few exceptions, very nervous about venturing anything past that. Prior to his recent fame, he mostly did stage work and miniseries in the UK, which means he was accustomed to spending short bursts going round to chat shows and telling them what he's in right now, then going back to working quietly until it was time to promote something else. Large chunks of time on-camera as himself were for making-of documentaries, in which his role was mostly to answer, at great length, random questions about the movie, which was technically off-the-cuff but the general content of which he could largely anticipate, and have some general answers prepared.

In the early press for Sherlock, he is very people-watchy. He says (mostly very predictable) stuff when the interviewers prod him with (mostly very predictable) sticks, but spends a large part of the time hanging back and just sort of paying attention to other people on the set. Cumberbatch hates making people uncomfortable --  he seems to find it rather contagious -- and would rather watch until he figures out some safe responses than barge in and knock everyone else wildly off balance and spend the next three days apologizing for it. The combination of "yes, I do know how to be social" and "but I am going to scrutinize this thing thoroughly before trying it anyhow" is one I see a lot from gifted kids who have become aware that they startle people often, and that it's not due to their scripted social behavior but it is a result of something unexpected they've just done. The sort of compulsive attention-paying is an attempt to compensate for never having any idea what's going to flummox people until they've already done it -- it doesn't always work very well, but it's significantly better than nothing.

Cumberbatch also has a tendency to externalize some voice in the back of his head, probably installed long ago by someone who did it at great time and personal expense, that says, "Benedict, we must let other people speak sometimes." It used to actually stop him talking; it just makes him sort of sheepish about the ramble now. Adults do not say this to you unless your head is full of thoughts that are constantly shoving their way out. The politer ones used to call me "verbally gifted" because of exactly this, and I am not the only one. It occasionally works a little too well; you can hear a lot more of what doesn't usually get through the filter here, particularly the eye-blink smartass stuff, at an audience Q&A for Sherlock s2 in New York, where not only does he get to bounce off of one of the also-very-smart writer-producers and his exec-producer wife, but he's interacting with an audience full of people who heard about this on PBS and are therefore both willing to read serious books, and to admit to such in public. Cumberbatch is light-years more comfortable fielding queries about Machiavelli and research for Frankenstein than he ever is when peppered with the sorts of inane questions entertainment news people usually come up with -- it's far easier for him to articulate actual thoughts on things than it is for him to figure out what sort of idiotic drivel he's meant to produce when people ask him about his co-stars on Star Trek.

He's perpetually surprised when people make a fuss over him. Cumberbatch seems to have a decent idea of how smart he is, but a terrible idea of how smart other people aren't -- he's aware that he's good at what he does, but not having any clear idea of by exactly how much he is exceeding the level of 'kind of decently okay' means never having any clear idea of how much of a reaction you should be prepared for when you demonstrate in front of other people. He spent most of the Emmys looking not quite entirely sure he wasn't invited by accident. He also spent most of the actual Emmys standing as close as possible to Martin Freeman, whose personal philosophy seems to have a clause in it that states he has a perfect right to be wherever he is at the time, and who looked much less rattled by the whole to-do.

For much the same reason, he's also convinced that he's not actually in the Sherlock-bracket of smart, his evidence for which consists almost entirely of a list of things that suggest that he is. It's gotten popular to ask him if playing Holmes has made any of the sherlocking rub off on him, and he thinks no, not really, well I mean you do sometimes look over at someone else on the train and see the dent on their wedding ring finger and the smudge on their shirt and their trousers tucked into their socks and think well, he's got dressed in a hurry, but that's not really the same, he actually has to pay attention to catch that. I kind of want to bonk my head on the desk and ask him if he listens to himself when he talks. Paying some fucking attention is a good 75% of this superpower, I assure you. He has apparently totally failed to link up that with what Sherlock does (although he has pointed out a time or two that doing a lesser, slower version of same is what he does as an actor in order to develop characters).

I have had the oh-I'm-not-really-so-smart-as-all-that argument with so many genius kids I can do both parts of it in my sleep, y'all. It functions as an indicator in much the same way as spontaneous loud protests that someone is TOTALLY NOT DRUNK usually means that they are, in fact, at the characteristically belligerent stage of intoxication where heading that discussion off at the pass sounds like a good idea.

It does seem to be slowly percolating with Cumberbatch that his star ascended rather abruptly when the public fell in love with him as an extraordinarily intelligent, extraordinarily weird character, and that it's really not off-putting when he's summat smart and summat strange out of character as well. It apparently only triggers the shyness when he's supposed to be himself in front of an audience of strangers; the phrase "a bit odd" comes up often in other actors' descriptions, and these are people who are clearly rather fond of him. The production crew on Sherlock likes to mention that he and Freeman get on well, and have done from the moment they met, which I suspect is something of an understatement. Cumberbatch lights a bit when asked about his co-star, and is really not kidding when he characterizes Freeman as "fun to play with" -- playing the roles of Holmes and Watson is their job, of course, but I think it's also sort of a game for them, seeing what happens when these two personas collide, and Freeman seems to understand the compulsion to investigate what happens if they try the next take (and the next, and the next) a different way.


  1. thanks for sharing..

    1. ...I would assume this is spam, but it links to nothing else. Without additional commentary, I also can't tell if you're being sarcastic. I'd assume that since you took the time to comment rather than just rolling your eyes and closing the tab, you're serious here, but without context it's impossible for me to know the reasons behind it.

      So, you're welcome? I think?

  2. The two full stops at the end of that comment seem to be links. I think it's just spam.

    (This, however, is a genuine comment!)

    Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes, Anathema Device

  3. To date, I've run into and graciously received autographs from three Hobbit-related stars while hanging out in central Wellington: Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly and Martin Freeman. The latter two were together when they randomly walked into the craft market where m'colleague and I do face-painting.

    M'colleague was unrestrainedly effusive and made the show of asking Freeman for his autograph for her partner, but I played the straight man to her bubbliness and declared mine was solely to me, thanks. He was VERY nice, not at all fazed by our facial designs, feather boas or blatant Americanness, and after he and Connolly sat and talked with some chums over coffee for an hour, he passed by our booth again and smiled and waved with a "See you later!"

    Connolly in contrast seemed a bit tired and while nice to talk to, seemed glad that Freeman drew more fan-flies than he when they arrived. Perhaps Freeman became the go-to for his Hobbit co-stars when they wanted a wingman out in public.

    Haven't seem Cumberbatch yet, he was last seen plummeting out of a plane strapped to another man somewhere over Glenorchy, a few hundred km south of here. Upon reaching ground in one piece, he declared that it made him "incredibly horny" and eager to go again. If I do seem him before he heads back to the UK, any questions you want to pass on? You declined doing so for Freeman, but the offer stands. :)

    1. Freeman's very hard to rattle. I have a profile on him in the hopper, but I keep getting distracted by laughing myself absolutely inside-out over what he does to talk show hosts who try to talk to him like he actually is the "everyman" sort of bloke that made him famous on The Office. Every so often someone else on the show turns out to be aggressively not so bright, and whenever Freeman vs Idiot happens, it turns out badly for someone, and it's almost never Freeman.

      I have this feeling that any question I'd ask Cumberbatch would make him stutter and possibly turn funny colors. I do that a lot to people who try to read what other people want from what they start off saying -- I drive their algorithm a bit haywire, because all I want from them is a response, not any particular one. You might comment that your social psychologist friend thinks he's a charmingly prototypical genius kid; I don't think he'd take that badly, although he might not have any idea what to say back. If you want to make him laugh and cringe at the same time, you can also tell him I'm dying to see a photograph of him in one of the Harrow hats.

    2. Husband and I also noted that Freeman plays almost exclusive "English everyman" roles, or is best known for them at least. The common thread between Tim on the Office, Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide, Watson on Sherlock, and now actually Bilbo in the Hobbit, is that they all share a similar vein of "good-hearted and fairly clever but mostly average guy thrown into unexpected circumstances with unbelievable characters who just goes with it and comes out fairly well while everyone roots for him". He just does it well.

    3. ...I don't know why everyone sees Watson as such an everyman-woobie. He mouths off to both Holmes brothers -- the one who keeps heads in his refrigerator AND the one that single-handedly runs half of the British government -- on a regular basis, carries an illegal Browning around tucked into the back of his waistband, and kills people with it. He kind of looks like an ordinary guy, but he complains bitterly about actually attempting to live like one before he meets Sherlock, and is undoubtedly quite miserable trying it again when Sherlock is gone.

      Judging from his reactions to Sherlock's general insanity, John is also somewhat more than clever. Those are the kinds of reactions I get from people who don't have the Sherlock talent, but do have enough pattern-matchy to get it when it's explained. His ability to spot the social stuff he actually has to explain to Sherlock, and then explain it, is also fairly unusual.

    4. Huh, you're right. Could that be because John's role is not only explaining social scripts to Sherlock, but to have Sherlock explain observations to him--and, more importantly, the audience? Characters who are A. socially-aware and grounded but new to the plot details, and B. contrasted to an even more unusual character tend to be seen as the "normal" one/everyman in TV just on the basis of the audience member's ability to relate.

      Awesome analyses of Cumberbatch and the Holmes canons, by the way. I've read all of them and am looking forward to your take on Freeman.

    5. Sherlock explains deductions to Lestrade. After the first couple of times, he teaches deducing to John. It's a subtle but important difference in interaction -- he does not give anyone else a chance to talk while he rattles things off. I'm sure that a significant part of the audience identification with John is that he is able to interact with normal people, and does so quite a lot of the time; other chunks of the audience are probably "hey, I'm a little weird too, it would be awesome if I could serve as the bridge between someone as brilliant as Sherlock and the rest of the world," and yet a smaller chunk is going "Jesus Christ, where was the person who didn't freak out when I was pissed off at the entire rest of the world for not understanding my brilliance?" Watson's not ordinary, but he's at least someone ordinary people could talk to.

      Judging from the way he handles the girlfriend thing on-screen, and a comment to the effect of "Maybe my life with Sherlock isn't compatible with long-term relationships" in the online supplementals, it's pretty clear that John doesn't really think of himself as a normal guy anymore, is much happier this way, and if ever pressed to choose between an ordinary life and Sherlock, is going to go with Sherlock every time. It's not so much that Sherlock is taking someone ordinary and elevating them into his world, as that John was an ill-fit for ordinary to begin with, and Sherlock's world is where he belongs.

    6. Yeah, what Cassandra said, re: "Characters who are A. socially-aware and grounded but new to the plot details, and B. contrasted to an even more unusual character tend to be seen as the "normal" one/everyman in TV just on the basis of the audience member's ability to relate." Freeman-Watson is relatively speaking more an "everyman" alongside Cumberbatch-Holmes, much as Freeman-Bilbo will be when confronted by Cumberbatch-Smaug in The Hobbit.

      (As an aside: God, that film has been in production for-freakin-ever. Can't wait for the premiere already. Seriously, living at ground zero for the filming is fun, as I've noted, but when I learned it was going to be split into a trilogy spanning the next two years, I cringed inwardly. I was never THAT big a Tolkien fan!)

  4. What are your giveaway behaviours for smart kids?

    I think I probably have them (including the urge to say oh-I'm-not-really-so-smart-as-all-that), but it would be nice to know what the whole set of behaviours is.

    I do the people-watching thing, as a way of using what I have (brains/analysis) to make up for what I don't have (normal childhood socialisation). But because it's learned behaviour it feels fake and feels as if anyone can see it's fake.

    1. You know, I've been turning that question over for a while now, and I'm not sure it's possible to give a definitive list of specific behaviors, full stop. There are some extremely common ones, but none of them are a direct equivalence "do this = BRAINS". They're all indexicals -- they're behaviors, comments, and reactions that point to a specific kind of internal thought process going on behind the scenes. It's sort of the opposite of when someone makes a comment and you suddenly realize they're a complete twit and have not thought about the situation at all.

      They're also not necessarily the only indicator of brains. This is a specific pattern of thinking I'm recognizing, which among allists at least seems anecdotally only to occur among the really really scary smart people. It's entirely possible to be brilliant but very linear and focused; I have no magic key for those folk, as they respond just like normal people, only faster and with a greater knowledge of [insert their chosen subject here]. Part of the behaviors I look for are also a result of strange childhood socialization, since thinking that differently from everyone else, especially when you're very young, tends to get you ostracized.

      As for people-watchy, everyone does it. You just know you're doing it, because by the time it had any useful effects for you, you were past the stage where you just magically absorb shit without pondering it. Most normal people have no way to articulate what it is they're doing because they've never had a need to learn.


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