The Art of Festive Conversation

A frivolous post appropriate to the time of year.

Type ‘conversation’ into Amazon, and you’ll get a whole list of self-help books, such as:

  • The Art of Conversation, Or, What to Say, and When;
  • How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships;
  • Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time and
  • (this is probably rather more serious, judging by the author Theodore Zeldin, although the title is much of a muchness with the others) Conversation: How Talk Can Change our Lives.

I haven’t read any of these, nor do I intend to, but (ignoring the surfeit of capital letters Amazon sprinkles over the titles) I want to raise the tricky question of how to admit one is a physicist. Even worse, how to admit one is a female physicist, in a social situation.

Let us leave aside the standard joke – how do you distinguish a physicist from a mathematician? He (yes I’ve always heard that pronoun in this place in the sentence) looks at your shoes rather than his own. And let us not agonize why there are 92 little tricks that work, since I suspect the answer must be the author couldn’t reach the round number of 100.  The problem arises when asked something along the lines of ‘what do you do?’. The neighbour’s Christmas party is exactly the kind of fraught situation where this question arises, after a glass or two of bad punch has been tucked away to lower the inhibitions.

I first came across this loaded question when, at 18, I was about to go to Cambridge to start my degree. I was at a party at (I’m embarrassed to admit) Harrow School, where a family friend was a housemaster and he wanted some females to redress the balance of the wholly male 6th formers he taught.  The young men were clearly glad to meet some members of the opposite sex and sidled up to me and asked that simple question ‘what do you do?’. And that was when I first discovered that being a (still-aspiring) physicist, was akin to suffering from leprosy. These same young men suddenly discovered a pressing reason to be on the other side of the room once I had uttered the fateful words ‘I’m going to Cambridge to read Physics’.  As soon as they had muttered some platitude such as ‘how interesting’ they bolted. At that point I realized just how peculiar it was to want to be a female physicist, something I had failed to grasp when at an all girls’ school where no one attempted to dissuade me.

So what is the right answer, consistent with truth? It doesn’t get any easier as one progresses through the system, though possibly saying ‘I work in the university’ is an adequately truthful if misleading response; it’s certainly one I’ve used in the past. Let them make – stereotypically – the assumption that I work in admin or the library and then they can tell me what a wonderful job they have and honour will be satisfied.  It is worse than admitting you are a doctor; in that case the questioner can tell you with glee about their horrendous symptoms and complaints. As a physicist you are either merely a conversation stopper or faced with that monotonous response ‘I could never do physics/maths at school’. I wonder if any of those 92 little tricks help deal with this incipient social disaster.  Suggestions please!

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31 Responses to The Art of Festive Conversation

  1. Maggi Dawn says:

    I have half a dozen ways of putting off owning up to my line of work – it’s a total conversation stopper. I try for at least half an hour of “normal” conversation before letting on. Perhaps I need to read the 92 tricks to increase my repertoire.

    • rpg says:

      @Maggi—Oh, wow.

      That sounds fascinating. I’m sure there’s a conversation to be had regarding theology<--(art, music, literature) and science<--(art, music, literature).

  2. genegeek says:

    It can get awkward. I often say I’m a teacher but then when they follow up with ‘what grade?’, I have to admit that I’m a lecturer at a medical school. Then it is like I’ve tried to hide my leprosy. So now, i just use my title but in the most boring voice possible.
    Note: When I was in grad school, I used to say that I worked as a cashier but it isn’t needed now. I wrote about that here (Hello. My name is ____ and I’m a geek):
    I also learned not to talk about how much I love my job because it turns out that many people hate going to work.
    Have fun at the holiday parties!

  3. ricardipus says:

    Yes, it’s always tricky isn’t it? My mother studied (“read”?) Physics at Cambridge in the 50’s, but I’m not sure she would ever have described herself as a physicist. Myself, I find “molecular biologist” is too techy, and “I work in research at the children’s hospital” too vague (and not entirely accurate, since I’m actually in a separate building and do very little research these days).


    “We study the genetics of autism” doesn’t quite do it either (although largely true), and leads to all kinds of confusing follow-up questions from non-specialists (i.e. everyone else I am likely to talking to).

    Kind of makes me wish I was a wildlife photographer, or a mushroom farmer, or something else a little easier to describe. Good luck with it. 🙂

  4. Maggi, I know what you do, but the other readers of this blog won’t (clue, it’s not physics) and you’re clearly not even willing to reveal it here!

    The comments indicate that, far from physics being particularly awkward, many job titles/professions are likewise loaded with potential embarassment. Maybe I should have phrased the question differently – what jobs aren’t conversation stoppers? However, it’s not just describing the job, the problem @ricardipus describes, it’s the subliminal messages attached that were bothering me. Yes, being a mushroom farmer may be easier to describe ‘well, I farm mushrooms’ probably covers it, but it too might lead to a quick end to a conversation. TV producer is probably the sort of employment that will kick start a conversation most easily; maybe PA to the stars too. But neither probably apply to my readers.

  5. Stephen says:

    Maggi’s professional interests were only a click away since her name is linked to her web-site. She sounds really interesting! 😉

    @Athene – I know what you mean. I used to say “structural biologist” but, while people may have a vague notion that biology is about living things, no-one has a clue about the structural bit. The realm of the molecule is unknown to practically everyone.

    So I have tried to change tack – I think it’s incumbent on me (us) to make the effort and the trick is, I think, to try to make a connection with what people might know something about. In my case that is foot-and-mouth disease, which everyone in the UK has heard of. I can also try to talk about how drugs/medicines are designed. That helps: the virus angle in particular has struck home on a couple of memorable occasions.

    You can start practising here, if you like, by giving a lay explanation of what you do…

    No pressure!

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    If I’m in Vancouver, I say “I work at the Cancer Agency” (if elsewhere I say “in cancer research”), and if asked to elaborate, I say that I help the researchers write their grant proposals and research papers. That usually satisfies most people, but any longer conversations that do ensue are usually interesting and fun. I find that in general, non-scientists in Canada are much better informed about and more interested in science than in the UK.

    The one exception to the “interesting and fun” generalisation came when I was still a postdoc in a lab in another department of the Agency. A man at a friend’s party (he was their neighbour) started yelling at me about being part of a conspiracy of people who have found the cure to cancer (“vitamins and proteins mushed together in a giant pill”) but are withholding that information in order to make money. He was actually really scary and my husband had to come and rescue me! He was eventually ejected from the party, and has since stolen my friend’s barbecue. So there you go.

  7. Liz says:

    I have a friend who’s just graduated, did Maths, and used to tell people he was a historian.

    I like Stephen’s idea of trying to link what you do to something people will know about.

  8. Austin says:

    I usually just say “I work in the medical school” or “I teach students and do medical research”, or something generic like that. Though it does sometimes mean I get people telling me all their medical problems, which is not terribly welcome (especially as I’m not a medical doctor, of course.)

    @Ricardipus Didn’t realise you were part of the genetics of autism project, though I probably should have made the Toronto connection. You might remember my encounter with the anti-vaccine folk in the Guardian “autism genetics story tracker” about the autism genetics / CNV study published last Summer.

    • ricardipus says:

      Austin – I’m not sure I saw that post of yours before, so thanks for the link. Yes, I am part of the Steve Scherer / The Centre for Applied Genomics group (PLUG!) and all of the data analysis (and much of the microarray work) in that Pinto et al. study was done here in Toronto (Dalila Pinto being a postdoc in Steve’s lab). I am only peripherally related to the autism research, but “help out” from time to time. 😉

      P.S. In the comments to your anti-vaccine post I found this absolute gem, from a certain R.P.G. of Rotherhithe:

      Oh dear. Tainted with the same brush.
      I guess I better leave NN and go independent then.

  9. To be fair you could have claimed to be a “NatSci” at your Harrow party which would, in a sense, have been more accurate and more open to confusion!

    I normally stick with “scientist” – it seems reasonable to make this approximation since, if I’m introduced to a lawyer or an accountant there’s no need to provide a specialisation.

  10. How interesting!

    I remember my first basic class, where the prof said that we would always be popular at cocktail parties, and that statement has been correct!

    And all you folks above, I’d LOVE to talk to you at holiday parties! Always seeking to learn. Guess I’m in the minority, huh?

  11. I beg to differ from all of you. I think you *should* say you are a physicist! The more people get used to the idea that physicists don’t fit the stereotype of a geeky man, the better. But if people then look bewildered, you need to be prepared to quickly steer conversation onto territory they are more comfortable with, e.g. talk about your hobbies, what you’ve been reading, whatever. Or just keep asking them questions about what *they* do. But don’t hide your light under a bushel.
    btw, very nice story about the late AJ Ayer. Asked at a party “What do you do?”, he replied “I’m a logician”. He was surprised at the very enthusiastic reaction this elicited, “Oh, I’ve never met one of those before, Oh, how very exciting, etc etc. ” After a few minutes of this, his questioner said “One thing I’ve always wondered, how *do* you get the rabbit out of the hat?”

  12. Albert says:

    One’s chosen profession is not leprosy. Embrace it. Should it from the hills. If you are passionate about physics (or whatever) you need need to share that passion with others. Others need to understand why, and how it matters. In my opinion, if one is trying to hide their profession, they should be in another one.

  13. Alice Bell says:

    My problem is trying to explain my job *to* scientists at parties 🙂

    I vary on what I say depending on who I’m talking to (I have a varied enough career that I can usually quite truthfully say slightly different things to different people) but I take Dorothy’s point – just stand proud and declare yourself! I’d add to that and say if people look bewildered, you should steer conversation not towards your hobbies but as a chance to explain why what you do is so much fun and worthwhile. Give examples. I think that’s all quite possible to do with charm in a dinner party setting.

    All the most interesting people have to take a while to explain what they do anyway!

  14. M@ says:

    I’m with Dorothy and Albert. If people make their excuses and move away because they can’t fathom why anyone would want to be a physicist, then they’re probably not worth talking to anyway.

  15. Thanks everyone. It is good to hear you all sounding so positive about standing up and shouting about the joys of your science (or other profession – Alice!).

    As for @Stephen’s challenge…..last year I was given media training to improve my ability to do exactly that i.e. to talk about my science in simple terms. I hadn’t thought of translating that into a social setting, but it certainly makes sense. I must have mastered the art somewhat, as I tried it out on Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs and she claimed to understand my description of protein aggregation as relevant to food and Alzheimer’s Disease. She even got the message, as far as I could tell, that this didn’t mean I was about to cure Alzheimer’s tomorrow (which is one of the dangers of over-simplification, as the popular media falls foul of with just about every science story). However, the intelligent listener might then say ‘What’s any of that got to do with Physics?’. Which is, of course, one of the joys and challenges of interdisciplinary working.

  16. Becky says:

    I can say museum curator, which people understand to a degree (though they have no idea what curators actually *do*), or historian of science, which usually completely throws them. Steven Shapin offers this challenge in his essay ‘Hyperprofessionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science’ [free access PDF]: “imagine you are at a dinner party” with reasonably educated friends – “You owe them an answer that is economical and intelligible and that speaks to concerns that they may plausibly be assumed already to have.” This is more about helping historians write for wider audiences than social advice, but I like to take all opportunties to spread the word 😉

  17. When I was a physics major (undergrad), I used to proclaim it proudly – the typical response was “why on earth would you want to do that?” Now that I’m a librarian – everyone is certain they know *exactly* what I do (surely I must read books to children?) and they are always 100% wrong. If I just say where I work, they think I’m a nurse, despite the fact that we do physical sciences and engineering work almost exclusively. You can’t win, but I would be interested in talking to everyone in this thread at a party 🙂

  18. Kevin Channon says:

    I usually go for saying that I’m a scientist. I don’t think I’d be embarrassed to say that I was a physicist though, it’s just that people seem happier with scientist in my experience. The really tricky part is if they ask “what exactly do you do then?” This is hard because you generally have very little idea of (a) their existing level of knowledge on your area and (b) their level of interest in what you could potentially be about to say. There is a conflict here because the time you need to answer the question properly depends on (a), whereas the time you have before they get bored and start looking around the room for a way out depends on (b). It’s really hard to come off well in a situation where (a) is long.

    You can try to probe them for more information briefly before you start to explain, but you can only get an honest answer about (a) – what their pre-existing knowledge is. Once you know this, you have either found out that they’re also a scientist or engineer or something and you can be reasonably sure you’re not going to bore them. On the other hand, you could have just found out that their a PA or an accounts manager with little knowledge of any science. Now you’re in trouble, since to make them any the wiser as to what you actually do, you’re going to have to give them a reasonable amount of background information, which is going to take time that you may or may not have (depending on their desire to actually know). So, you could state that you will have to explain a bunch of background things to them before they can understand what it is that you do. This is really hard to do without sounding like a patronising jerk with a superiority complex. You could just launch into it, and then just whimper to a halt when you see that they’re looking about the room in bored desperation. Or, you could give them a really brief and unsatisfactory answer that reinforces any stereotypes of scientists as awkward and aloof.

    It’s a minefield.

  19. Klaas Wynne says:

    Rather than continuing to having to explain that I am a physicist, I became a chemist. Have not practised this at parties yet but I’m sure everybody will assume I work at Boots. More to the point, I also think one should pick something from one’s work that people have heard about. I tell them that I work on the mysteries of water (which is largely true) and everybody knows water but not everybody knows why ice floats on water (not bubbles). The best experience I have had was a few years back when a taxi driver asked me what I did and I said: “I work on time machines”. The taxi driver proceeded to ask very pertinent questions about time travel, grandfather paradoxes, and temporal loops, which was well impressive.

  20. Steve Caplan says:

    I am a declared feminist, for what it’s worth, and have to say that I am truly surprised by your description of people’s behavior (although I share your frustration). Perhaps this is because I like to see myself as being gender, skin-color and general-appearance “blind”. It just seems to me strange that someone would NOT want to talk to a physicist. I am at a medical school, so we do not have basic chemists and physicists on campus (although I have a few scattered friends), but I would be delighted to talk to ANY physicist; I have so many questions! My answer to your query is that these people at the parties are not worth your time or worth speaking to anyway, so why even spend time thinking about it?

    • The situation I originally described referred to a neighbour’s party. At a campus party I would be much more likely to meet people like you, Steve Caplan, who one would hope would be interested in research and the fine details of what one does. But Kevin’s description is more nearly my experience away from the university, the risk of boring someone who has no concept of what research science might be like. In particular Physics does seem to frighten/put people off – although maybe less so since the LHC has been so much in the news – I think because it reminds them of something they may have struggled with at school and so have a closed mind to. Medical matters (even in the context of research rather than being a doctor) probably feel more manageable; I suspect biology imay be more accessible too – everyone can grasp the importance of understanding how embryos develop, or cells divide, for instance.

      However, the consensus seems to be to ‘shout it from the hilltops’ so it looks like I should dust down the ‘passion’ I alluded to in my previous post and just get on with telling people why being a research physicist is such fun (and important too).

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Then you need new neighbors!

        Seriously, though, I do empathize with your feeling that the public lacks an understanding of the significance of basic science. Although a “biomedical researcher”, my lab is one of the few at our center not “vowing to cure cancer”, and I have taken a pretty firm stance in declaring that our research is aimed at a basic understanding of how things work–not necessarily to cure a specific disease.

        For this I am paying a price, as “non-translational” researchers are on the run and continually apologizing.

        I suppose that your approach–enthusiastically telling people why physics is so important and serving as a ‘science ambassador’–is the best you can do.

        Good luck and all the best in 2011.

  21. steffi suhr says:

    I’m with everyone else up there who said you should talktalktalk about your profession, Athene! Working around a mostly male bunch of physicists I’d add that they, too, need significantly more exposure to confident and capable women both in their own profession and others…

    I get peculiar reactions as well when I tell people what I do (the recent get together at my son’s elementary school comes to mind). “I work at the European X-ray free-electron laser facility that’s being built in Hamburg. I’m in the administration there. No, I’m not a physicist, I used to do oceanography and worked in the Antarctic”. At that point, peoples eyes have either glazed over or they look at me rather suspiciously as if I’m making it all up. I’ve gotten merciless though – nothing to hide here!

  22. rpg says:

    Yay for being enthusiastic about science!

    And a happy Christmas to you all.

  23. Being in a more “suitable” field is no protection. A writer I had just been introduced to once exclaimed, “I’m sorry! I can’t talk to you anymore!” on learning that I am an editor. Editor means about 800 different things across fields – so it’s often not simple to explain what you really do AND people often already have a clear idea in their heads.

    As for tips and tricks: I think you just have to be who you are and let the people who can’t handle it fall away as they choose.

  24. Jenny Woods says:

    My doctorate is in Astronomy…the next question usually involves them asking me about what their star sign means!

  25. Matt T says:

    “However, the intelligent listener might then say ‘What’s any of that got to do with Physics?’”

    Then why not start there (working on the assumption that the listener is intelligent — and, if not, why would you want to talk to them anyway)? Something like “well, I’m a physicist, but what I do is actually more like biochemistry or medicine” [or whatever description would enable you to sleep at night]. Their reaction would then give you a hint as to follow up with a basic description of your research, or “so… the Ashes, huh? Think Ponting’s days as captain are over…?”

    Disclaimer: I’m a mathematician who creates training materials for technical computer software. So, yeah. You really shouldn’t take my advice on how to talk to people at parties.

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