Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lame Dinner Conversation

Recently, a friend of mine from grad school, now a professor too, came to my university to give a talk. He stayed for a few days, and one evening I had him over to my house for dinner. It was a fun evening.

After the friend had left, my husband said how this visit was just the same as all the other visits by other faculty -- all evening we complain about the quality of students, share grantsmanship woes, talk about papers, conferences, collaborators, department politics... Basically, we always only talk about work.

It had never occurred to me that this was really a bad thing. I enjoy talking about work, all aspects of it. I particularly enjoy talking to people from other universities and from related but different fields. I love talking about grants, students, collaborators...

But my husband brought up a good point: when my faculty brethren come to visit, nobody talks about any movies they saw, or places they traveled, or world events... Just work.

Is it because we, faculty, don't have any interest in anything other than our work? I don't think that's true. But, I realized that I definitely don't feel comfortable discussing non-work things with work acquaintances... And I started to think about why that is. I think that's because wanting to discuss anything but work makes it seem like you are not serious enough about work. Our work is supposed to be all-consuming. I realized this fact during the first year on the tenure track -- after trying to get some people to go out to lunch on a few occasions, I realized that wanting to socialize made me look like a slacker, like I had too much time on my hands. Sure, I was supposed to be friendly and collegial, but at the same time always seem busy and preoccupied by work and slightly inconvenienced by anyone's intrusion into my work time. By now, for better or worse, I think I have adopted this attitude pretty well. Now I really don't want to hang out with anyone and feel inconvenienced by people's intrusion into my work time. I am a grown-up prof now, no more silly ideas like actually going to lunch to relax and - gasp! - socialize.

There is one person at work with whom I go out to lunch every couple of months in a predominantly social capacity, we talk about kids and books and movies and sometimes even our extended families. I do meet with some other faculty for lunch on occasion, but these are always working lunches, and yes, you guessed it, we usually talk about writing a proposal together.

So, normal people, like my husband, think we academics are really lame and make terrible dinner conversation. He's probably right. But here's the deal -- I kind of really don't mind. I actually don't even care that much about what my colleagues do outside of work. I don't know them well enough for their opinion on books or movies to have a lot of weight. I don't know about their families and, at this point, I don't particularly care to learn. Neither do they about mine. So we talk about work, which is something we all care about, the important common thread in our lives. No, I really don't mind talking shop, even if we are lame dinner conversationalists. Although, in all fairness, I should probably make an effort to reduce academic lameness when there are non-professorial folks around...

12 comments:

A postdoc said...

Was it always like this, even as a postdoc and grad student? I never only talk about work with my academic friends. Technology, music, politics, random events, what else is going on in people's life, these are all conversation topics too. Maybe its because I'm further down the ladder than you.

zinemin said...

Please tell me that is not true! I am especially shocked about the part about lunch. How can going to lunch with colleagues make look like a slacker? This is absolutely crazy!
I wish for you and your colleagues you had persisted asking people for lunch; maybe you would have managed to improve this extremely unhealthy climate.

Psycgirl said...

I have a few work friends with whom I only talk work - even when we are outside of the work context. However, I've also made several friends at work who are true friends (i.e., we socialize a lot) and we talk about much more than work. I think it can depend on your level of friendship. But, when people like your guest come to visit and are "new" conversation, I often really enjoy talking about work (particularly if I can get some advice!)

inBetween said...

so true! My husband and I are just like this, but since we are both in academia, and even the same dept, we both are pretty happy talking mostly about work stuff. I think you are right , that this phenom is also pretty cultural, that thher is the perception that to talk about anything else is a sign of lack of dedication. I have noticed that since having had a kid that many people use child stuff as a a non-work topic, more than I would have ever imagined. But I get uncomfortable sometimes, esp as a woman, and will typically change the subject to something safer, like work.

Anonymous said...

I think normal people usually remember that it's polite to make sure that no one feels excluded from conversation at a social gathering. That means not letting conversation dwell too long on a topic that not everyone can participate in.

At a business lunch/dinner, most of the discussion is likely to be work related, or be very neutral general topics.

I don't think it has much to do with academic/non-academic.

Gears said...

I totally get how you feel. It's like, when you get on the tenure track, a switch flips and then all you do is eat-breathe-sleep work.

I too enjoy talking about all aspects of the job and yes, it does help to vent/whine sometimes so I don't think it's too bad. Plus, like you said, it's something you care about and if it is important, you should be thinking about it a lot.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

"I have noticed that since having had a kid that many people use child stuff as a a non-work topic, more than I would have ever imagined. But I get uncomfortable sometimes, esp as a woman, and will typically change the subject to something safer, like work."

I completely agree with this comment. I (female) change the subject. My partner (male) does not.

For me there are a variety of factors at play. 1) It is easier to talk about university experiences with other academics who I don't know well, because I know it is shared common ground. 2) I truly enjoy talking about work. I ask my neighbours about their jobs because I find it fascinating. I am always slightly disappointed when people don't want to talk about what they do. 3) At most large social gathering, dinner conversation is small talk along the lines of celebrity gossip, sports, etc. This makes me uncomfortable. I know nothing of sports and movies, and I keep a few funny anecdotes in store to contribute to a meaningless conversation. I think of kvetching about students at different universities as a similar type of small talk between academics, when the usual small talk topics are likely not applicable.

Arseny said...

That's exactly the reason I left science, and went to business. I decided to hang out with normal people who don't always talk about science, students, publications and experiments.

And then I discovered that in business, as soon as you start to hang out with successful managers, they talk about work all the time as well! Only their work is boring! They talk about scorecards, motivation, leadership, startups, investments and such. They meet in a restaurant, spend first 10 min in a casual conversation, and then switch to their project.

So I figured I'd better move back to science. If I'm doomed to talk about work - at least I'll talk about the one I care about =)

Anonymous said...

I think people in general just talk about what they have in common, because how else are you supposed to have a conversation? If work is the only thing you have in common and your outside interests don't match, or you just never got to know the person outside of work, then why wouldn't you talk about work? I talk about outside interests with my coworkers if we happen to have common interests...because it is a topic that interests both of us. I've had coworkers who were not all that passionate about their jobs - it was a means to pay the bills while they pursued other interests - and I wouldn't talk about work with them because I know they're not interested in science/engineering the way I am. It's a social skill that extends well beyond academics...talk about what interests the other person too, don't just ramble on about what you want.

cringe-all said...

Maybe a lot of your informal social
needs are met on this blog, where you do reveal a lot about your personal and professional life?

Anonymous said...

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I enjoy those offline conversations about work. I think a lot of good information can be exchanged. On the other hand it annoys me when folks try to have very serious science conversations during social events. Complaining about the annoying parts of the profession can be a fun way to let off some steam. Demanding an in depth analysis of some recent scientific controversy? Total drag.

Tarah said...

That's just to me sad that you have actually accepted to be inconvenienced by social interaction etc the way that you describe it. I say that as a totally obsessive and mostly work-talking faculty. I have never had any trouble being taken seriously whilst being social and friendly. I guess I should be thankful my life is not like yours somehow. When it comes to babies and family, you're not all-work-all-the-time. It sounds like a lack of perspective to me to not consider friendship also a priority. But of course it's your life to live how you want. My husband is not an academic and he also notices how much we talk about work with my academic friends but I think I would be very sad if that was all we talked about and bonded over.