Saturday, December 16, 2006

Social Morons

It boggles the mind, but there are some people who are even more socially inept than I am. At a conference this week, I was talking to Famous Professor X, and we were having a very interesting conversation about a topic of mutual interest. A man I don't know and didn't recognize walked up and started talking to Famous Professor X, completely ignoring me and ignoring the fact that he interrupted a conversation. Famous Professor X glared at the interrupting man and said "I am talking to Professor W (me)", made a wonderful little shooing/dismissing motion with his hand, and turned back to me so we could continue our conversation. The interrupting guy slithered away sadly. It kind of made my day in a strange way.


Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Interesting point. I have been writing reference letters for students wanting to enter medical school since the early 90's. In that time the medical schools have shifted from wanting the best academic students to the people that best fit the profile for what a patient would want at their bedside.

The point that I am making is that the system that *we* have created is *still* mostly a meritocracy which means that idiosyncratic or out-and-out antisocial behaviour is tolerated for the most part if the chemistry is beautiful. I am at the very bottom of the academic totem pole and at conferences I have consistently lived with "important busy chemist B" butting into a conversation I might be having with "important busy chemist A". All in all it feels like I am in some kind of social SN2 displacement reaction. It is only when the person I am speaking with is a personal friend that I haven't found myself functioning as the leaving group in the reaction. I guess that would make the success of the reaction dependant on the substrate.

Angie said...

Nice analogy, liberal arts chemist.

My perspective sounds like more fun. Last year I went to a conference between grad school application deadlines and when I heard anything back... so that tense period... so I was hunting down profs at the places I'd applied to get a word in to learn something about them to get an idea of them in a neutral setting to help in my grad school decisions. Picture a little undergrad hanging around waiting for Professor A to finish their conversation with Famous Professor X, the be interupted by Famous Professor Y (though it was unlikely that I knew who most of them were anyway, and someone had just pointed out Professor A to me in the first place, because I'd only read about them), and then finally when I get a word in, it turned out that Professor A is a total nutjob that I find out shortly thereafter is despised by almost everyone in the field. (OK, that only happened once.) In most other scenarios, it was actually much better, and they were delighted to talk to a prospective student and were (at best) surprisingly nice or (at worst) pretty good at faking it. But I was excited when I got a word in and not surprised at all when I didn't, so I was never disappointed.

On a side note, there was exactly one female professor on my radar to among the 7 schools I applied to... there are almost no female professors at any of the top schools in my field except in tangential areas that I'm not interested in. But guess what, I ended up at the school with the female professor (though I probably won't end up working with her).

Ms.PhD said...

It should have made your day. I got interrupted out of a number of conversations at a meeting recently, and it never stops making me feel like the worst kind of stuff you'd scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

liberal arts chemist,

I'm jealous that your field is really such a tolerant meritocracy. Seems to me that I'd be happy to tolerate eccentric rudeness (or essential cluelessness) in exchange for a general atmosphere of fairness when it came to the big stuff. That doesn't seem to be in the cards for me.


I have to wonder if I did something stupid when I applied to grad schools in part based on which departments had any female professors at all (I didn't apply to ones that didn't). You sound relatively intrepid though, so I am hopeful for you that things will work out for the best no matter where you go.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between consciously disregarding the ongoing conversation and doing the same but because of unconscious anxieties, the difference being the lack of a disruptive will.

There is a number of person, more often often found, in my experience, among the well-read and quantitatively richly educated people that have very poor or severely limited social skills.

While some of these people may be suffering from mild forms of autism or some other physical-psychological problem , other quite simply spend a great part of their life in contact with very few and likely minded people, reducing the variation of types and behavior they get accustomed to or just understand.

Sometime they are only exposed to well-reasoned, tightly analyzed and error-corrected information and expect their peers to have developed a common background, which becomes a foundation on which a conversation can be started.

When they are exposed to utterly alien topics such as Briteny spears mammary problems, they space out, unable to find anything interesting in the conversation, unconsciously communicating they are fed up by the topic.

Now even if nobody is expected to have a sound understanding of college level calculus AND enjoy the neverending immutable sexual escaped of the usual celebritard, that doesn't imply they shouldn't be able to socialize at least on common human grounds with the person the least likely to become their friend.

But that just doesn't happen as often as I would like it to.