Post Academic


Communication breakdown: A Post Academic with nothing to say

Posted in Absurdities,First Person by Arnold Pan on November 5, 2010
Tags: ,

I mentioned last time how the flip side of no longer possessing the academic gift for gab is that I find myself pretty much unable to chit-chat in any situation any more–great, I have to go to a wedding of someone who’s barely acquaintance tomorrow!  I know, I know, it’s probably hard to believe that I’m so tongue-tied when meeting new folks, considering how I can be a virtual blabbermouth.  But when I’m at a kids party or some kind of get-together where I only know the hosts, you best believe I’m camping out at the buffet, chowing down on the Trader Joe’s snacks or the greasy pizza.  To be honest with you, I’d probably find it hard being at a gathering of people I know these days, though it’s tough to say since it’s not like I’ve been around my party of my peeps or even talked to them on the phone since the summer.

"Conversation by Friedrick Moosbrugger" (Public Domain)

Anyhow, based on a sampling of Halloween events and birthday parties I’ve recently attended, here are some of the reasons why I find “real world” shindigs somewhat more difficult for me to deal with–though the real explanation might be just that I’m a misanthrope.

(Not) finding the common ground: When an academic is released into the wild…er, life outside of the ivory tower…adaptation to a different environment can be difficult.  Within the sorta friendly confines of academia, you might not like everyone you know, but at least you have something built-in to talk about that’s based on some kind of shared interest.  Even now in a post academic stage, I find I can easily slip into some whiny complaint about the academic job market when I run into an acquaintance because that’s something I know how to do.

More to say about having not much to say, below the jump…

Out in the real world though, it can be hard for a geeky introvert to feel out what there is to talk about, especially at first.  Just think about it, what is the first thing most people ask you?  That’s right, exactly what any down-and-out post/academic dreads mentioning: what do you do?  Because, you know, it’s hard to explain to those not in-the-know just what your job is in an accurate way.  When I was a part-time lecturer, I never liked inflating my status by calling myself a professor or giving the impression I was something that I wasn’t quite.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to explain exactly what my situation was, because not only would folks not understand what the heck I was talking about, but I would also lapse into my default mode of self-deprecation.  So basically, it’s hard to get a conversation started when there’s no good ice-breakers to begin with.

When your job isn’t your life: But while someone you’re talking to might want to know what you do, it’s not like they want to hear your whole post/academic saga in so much detail that only those who’ve experienced vaguely the same thing can appreciate and commiserate with.  Unhealthy or no, part of being an academic is that your work is supposed to be your vocation, your job more or less your life.  In that sense, it’s just too easy and natural to talk shop, for better or worse.  That’s definitely one thing that sets apart academics from most “regular” people: While grad students are all-too-eager to ramble on and on about their jobs–be it research or teaching–because they pretty much completely consume their lives, most other people go to parties to get away from work and the office.

It’s not that kind of tea party, is it?: Yeah, academics can be know-it-alls and contrarians, especially when it comes to politics.  As much as we might hate to admit to ourselves and our peers,, most–though definitely not *all*–of us live pretty middle-of-the-road middle-class lives, though it does make it easy for us to talk politics because we generally know where we’re coming from.  Within our little corner of the world, it’s safe to say that we can expect most folks to be left-of-center, while indulging in fantasies of being left of left by finding some twist to stand out in one way or another.

Around “strangers,” though, I’m much more circumspect about my lefty politics, which only puts into question in my mind how politically out there I am or ever was.  Heck, I’ve even become nervous about wearing my Obama ’08 gear out these days, tip-toeing around neighbors and my kid’s friends’ parents, who are mostly cryptically apolitical but have also been known to be smart-alecky (though friendly enough) Libertarians.  And geez, I never touch the third rail of small talk, race.  So all-in-all, I’m not sure where that one-upping trash-talking wannabe Marxist academic I was in grad school went, but it sure isn’t to a kid’s Halloween party or the neighborhood playground.

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  1. Yeah, the first time I went to a non-academic networking event and someone asked me where I was from, I actually said the name of the university I’d been at — total network foul, and I’m sure they thought I was insane.

    This is one of the reasons I’m glad I already love TV and movies; that usually gives me something to talk about at such gatherings. (I guess sports is also one of those things, but it’s totally inaccessible to me.) Also, slightly skewed comments about Trader Joe’, asking about the food, etc. goes over pretty well.

    As for being a misanthrope, I’ll be posting some further networking tips next week 🙂 Though I’m at a total loss when kids are involved.


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