Why I shy away from getting into discussions about my areas of expertise

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Once, when I was about 20, a close friend referred to me as "always right." She didn't mean it as a derogation. She simply meant that more often than not, when I came out with a fact, it would be one in which I had confidence. If I were to characterize that trait, I'd say that I like being able to believe in the things I say. That characterization as "always right" came, if memory serves, before I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. The four and a half years I've now spent in grad school, first doing my master's degree and now in my doctorate, have changed the nature of my desire for rightness. On one hand, I've come to recognize that "right" is not necessarily possible. Facts are contextually dependent and often easily contested. On the other hand, that recognition of the difficulty of rightness has made me a pretty insufferable conversationalist when I talk to people about the things I study.

There are things I feel self-conscious about. Because one of the ways academics in my area achieve legitimacy is by reading, I often feel like a walking literature review. I worry about the amount of education that slips into my conversation. What's more, because expertise and depth of knowledge are necessary traits for scholars, I find myself obsessively passionate about things that are almost unknown to others. And I collect facts. That much hasn't changed, even if my conception of facts and truths has changed. All of this results in extreme caution on my part. I often avoid talking about the things I study and work on because I want to prevent myself from slipping into a lecture.

I can have a normal conversation. There are lots of things I care about and can talk about without having it become an accidental lecture. I can even talk pretty coherently to non-academics about some aspects of my work without feeling the need to substantiate my every statement. But there are areas that get me into trouble. There have been times, when a conversation starts turning towards my areas of study, that I've said something along the lines of "Watch out. We're getting into what I work on." That warning comes from a desire to not bulldoze the person I'm talking to or kill the conversation. It also comes from memories of previous frustrations. Walking the careful border between actually letting my expertise out and having the patience to not assert myself too forcefully is tough. It's my job to become expert in the areas I study. By necessity, there are subjects about which I have a different and deeper body of knowledge than most others do.

The worst case scenario in a casual conversation that moves too close to my work is frustration on both sides. We're having a totally normal conversation. It's nice. We're talking about subjects of mutual interest, on which the two of us have a pretty uniform level of knowledge. Chances are good that our knowledge comes from what we've read or watched in popular media, stuff meant for a generalist audience. Maybe we both read a feature article about it in a magazine or newspaper. Maybe we've dipped into some Wikipedia articles, or seen a documentary. We talk about the subject and, if things are going really well, maybe we discuss our different interpretations of what's going on in the situation. We supplement each other's knowledge with information we've collected from other sources. Your documentary, my Wikipedia article. "Gosh! I never knew that, but it makes a lot of sense." It's great.

And then the conversation veers. Somehow, we stumble into the thing that's currently consuming my life. Your knowledge is still on that general-but-interested level. You're into the subject, you've read around a bit. You have some opinions on the subject. It's leisure for you, something you look into a little in your off time. Somewhere below the level of a hobby. For me, it's not even just my work. It's not just the thing I read and think about at my desk every day. It's what I'm thinking about in the shower, on my walk to work, what I'm talking about with my colleagues when we have lunch or take a coffee break. It's something I spend months constructing careful arguments around. And those arguments are based on the work of all the academics who came before me in the area. My job is to synthesize a huge amount of other arguments, and my fieldwork, and turn it into something new, but grounded in the existing knowledge on the subject. It's not just the scholarly stuff, either. Because people know what I study, and because I'm connected into a network of people studying similar things, I'm constantly sent articles about the subject. I know academics who keep Google Alerts set up for keywords relating to their subjects of study. In short, one of the symptoms of doing the kind of work I do is being obsessively knowledgeable about one very small area.

That obsessive knowledge and constant learning is great for getting things done. It's a survival trait. It's less good in casual conversation. That's why I get a little flustered when our nice chat suddenly gets close to my area of study. Suddenly, I'm worried that one of us will come out unhappy, either because I've held back or because I haven't. It often feels like a no-win. I'll either end up accidentally lecturing, making you feel condescended to, or I'll come away from the conversation frustrated, feeling that there was so much I could have said but didn't, because I didn't want to come off as a pompous jerk. In these circumstances, the one thing I want to avoid doing at all costs is pull rank. I don't want to say that I probably know more about the subject than you do. I don't want to make you feel smaller. Sometimes, when trying to avoid that, I accidentally slip into it. It's tough to explain why I'd want to disengage just when the conversation is getting to something I know a lot about and am deeply interested in. The attempt to disengage may sound like I don't believe you can hold up to the conversation, like I don't think you're capable. But that's not it. I shy away from the subject because I've experienced the consequences before. It's tough to find a balance between the expertise that serves as credibility and currency in my vocation and the desire to be a polite, social human being having a nice conversation. For some subjects, I've learned coping mechanisms. I've gotten really good at handling discussions around the social impacts of 3D printing. For other subjects, especially the ones that are a little more obscure, it's more difficult. Sometimes, it's easier to attempt a polite disengagement, to avoid tension and stress. What may seem an interesting little conversational avenue to anyone else is, for me, a consuming passion and, for a time at least, the thing receiving the vast majority of my mental and emotional effort.

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