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...