Thursday, November 01, 2007


Recently I had a meeting with a woman who just became part of a publishing team with responsibility for publishing some books I'm involved with. I generally avoid such meetings, preferring instead to focus on the writing/ideas part of the books. Lucky for me, the first author of the books is a socially skilled person who excels at most interactions with humans (and I am not just saying that because he occasionally reads this blog), and he mostly takes care of the author-publisher communications.

I could have refused to have an in-person meeting with this new person, but my co-author talked me into meeting with her. He said that these publishing people like to get to know authors in person, and this helps them be more interested in and enthusiastic about the project.

So I met with her and I liked her well enough, but we spent 90% of the meeting talking about her kids and her husband and her personal life. I think it's fine to get to know each other beyond the immediate project at hand. For example, it's important to me that the people I work with are aware that my life involves a family (including a young child) as well as my research and teaching -- but in this case I wish we could have spent more time talking about books.

Maybe I am missing some sort of bonding gene that would allow me to value this personal interaction with a business associate. I kept trying to turn the conversation to some new ideas that my co-author and I had recently discussed for a new book, and these ideas were well received, but the conversation always turned back to the woman's troubles with one of her children or decisions she was making about her kids' education.

I greatly sympathize with her difficult personal life and admire her for her successful career in publishing, but given the limited time of our meeting, I think we should have used the time more 'efficiently' (see earlier post this week). Is this evidence of my lack of compassion for people dealing with major obstacles in life? Am I incapable of valuing an interaction of this kind? My own answers to these questions are no to the first question and perhaps to the second. If this woman were a friend or close colleague, I would give her all the time she needed to talk about whatever she wanted/needed to talk about, but in this case I think it was an inappropriate use of a business meeting, even one whose apparent purpose was for us to 'bond'.

For me it was more of an anti-bonding experience. I hope to avoid in-person meetings with this woman in the future, even though I feel sincerely sympathetic about her problems. I think I conveyed my sympathy, even if I did (gently) try to change the subject a few times.

When I compared notes with my co-author about an earlier meeting he had with this person, he had a very different experience. They mostly talked about book ideas, though she did share a few pieces of information with him that she also shared with me (e.g., her age).

I repeat: lucky for me my co-author excels at this type of scientist - non-scientist interaction. As with research collaborations, it is nice to be part of a team in which the strengths of various people on the team can be used in different ways (i.e., effective ways, to use the Word of the Week). This also makes the work overall more successful and fun for everyone.


EcoGeoFemme said...

I am the very same way. I just don't care very much about people's problems unless I have at least a partially personal relationship with them. My friends joke that I'm 'dead inside' which is based both on my limited interested in others' personal problems and on the fact that I don't like puppies.

I would have be interested in that woman's problems if we had been discussing them over beer. But not at a business meeting.

ceresina said...

She discussed her personal life with you, & the book with your (male) co-author?

Rosie Redfield said...

Of course the problems with this meeting might have had nothing to do with your social skills and everything to do with her expectations of a meeting with a woman author....

Anonymous said...

ok, I agree with you that that was awkward because of the setting. I very often think to myself, "why are you telling me this???" when I'm talking to people and they insist on over-sharing.

However, assuming this is not just a quirk of a woman with a benign version of the lack of social skills of Prof. Troll, I think it may speak to the great void women have when it comes to trying to find people to share the peculiar sort of situations experienced by women who are both career-driven and family-driven. I know nobody in my family gets it, for example, and even my 100% enlightened hubby cannot get it in the same way.

Come to think of it, that is sort of why you started your blog, right?

Anonymous said...

Seconding ceresina and rosie redfield: it is quite common that even in professional contexts (meetings, conference breaks) people talk about personal/unrelated topics with women and about work with men. I don't think it's your or your colleague's social skills, it's the very real difference in expectation and treatment and resistance to topic changes you face.

Anonymous said...

Maybe she would have talked about her kids to your co-author also if the co-author were a woman?


Jay said...

Both Anonymous and Rosie Redfield have good points. I hear far more about my staff's personal life than my male partners, and I don't initiate those conversations. And I also recognize that professional women with kids can feel very isolated and may grasp at any chance to make a connection. It's sad, but that's not a good enough reason to behave unprofessionally, which she did.

There was an article last winter that got a lot of play in the MSM about doctors sharing personal information and how much it can interfere with patient care. Seems that may be true for publishers and editors as well.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I would have thought that the point of meeting you, the author, in person, was to learn about YOU, not spend all the time talking about her. Ah, well.

I agree you don't need to feel guilty or cold about not caring about a continual conversation about her problems when you were there for professional networking. If she wanted to connect on the personal problems professional women have then that should have been a separate invitation to coffee afterwards, or some such.

Anonymous said...

There are so many factors involved in this anecdote, that it would be premature to draw any conclusions from it about your bonding abilities. Your growing impatience with the meeting could have been due to several things: first, you had a (reasonable) expectation about the purpose of a business meeting, which she wasn't meeting. Second, it sounds like this woman talked about herself a lot, and everyone gets impatient with people who only talk about themselves. Third, you might simply feel uncomfortable, as many people do, talking about very personal issues with someone you've just met. It sounds like your feeling of distance and anti-bonding was overdetermined.

Anonymous made a good point: isn't part of the point of blogs to share personal info? I can't quite believe ecogeofemme when she says she doesn't take much interest in others' personal problems, since she frequently makes insightful comments on this blog.

Somehow I think many of us women have bought into an unrealistic ideal of feminine concern and compassion, and when we aren't perfectly bonded and responsive to others, we think we're "missing" something or have a problem.

Anonymous said...

I think you got caught in a bind with someone who needed to someone to talk to, that women are more likely to be co-opted for this purpose, and that she might have thought you had reason to have a common interest with her over children, but that perhaps she wont be like this always (the interaction with the coauthor suggests the possibility).

I was once asked, casually, by a female job candidate about women with children in our department. I had just returned from maternity leave, and was in the depths of trying to understand my new role as a mother and a scientist. We spent way too much time talking about that issue, and not about her work or mine. But, that was not a foregone conclusion with our interaction (though she might think so).

EcoGeoFemme said...

Amy, that's just my point. It's partly about situational context and partly about personal context. I am interested in FSP and her readers and feel I've gotten to know them over time. The point of the blog is how FSP deals with being a woman/mother/wife/scientist, not about the science itself. The business of this blog and others like it is to discuss women-in-science stuff (among other things), so I care about everyone's women-in-science kinds of problems when I'm here. I probably would hated the book woman at the book meeting, but would have liked her at a party. Hmmm, this might be why I have few close women friends...

Ms.PhD said...

To me it sounds like you're just busier than this other person, there might be some of those gender scheme effects other commenters also picked up on, and she is probably one of two types:

a) woman in serious crisis
b) woman who talks incessantly most of the time.

I had a visit from a (b) type today, and while she's a good friend and I find her entertaining, it sometimes annoys me when she visits for too long during a work day when I actually need time to think.

I guess I'm usually afraid that someone might be an (a) type, if I don't know them and it's not obvious that they're a (b) (they're usually easy to spot, but not always).

One good way to tell: did you find yourself thinking, "Would she just shut up so I can get a word in edgewise?" Or were you thinking, "Okay how do I steer the conversation away from this topic?" If it's the former, she's a (b).

Somewhere along the line I learned that I'm a good listener, maybe because I don't like to hear myself talk so much (although you'd never know it from my participation in the blogosphere).

I've had a lot of experience with seriously disturbed people, so I sometimes worry that I might be the only thing between an (a) and a nervous breakdown. If listening is all I can do to help, I usually don't mind doing that. And I guess I usually find it interesting to hear people talk about their fears.

But hey, I don't really like puppies, either.

Anonymous said...

ecogeofemme, I agree: it's the context and the previous relationship with the person that determine how much interest we'll have in connecting with others' personal problems. That's completely reasonable. What I'm quibbling with is the jump that both you and FSP made from that to the possibility that you lack something in the bonding department. Yes, technically, you have a limited interest in others' personal problems -- it's limited to appropriate contexts. But the "dead inside" joke, though just a joke, implies that this limited interest amounts to a lack of something that "normal" people have. I really think women are constantly getting social messages (like this joke) that tell us we should be completely emotionally available to everyone at every hour of the day, and then we question ourselves when we don't meet this crazy standard.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Oh, now I see what you were getting at. Very good point.

Sorry to beat a dead horse and comment yet again on this post after several days, but I've been away.

Robin said...

It's post like this that make me think you may be a chemist... using "bonding" and "antibonding" kind of tongue-in-cheek-like.

I am a female graduate student and I've been very amused reading your blog, so much so that I'm reading old entries now... really, I'm waiting for the stills to warm back up. It is also most enlightening (the blog, not the stills).