html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: You wouldn't understand.

Monday, May 21, 2007

You wouldn't understand.

Anand and I were hanging out on Friday and we were talking to this guy at the bar. Turns out, this guy does really neat work! I was all excited for the neat work, so I asked him more about it and he reluctantly mentioned a couple projects. I knew some about that, so I tried to ask him how exactly his models worked, and he looked at me'n'Anand and said "It's really quantitative." Only, instead of that being a come-on, as it obviously should be, he said it dismissively! As in, dismissing our ability to understand! We tried one more time; I believe I said encouragingly "We like numbers.". But he stayed a tease.

I was delighted. I've mentioned before that it cracks me up to be condescended to, because I love the contrast between what I know of myself and the condescender's assumptions. But even better than being condescended to is watching Anand get condescended to! That is SO GREAT. He's, like, Dr. Anand, from Charles River Tech. He is not scared of quantitative; he is a close friend of quantitative. Anand and quantitative have made out before. The rest of the night, whenever Anand asked me something, I told him the answer was too quantitative for him. "No, sugar. I can't explain. It's really quantitative." He'd hold up his hand to count on his fingers, but I would gently shake my head. It's quantitative, Anand. Not for you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a good story, told with your usual golden pen, but this story touches on a real dilemma. When being chatted up in a bar, people want to show an interest in what you do for a living. But if your work is very technically complicated, explaining it can leave people feeling mystified and excluded, and refusing to explain it can leave people feeling excluded and condescended to.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yeah, the guy was in a rough situation, 'cause he would have had to shout to us and he didn't have anything to draw with. But, he decided we wouldn't understand before he tried. We were fine and pleasant to him, before turning him into a joke for the rest of the weekend and mocking him on the internets. Hopefully, he'll never know.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Ok, are you absolutely sure he condescended? Maybe he really thought you would think it was all hella boring and that he'd start to feel lame explaining it to you. Maybe when you said, "We like numbers," he thought you were making fun of him.

(See? I'm practicing pretending to see the best in people, just like you taught me!)

3:37 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

That was the take Anand and I both got from it. It is possible he wasn't, but now that the joke is running, we like it better this way.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous ptm said...

That's awesome.

Also, Charles River Tech >> "I go to school in Boston."

5:45 PM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

Heh, I dropped out of Charles River Tech, and never heard it referred to as such. (Ran out of brains halfway through my sophomore year.) But I like the name.

Silly man, refusing to explain things -- explaining technical stuff is where all the fun is.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I know! And the chicks totally dig it.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

A fellow I know introduced himself to me (via email) as a student "at a small liberal arts school in New Jersey. Perhaps you've heard of Princeton?"

6:23 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hee. I would act all ignorant. 'No, no. Don't b'lieve I have. Is it new?'

6:33 PM  
Anonymous yoyo said...

I dunno, even with smart analytical people talking in that way seems like bad for flirting purposes. I scrupuously avoid it.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I know this is forward, but can't you marry Anand?

8:44 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

That comes up every time I mention him, probably because I talk about him with such affection. We just don't work that way. We've been close friends for more than a decade now, with plenty of opportunity to act on those feelings if they were there. They've never come up.

He has a girlfriend now anyway.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

P.S. Same goes for Chris.

9:42 PM  
Blogger billo said...

The way you say you were "delighted" and that you continued to "joke" about it after makes me think that you were actually cheesed off by the remarks.

2:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talking numbers....

Anyone with good social skills can determine, in context, if the person that they are talking to can take an increase in technicality. I do it all the time. I start out with the big picture, small lexicon description and wait for a request for detail. Then you just jump up a bit and look for confusion. If they get it, keep going. If you sense confusion, take a half step back and find common technical ground.

We just had our open house at JPL and I got to practice this skill for 4-5 hours. Next year, not only am I going to work my group's booth, but also the "Ask a Scientist or Engineer Booth." I swung by there on the way out to get the name of the organizer and heard a guy asking a question about the big bang and the formation of galaxies from the homogeneous mass distribution. Awesome! I would have loved to answer that one... Next year. *sigh*

None of the technical work that I have done is beyond being explained in a bar. Given an unlimited supply of cocktail napkins, of course. And, I bet the Anand feels the same way.

However, if you lack this skill and can only speak in equations, I can imagine that you dread being asked about your work. It could take hours to define notation; then the equations. Because people who think that way can only write equations, not paragraphs. I've met a few of these folks. They are terribly useful if you give them a theorem that you can't prove or a conjecture and want a bunch of interesting correlates. But, they're no fun at parties.


9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim's right. The problem is twofold, one that a lot of technically oriented people have poor communication & social skills, second that many people in technical fields, particularly young people, are out of their depth.

I got such a dirty look once at a party when I asked a question like yours in a group and the guy replied `Oh, it's very technical and hard to explain' and I replied `Ok, I'll ask you again when you understand it better'. He was trying to impress the girl beside him; I was quite serious, but trying to deflate him a bit. Overdid it, though.


10:11 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

The Math is Hard crowd have ruined parties for the rest of us. They make people scared to give good explanations of what they do and then what are we supposed to talk about at bars?

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

what are we supposed to talk about at bars?

law? [yah, i know ...]

water policy?

global warming?

what is good s3x?

11:05 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

I've met a few of these folks. They are terribly useful if you give them a theorem that you can't prove or a conjecture and want a bunch of interesting correlates. But, they're no fun at parties.

Not always true. About the smartest person I've ever met was a brilliant physics major undergrad who couldn't explain anything in English. (It was his first and only language, he just couldn't translate back and forth between Math and speech.) Drove me nuts, because we were friends, and he was breezing through classes that were killing me, and he couldn't explain anything in human language at all.

But he was still an awful lot of fun at parties. Just not with anything that involved speech.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline Passey said...

"We just don't work that way. We've been close friends for more than a decade now, with plenty of opportunity to act on those feelings if they were there. They've never come up."

Have you tried tequila?

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Francis said...

Charles River Tech = MIT?

At any party in Northern California, you can always talk about the Bay/Delta.

Say, how're the smelt counts this spring?

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you could always hit him with 'look, pal, just talk geek to me, OK?' or you could try 'Ray, pretend for a moment that I don't know anything about metallurgy, engineering, or physics, and just tell me what the hell is going on...' Then you cover all your bases... Though it's kinda old. 'course if you get the blank stare to that, you could always say: 'just shut up and drink, you can prove you're not a poser later...'

heh, try explaining shrodinger's cat in a loud bar sometime... you can have 5 conversations in one 'your cat did what?'

2:09 PM  
Blogger Dizzy said...

Hahaha! Awesome.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Dizzy said...

And geez y'all, no need to jump all over megan for making light fun of someone taking himself a touch seriously (especially when her piece is so well-written).

2:17 PM  
Anonymous jon said...

Geez, this post is so derivative...did you want the guy's digits? You could have asked him what his sine was....or at least told him he was cute in an unquantifiable way and that you hoped that some modeling might eventually lead to multiplication.

And if he didn't at least smile, then just mock him on the internets...

Oh - wait a second....

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

I totally want to make out with quantitative.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yes. We have been drinking and shared hotel rooms and been to nekkid parties and still haven't fallen in love. It is as if we were meant to be friends.

Diz, I didn't think anyone was giving me a hard time. I thought we were all joking around.

I like to skip straight to mocking people on the internets.

We all do. We all do.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Dizzy said...

Oh whoops - I missed the joke.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog, and this post brought back memories of a girl I dated who was turned on by algebra. At first I thought she was asking me for problems to solve to make fun of me. But given her response, I soon didn't care, and simply accepted God's good bounty. -M

5:17 PM  
Anonymous albatross said...

It's definitely easier to explain a technical problem when you've "come out the other end" than when you're still trying to get your head around it. But most of the time, it seems like you can usually give context. Though someone working in math sometimes has to go a long way to get there, because even with a mathematically-oriented listenener, the whole area he works in may be new to the listener, and it may take some time to explain what a crystallographic group is, say.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

albatross: sure, I get that all the time. `Oh, you work in math' is usually followed by `I hated math in high school'. Occasionally though, someone is interested. If you can't explain the general idea of how you are trying to do something or why, you probably don't have a good grasp on it. And you can scale for the listeners background. E.g. if an engineer asks you `what the hell is frame theory, anyway' you can always start with `well, you remember fourier transforms, right?' but if a random non-technical person asks the same thing you'd better back up further.


7:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back.

Even for non-math geeks but with specialty jobs, it's hard to talk about a topic in specific without becoming rote and being a buzz-kill. It's a skill to do that, so many just avoid it.

So, what's your whale take?

-A, from a school in Western Mass.

2:28 AM  
Blogger Kwindla said...

on Charles River Tech: myself (having a number of insufficiently worked through personal issues and steadfastly refusing all suggestions of and opportunities for therapy or professional help of any kind), I was always particularly tickled at the tendency among CRT folks to refer to a nearby institution as "that school up the river named after a T stop."

10:55 PM  
Blogger arf said...

At one of our math-department special lectures, the lecturer opened with something along the lines of, "When you get out in the world with a Math degree, you'll get people who will take that as a conversation ender at parties, usually followed by 'Oh Math huh? I can't do math at all!' but you'll never find someone reply to an English professor, 'Oh, English eh? I'm illiterate!'"

As for the college thing - I usually say "I went to Wellesley" and wait for a blank stare or recognition before I add "Small women's liberal arts college outside of Boston."

Elitism is what you make of it. And I enjoy reading you mock people on the internet.

6:12 AM  

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