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Katie Byrne: In which I admit to being a culture bluff

After approximately 14 years of procrastination I have finally lifted James Joyce's Dubliners from its intentionally prominent position on my bookshelf and started reading it. I can't say I'm enjoying the experience, though.

The prose is wonderful, of course. That's not the problem. The problem is that I can't share my enjoyment of it with anyone as I can't recall if I've already claimed to have read it.

I probably have. Lied, that is. Or is it a lie when you simply nod your head and feign enthusiasm when an iconic book is mentioned (1984); tilt your head to the side and smile wistfully when a film is eulogised (Casablanca), or furrow your brow and tut when a civic responsibility debate is raised (fracking).

I've invested all my chips in this conversational game of oneupmanship more times than I'd care to mention. In fact, I'm almost incapable of conceding that no, I haven't read One Hundred Years of Solitude or seen Gone With the Wind. That would be akin to admitting that I spend the second act of every Shakespearean production I've ever seen sneaking glances at my watch.

You often hear people talk about 'imposter syndrome' - those who fear being found out because they falsely attribute their success to luck rather than hard work. I, on the other hand, have a very valid feeling of being an imposter because I'm just waiting for the day that someone asks me which one of The Godfather films was my favourite.

Again, I haven't specifically claimed to have watched the entire trilogy, but when conversation turns to the subject of Don Corleone, I tend to feign a more intimate knowledge of him than my cinematic digest should allow.

Like in poker, there are all sorts of ways to pull off this bluff. But at least you don't have to open your mouth at the poker table. The culture bluff , however, has to say something, even though he has nothing to say at all.

It's a tactical minefield; a masterclass in neuro-linguistic programming. Sometimes I deliver an emphatic "yeah, it's great", hoping against hope that I have portrayed a sense of jadedness which suggests that I would like to move this conversation on pronto. Sometimes I say nothing and instead just pray that someone changes the topic.

There have been many lucky escapes, but I can't help but think that the only person who loses out is me. Take the time I delivered an enthusiastic "of course!" to an ex-boyfriend when he asked me if I'd seen The Deer Hunter.

We watched it anyway and I spent the whole film regulating my response. I wanted to grip the duvet and scream out loud but instead I had to take it in with a knowing gaze and a studied indifference. "It's so much better the seventh time," I told him afterwards.

So why do I do it? To appear smart and knowledgeable, of course. To appear cultured and well-versed. To give the impression that I not only use the word 'auteur' when describing filmmakers but that I know how to pronounce it too.


It started during my teens when I claimed to have reached every milestone at least three years ahead of schedule. During the confessional sessions that took place at slumber parties I professed to watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, "like, 100 times", just as I insisted that I had had my first kiss, and second, third and fourth.

I could spot the fellow liars then, just as I can spot them now. And there are more of us than you might realise.

It makes me wonder how much smarter we could be as a human race if we were able to utter those three magic words: "I don't know".

We could learn so much from others if we conceded that we have something to learn. But instead we insist with this exhausting game of one-upmanship and deal with its consequences.

Think about it: perhaps Chardonnay's popularity is simply down to its pronounceability. Perhaps chefs use French terms on their menus simply to bamboozle customers.

Perhaps there is not one single person on the planet who has actually read Ulysses. That would mean that I'm better than them for having read Dubliners. The possibilities are truly dizzying...