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!