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How Can I Sound Smart at a Cocktail Party?

By Ligaya Mishan

Courtesy of The Met MuseumEglon van der Neer’s “The Reader” (ca. 1660).

In T’s advice column Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at advice@nytimes.com.

Q: Dear Culture Therapist,

I’m a 30-year-old American who recently moved to Europe, where I have a high-powered job in the fashion and design industry. My problem is this: I feel I don’t know anything. Cultural references go over my head; I don’t know as much about modern art, design, film and architecture as people assume I do. What and who do you feel are the aesthetic schools of thought, artistic developments and people that a culturally fluent person needs to know about (at least to fake their way through a cocktail party)? — Name Withheld

A: Surely none of us know all that we should. (Unless you’re Mary-Kay Wilmers, perhaps.) When first asked to write this column, I questioned if my cultural knowledge was deep enough, and still do. But how else can we approach the expanse and tumult of modern life except with humility and an acute awareness of our limitations — along with a recognition that there is only so much information we can absorb in an increasingly accelerated world?

One thing you should know is that you were hired for your job — which sounds like a coveted one, doubtless vied for by a number of accomplished candidates — because you are qualified for it, which means you already have a sizable cache of cultural knowledge. May I gently suggest that, like many of us, you may be experiencing a case of impostor syndrome, uncertain that you’ve properly earned your spot in the ranks of the culturati? Remember that the people around you don’t necessarily know more; given that you’re an expatriate, removed from your natural element, they likely possess a different (as opposed to superior) set of reference points.

Still, the feeling of being an outsider, excluded because you don’t have access to certain signifiers, is a powerful one. It’s a theme that runs through all of art and literature. One of the more compelling takes on it in recent years is the intense emotional isolation of the main character in the 2018 film “Burning,” from the Korean director Lee Chang-dong, loosely based on a story by Haruki Murakami (which in turn was inspired by a story by William Faulkner). A young would-be writer, abandoned by his mother as a child and raised on a dilapidated farm by a father prone to violence, is reluctantly drawn into the orbit of a rich, worldly urbanite, whose cosseted milieu the poorer man lacks the tools to navigate or comprehend. The film’s aura of malignant mystery hints at a hidden crime, both literal and in the stark inequity of the lives it portrays. It’s not a comforting vision but an incisive one — and worthy of archiving in your collection of cultural allusions.

I have no secret shortcuts to gaining greater fluency beyond being open and attentive to what’s around you. On a practical level, you might set yourself a weekly regimen: Go to art galleries, lectures and concerts. Dip into the PBS “Civilizations” series and take an online course in European art. Make your way through the Criterion Collection, which since last spring has offered a streaming service of renowned international, independent and art-house films alongside commentaries and interviews with filmmakers. Browse sites like Arts & Letters DailyHyperallergic, Artforum, It’s Nice That and — because music should also be on your list — The Rest Is Noise. (While you’re at it, listen to this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music, the Tennessee-born composer Ellen Reid’s opera “Prism,” which juxtaposes whispers and shimmery pointillism, static and extremities of sound to represent the fragmentary aftermath of a sexual assault. It speaks to both a particular musical and larger cultural and political moment.)

As you wander, let yourself fall down rabbit holes, and trust in what intrigues you. For in the end, what will illuminate this newly acquired knowledge — and make cocktail-party conversation fun, rather than a numbing act of recitation — is the unique bend of your mind. Consider how a critical framework can transform the most ordinary objects, from the Q-tips and Bubble Wrap celebrated in the Italian curator Paola Antonelli’s 2005 survey, “Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design,” to the trimming of fingernails in a 2009 performance of the American composer John Cage’s piece “0’00,”” whose score consists of a single instruction: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” Dialled all the way up through the speakers, each metallic snap of the clippers is a shock.

Keep in mind, too, as you make the rounds of all those cocktail parties, that often the people we think of as the best conversationalists are in fact the best listeners. In this age when so much seems to revolve around declarations of self and peacocking on social media, listening can be a radical act, a pause in the compulsive narration of our own lives to enter into the consciousness of another. The American artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992, gave voice to those on the fringes in his 1982 chapbook “Sounds in the Distance,” later expanded and posthumously published as “The Waterfront Journals”: an archive of transcribed monologues commemorating — and insisting on the value and importance of — the desires expressed by the drifters and hustlers, junkies and drag queens he met. In the British writer Rachel Cusk’s recently completed “Outline” trilogy, the narrator is less a character than a conduit, passing on the stories shared by the strangers around her and in doing so creating a portrait of an anxious, uneasy world (and, slyly, almost incidentally, of her deepest self).

A final thought: Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” That opens a door. In 2009, the Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin paired trained and untrained dancers to perform a sequence of technically complex movements — a sort of irreverent, postmodern “Dancing With the Stars,” honouring the unpredictable and teasing out the contours of each dancer’s relationship to the body (“Friend or foe?” Guerin asks). Although laughter is invoked, there is something to be learned from the rawness of the movements. Guerin has said that she wishes she could “untrain” herself, shedding the memory of motions embedded by other choreographers. Her novices have no such burden, and no time for calculation — they just leap out into space, without thinking ahead to where they’ll land. In the gap between knowing and unknowing is the pleasure.