Friday, September 05, 2008

Talking to the Plumber

Following on yesterday's post about talkativeness, another issue related to communication skills involves the ability (or lack thereof) of academics to converse with non-academics. I suppose some would replace the word "academics" with "intellectuals", but intellectuals (sensu stricto*) can inhabit both academic and non-academic environments, and highly intelligent people are found in all social and economic classes.

There has been much discussion of this general topic, particularly this summer, owing to the publication of the article by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education".

In the essay, there are statements with which I agree, e.g. that those who attend elite universities are not necessarily "better" people (or even smarter) than those who do not, and there are aspects of it with which I disagree, e.g. that an elite education renders one unable to converse with anyone who had a different educational experience.

So Deresiewicz is unable to converse with his plumber. I do not believe that that is because Yale brainwashed him to believe that he had nothing to say to plumbers because he is intellectually superior to such people. If he's right, though, I find it puzzling that his subsequent life experiences gave him no conversational fodder whatsoever.

In general, I do not easily converse in a chit-chat kind of way with people I don't know, whether or not they are professors or plumbers, but this condition pre-dates my elite college education. Even so, I am capable of talking about the weather, pets, or children if the situation requires. I am even capable, particularly under torture, of talking about Sports. I know nothing about how any team in any sport is currently doing at any given moment, but I can ask questions, thereby maintaining a semblance of a conversation. Again, this applies to conversations with academics and non-academics alike.

My ability to converse with non-academics also varies depending on the other person's conversational skills. A professor-plumber communication gap is by no means exclusively the fault of the professor. For example, I do not typically have good conversations with home-repair people who patronize me or assume I know nothing about electricity or other "guy things" (e.g. The electrician who was distressed when he realized that he had to talk to me instead of my husband, saying "Oh great, I don't suppose you even know where the fuse box is."). In contrast, I always enjoy chatting with a certain handyman who does random repairs on our house. He is a nice and interesting person (and he thinks my cats are beautiful).

I think that for most people, everyday communication is a complex process that has many variables related to personalities, mood, context, weather, and so on.

So far I have been discussing one's ability to converse across the academic/non-academic boundary. Another (related) issue is one's interest in doing so. I must admit that I avoid certain situations (in fact, two: haircuts and appointments with a particular dental hygienist whose conversation about her church and son easily adds 20 extra minutes to routine appointments) because I find the conversational aspects of them excruciating (literally so in the case of the chatty dental hygienist).

How is this different from
Deresiewicz's inability to converse with his plumber? There may be some similarities stemming from an academic/non-academic culture gap, but any conversational shortcomings on my part are not because my educational background has failed me in some way. I think I can take responsibility for this all by myself.

[possible topic for next week: Deresiewicz's comments on the "indifferent bureauocracy" of non-elite academic institutions]

* Use of the Latin in this context represents an attempt at humor.


Anonymous said...

glad to read that there are others with difficulties talking to hairdressers ;-)
you're probably very busy on your trips, nevertheless, getting a haircut somewhere you don't understand the language can solve the problem. disadvantage: make sure to bring a picture of what cut you want (maybe this works for guys only, don't know)

The_Myth said...

This is not so much a difference between education as it is one of socioeconomic class.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Not being able to talk with your plumber is not a sign of too much elite education; it's a sign of too much egotistical asshattery.

They're different...

I always enjoy chatting with a certain handyman who does random repairs on our house.

Personally, I enjoy talking with the lab building janitorial staff, but de gustibus non disputandum est.

iGollum said...

I think there's something about me that lets hairdressers know right away that I'm not into chitchat. They always give up really easily and just do the job, which is nice. I mean no disrespect to them but I just can't do smalltalk with strangers. I feel too awkward.

Anonymous said...

I don't know your precise specialty, FSP, but my experience with experimental physicists is that many of them could probably carry on very excited and detailed conversations with their plumbers and electricians. Experimental physicists spend A LOT of time playing with electronics, machining new parts, getting pumps and valves to work, and other stuff like that.

One reason I'm a theorist is that I just can't get enthused about that sort of work. I did a bit of it, I even found it to be kind of satisfying at times (in small doses, anyway) but I just didn't have the aptitude to devote myself to learning it well and enjoying the process.

So I don't think physicists look down on manual labor. If anything, there's a certain pride in it, sometimes tinged with machismo (a machismo that is positive to the extent that it eschews elitist attitudes towards manual laborers, but negative to the extent that it carries some of the other baggage of machismo).

Anonymous said...

This shit is fucking ridiculous. I have spent my entire life with socioeconomic privilege and at elite institutions, and I have absolutely no trouble whatsoever developing a rapport with anyone and everyone regardless of their life experiences.

Sounds like that article was written by the typical "I am a weird awkward dipshit, so everyone else must be, too" awkward dipshit.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I'm usually pretty outgoing, but I have a hard time talking to hairdressers too. Yet they seem to hang on our every word -- they typically remember all sorts of facts about you from one visit to the next. How do they do that?! Anyway, on one occasion when I really didn't want to explain my job to my newish hairdresser, I told her my research was classified. I said I was kidding, but it definitely moved the conversation to easier topics.

Anonymous said...

i hate sport but my mother claims you have to follow one popular sport, just so that you always have a topic of conversation with plumbers etc!

Pagan Topologist said...

I usually don't have difficulty talking to non-academics. Sometimes they have fascinating insights. On the other hand, sometimes they have tiresome misconceptions. The same is true of academics,of course, though the misconceptions are different, usually.

I am assuming that by intellectuals in the strict sense, you mean people who make their living via mental rather than physical effort? I do not really understand why this is a joke, whatever language it is expressed in. What am I missing? Being an intellectual likely has a small positive correlation to intelligence, but not a terribly strong one. Everyone knows stories of Mensa members who work at menial jobs.

Anonymous said...

I have no trouble having conversations with any of my students (or, eventually, with my lab mates). However, I am tongue-tied around everyone else - colleagues, academics, non-academics, you name it. I would love to have a conversation with a plumber - that would be progress! (there's social anxiety for you). However, the posting brings to mind the garbage collector in the Dilbert cartoon - who is wiser than anyone else, despite his "lowly" profession. This is just another way of saying that Deresiewicz is full of it.

Jay said...

It's class and it's personality, and it's asshattery. All of the above.

I can make small talk just fine until I'm asked to agree with positions that I find appalling ("all women must think men are idiots, don't you?" or "we're all opposed to those people moving in, right?"). But I did have a problem with the piano tuner we hired - once - a few years ago. I just don't want to be lectured about how the earth is only 5,000 years old while I'm paying someone to tune my piano.

I suppose having an Ivy League degree might factor into that one.

Anonymous said...

no problems with the hairdresser, or with the plumber. In both cases, the conversation is usually framed by the emergency at hand. People with kids/cats are OK too, but what when the conversation moves to touchy topics like evolution, religion/politics, etc? that's when I find it difficult to engage with people who believe things like creationism. FSP, any advice?

AsstFemaleProf said...

I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only one who hates getting haircuts. I've taken to growing my hair out - despite the fact that it takes longer to dry - just so I don't have to interact with the hairdresser. There should be a hairdresser for scientists - one that doesn't try to talk about random stuff. They would make a ton of money.

Lesley Weitz said...

I just hate the part when the hairdresser makes small talk and asks what I do. When I say, "I am an aerospace engineering graduate student," the whole salon practically says, "ohhhhh." Its almost like THEY throw out any hopes of conversing with ME.

Julia said...

oh yes! Hairdressers. I really thought I'd be the only bizarre person. I never know when to say something, and then you say something and they stop cutting, and ahhhhhh. Horrible.
Besides, I did experience a lowering of my ability to do general chit-chat. That has, however, nothing to do with any high-quality education, more with the fact that when you immigrate to a foreign country as a grad student, and you partner does so (in a related research group), too, then your social circle consists of academics only, worse, of people of your direction only. After four years, one gets a bit short sighted.
Kids help, but not much. I try kids and weather, but I am bad in one-on-one communication anyways...

Female Science Professor said...

Confession: I lie to hairdressers. I make up random stuff about my life if they start asking me questions. I invent different jobs, different numbers/ages of children, different species of pets. I pretend I hate my work and am really looking forward to the weekend. I pretend to hate particular types of weather when I really don't care. I don't do this because I think the hairdressers are stupid; I do it because it is easier than explaining my real life and it entertains me in a sick way.

chemcat said...

FSP, that's hilarious. How do you keep track of all the imaginary lives you tell each hairdresser? what if they remember?

Anonymous said...

Ivy league instituions, especially the ones mentioned make it clear to their students from the get-go they are the cream of the crop, destined to succeed yada yada.

That's good, that's their style; I recognize it for what it is and use it to my advantage. Dershoiwtz may have trouble talking to plumbers. That's his problem.

Columbia, for example, is deeply involved in service work in the Bronx. As for brilliant people making messes I always cite mathematician Paul Wolfowitz.

That said I didn't agree with a good chunk of what Deresiewicz said toward the end.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I have continued to teach a (very) basic intro to computers class - along with the rather more technical courses I do - is to keep my geekspeak under control.

It has served me - and more importantly, I think - my students and customers - well.

Now that I am studying English though, it sometimes seems that my preference for direct & clear rather than academic-speak is sometimes held against me... I am not inclined to change it at this point though.

Anonymous said...

I'm not good at small talk with anyone...this ranges from academics to plumbers, hairdressers, etc. Except, with other academics, particularly in my field, there are several given small talk topics we can discuss, so it's easier.

I find small talk exhausting and I spend so much time having to communicate. So, I don't really want to have to sit and tell my hairdresser what I study...I just want a haircut! Getting a repair or your hair done isn't a social event, so why must it be treated as one?

Anonymous said...

Observation on talking to the layperson:

In grad school, when people I met outside school would ask "What do you do?" I'd say "I'm working on my Ph.D. in physics." The person I said it to would usually be intimidated, saying things like "You're too smart for me" or "Wow" or "I did horribly in physics" or "I could never understand that" or something.

As a postdoc, I went into a biophysics group, doing projects with applications to cancer. I started answering "So, what do you do?" with "Cancer research" and instead of shutting down dialogue they'd either ask me questions about cancer or tell me a story about somebody they know with cancer. The later line of discussion could be depressing, but frequently we managed to converse.

Now I say I'm a professor. People will sometimes shut down if they find out I'm a physics professor, but sometimes they'll ask questions about higher education or say "Yeah, I know a person who graduated from your school."

Telling people what I do as opposed to what it's called seems to have a more positive effect.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, freestyle fibbing to hairdressers, that's a good one!

Last Spring I spent three months working in a lab in China in the context of a collaboration project; and I got used to lying through my teeth to taxi drivers. They were always intensely curious about what I was doing there, but my Chinese is extremely limited and their English was practically nonexistent (this was a long way from Beijing) so I ended up making the best of my limited vocabulary, which only allowed me to say that I was an English teacher, I had an American boyfriend who worked in Beijing as a businessman, and I had several brothers and sisters (different numbers each time, of course, to practice my numerals). It was kind of fun, and easier than saying that I was a postdoc specialized in the molecular genetics of mobile plasmids in bacteria, that I was single and quite gay anyway (so definitely no chance of a boyfriend, and no need to introduce me to a nice Chinese boy --- you wouldn't believe the number of offers by third parties I got) and that I had just one older sister who lives in Paris (well, I did mention her sometimes, so there was often a grain of truth hidden in the rubble of my deceit).

johannarts said...

While I have to admit that talking to hairdressers, dental hygienists, etc, is not on my list of favorite activities, I don't mind making a bit of small talk with them. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it would do us scientists (and science perhaps?) a lot of good to make a bit more of an effort to talk to and develop a rapport with people that are *not like us*.

We don't have to regale with the details of whatever it is we are passionate about.... but to put faces to science and help the general populous realize that it's not just completely socially dysfunctional people in white lab-coats that do in science and believe in (gasp!) evolution. Rather, scientists can be normal, friendly, and get their hair cut, teeth cleaned, just like everybody else. Sure, on occasion I've found it tempting to lie to them with some crazy story about my life, I think it's insulting to them. Sure, they might not ever find out, but to me, it's a continuation of this whole "I'm mightier than thou" attitude.... and passively contributes to the perception of "pointy-nosed-professor-types" (an actual quote by a right-wing commentator) like Obama as completely elitist and out-of-touch.

Albert said...

To "Grad Student": everything involving humans is, almost by definition, a social event. Note that scientists and science as a field are not excluded. Scientists who become famous or successful are notorious for their communication abilities. Same with good teachers, good mentors, good professors, and any other education-related job within a campus, including the bureaucrats.
To claim that one's "too high" education crippled one's ability to communicate is either a lie or a bizarre self-indulgence in search of notoriety.

Anonymous said...

As a first year grad student, I practically got tongue tied at a lunch meeting with the speaker when I was at a conference earlier this year. I did not quite know the balance between academic talk and small talk. How does everybody deal with this?

EliRabett said...

To hell with tongue tied hairdressers, glassblowers, there are cats who know how to chat.

Anonymous said...

To Anon at 1:42:00 PM -- Make yourself a little list of questions ahead of time, concerning a range of topics, to ask people. Memorize these if you must. And have a number of questions be on the most important topic to many people: themselves.

Example: "I'd be grateful for your advice on..." "I would love to know your opinion of..."

analyst said...

Why do we need to know you are a "Female science professor"?

Do we need to brace for hearing about "feelings" rather than the know the Venus view VS the Mars view...the left brain side or the right?
That it matters is an indication of insecurity....hairdressers? LOL

If you're smart and able, you can talk to anyone and know that you do not have to talk to everyone without regret, nor fondle any guilt about it you allow yourself to have.