I feel like Curly Joe Besser- Why so sensitive?? September 19, 2009 7:24 AM   Subscribe

"I'm a delicate snowflake" filter/callout:

This thread is chatfilter; I was going to just flag and move on, but I was annoyed with something within that chatfilter and felt the need to call out.

How can you get annoyed when people don't know the intricacies of your job? We don't know what an emerging technologies rocket powered tollbooth operator is- that's why we asked you. You don't have to get snippy about it. Why so defensive? Just because someone clumsily asks a question at a cocktail party or commits the mortal sin of generalization in a blog article doesn't mean we hate you or don't respect your work...
posted by gjc to Etiquette/Policy at 7:24 AM (163 comments total)

Irritable internet user is irritable. What I didn't particularly like about that post was the way it seems sort of like a MeFi post but basically is sort of a chatty AskMe. That said, like many of the other professional questions, it seems to be on the "I'm trying to learn more about X" side of "I'd like to talk about X" so we'll probably leave it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:27 AM on September 19, 2009


Take a walk.

When your inner monologue spills over into a MetaTalk post, you need to go outside for a while.
posted by carsonb at 7:28 AM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


While I kind of agree with you about the thread (and didn't post in it; besides I'm pretty sure that question is a double), I feel that I have the perfect right to be annoyed at the zillionth time someone asks me how many languages I speak. I'm not so much annoyed at that person, but annoyed at some combination of society/education/my field that has placed most people in a position to have no idea what a linguist actually does. If they just ask me what I do, that's great, but that's not what that question is about, and that's also not what people mostly do. (I feel like you must work in some profession to which the question doesn't apply at all to wonder this -- it is an extremely natural and common kind of thing to be annoyed by.)
posted by advil at 7:33 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


The question was phrased so the irritable-ness carried through, but I think we've all been in that position at a party many times for whatever specialized thing we do. I once told someone I made money with a website and got the loud "oh, so you run a porn site?!" response.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:36 AM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


That question isn't chatfilter, there is a problem to be solved there - they just gave an example of the problem. It might not be worded well, but it's kosher.
posted by bigmusic at 7:38 AM on September 19, 2009


Anyone know how much mathowie's porn site costs to join?
posted by cjorgensen at 7:44 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


$5, same as in town.
posted by veedubya at 7:53 AM on September 19, 2009 [13 favorites]


metameat.com
assfilter.com
posted by nomisxid at 7:57 AM on September 19, 2009


It's chatfiltery but interesting.
posted by rtha at 8:00 AM on September 19, 2009


Huh, when I first read that question, I interpreted as something along the lines of "What are the typical signs that someone is pretending to know something about your field, but actually doesn't?"

In which case the answers would have been useful to many people. Specifically, if you also don't know much about a field, but observe one of these typical signs, you will know that person does not know what they're talking about.

Now that I re-read the question, I see it's not really that at all. I only saw it the way I did due to the bias of my own prior experiences. But I also don't see the annoyance that gjc does. I see it in the linked-to discussion on 365tomorrows, just not in the AskMeFi question itself.
posted by FishBike at 8:03 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


You gotta admit that Matt looks like he would run a porn site.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:03 AM on September 19, 2009


Be careful about the "Jobs" section, though.
posted by Gorgik at 8:05 AM on September 19, 2009


I don't think the thread is chatfilter at all, and I'm learning stuff from it. Bad callout.
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Don't you hate it when you're in bed with a woman and you have given her like, seven awesome orgasms, and she goes, "Is this the most you've ever given a woman?" and you have to lie because you don't want to make her feel insignificant?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:12 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wait, I'm still reading it that way FishBike originally read it. So what is the question again?
posted by cjorgensen at 8:12 AM on September 19, 2009


I agree with you 100%. It was phrased well enough to avoid deletion, but the purpose of the question seems to be "people are dumb jerks, amirite?"

It's a bad thread, ad this is a good callout.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:12 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


weapons-grade pandemonium: "You gotta admit that Matt looks like he would run a porn site."

Personally I think he looks more like a lab assistant.
posted by shammack at 8:25 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


Actual question: What are the canonical signs that someone doesn't know much about your field, or only picked up enough to make cocktail-party conversation?

Your complaint: How can you get annoyed when people don't know the intricacies of your job? You don't have to get snippy about it. Why so defensive? Just because someone clumsily asks a question at a cocktail party or commits the mortal sin of generalization in a blog article doesn't mean we hate you or don't respect your work...

MISMATCH ALERT
posted by DU at 8:34 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


Also, the question is good because it elicits answers that teach everyone. I'd never heard of an "emerging technologies librarian" either. And while I know that linguistics is about, I would still ask a linguist how many languages they know, at least I would have until I learned they hate that.
posted by DU at 8:38 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


How can you get annoyed when people don't know the intricacies of your job? We don't know what an emerging technologies rocket powered tollbooth operator is- that's why we asked you. You don't have to get snippy about it. Why so defensive?

For reference, I do political science. There are several reasons. Let me show you them.

One, there's a particular set of, for lack of a better phrase, ignorant questions that we often get. "What office do you run for?" or "I've never seen you on the ballot, so what politician do you work for?" There are other directions people tend to go in too. But the questions do become annoying from sheer repetition.

Two, it's often the case that if you say "Actually, we don't run for office, we study them," the person you're answering gets all pissy and annoyed. It's understandable at one level -- nobody likes to feel like a dolt, and when you correct that about something as basic as that, their ignorance is revealed to themselves and any other people in their group. As well, there's not really any way to (truthfully) respond that doesn't start to sound patronizingly teach-ey. But still, it wasn't my fault that you loudly announced your own wrong preconception instead of asking "So what do you people actually do anyway?", so don't make me out to be the bad guy.

Three, it's often the case that people who ask those misplaced questions then pigeonhole you for some horrible spittle-flecked presentation about how the world ought to be run until someone rescues you and maybe even after that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:43 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


A new interpretation, then:

"Dear MetaFilter, like everyone, there are many fields I don't know much about. What questions do non-experts in your field ask you, that you find annoying, so that I might avoid asking these? And if there are questions you would like to be asked about your field, what are they, so that I can ask them?"
posted by FishBike at 8:47 AM on September 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


"What office do you run for?" or "I've never seen you on the ballot, so what politician do you work for?"

I study public ignorance problems, and this still seems so absurd to me that I can't help but wonder if you're pulling our legs. Like, okay: 3/5 of all Americans can't name the three branches of government, but they still ought to be able to tell the difference between a professor of political science and a politician.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:53 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


What does a linguist actually do?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:54 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


He hangs out on Metafilter and sometimes makes users feel really small.
posted by gman at 9:00 AM on September 19, 2009 [7 favorites]


I study public ignorance problems, and this still seems so absurd to me that I can't help but wonder if you're pulling our legs.

Nope.

Though another popular question on that order is "So you teach people how to run for office?"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:02 AM on September 19, 2009


The question was phrased so the irritable-ness carried through, but I think we've all been in that position at a party many times for whatever specialized thing we do. I once told someone I made money with a website and got the loud "oh, so you run a porn site?!" response.

At my age, this is porn. Or at least mental masturbation.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:16 AM on September 19, 2009


DU: I would still ask a linguist how many languages they know, at least I would have until I learned they hate that.

Well, at least you probably wouldn't be surprised when my answer is "one, English".

IRFH: What _does_ a linguist actually do?

The big-big-picture question is how human cognition relating to language works. On a day-to-day basis we address this question by doing things such as collecting data (judgments of native speakers of some language or languages, possibly gathered experimentally), trying to understand patterns in the data, and trying to build a theory that explains why the data is the way it is, both within single languages, and across different languages. This last part is typically done using mathematical tools from discrete math & formal language theory, logic, and probability theory, though it isn't always couched in those terms. Most of us are academics, so we also spend a lot of time teaching this material, being on committees, and that kind of thing. It really isn't that different from most research-oriented social sciences. But the point is that (excepting people who do fieldwork on particular languages), in order to do these tasks, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to gain some fluency the languages you work on. In fact, one of the things we know is that you can't acquire any language natively (i.e. know or speak it in the purest sense) past the age of about 12, so it is probably a good thing that this is so.
posted by advil at 9:28 AM on September 19, 2009


What does a linguist actually do?

'So, are you into butterfly collecting or real science?'
posted by Free word order! at 9:33 AM on September 19, 2009


It strikes me as a pretty borderline question. There's information couched in them grouches, but wow it's chatty.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2009


What does a linguist actually do?

Licks things.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:42 AM on September 19, 2009 [27 favorites]


I thought it was a pretty interesting question, with some interesting answers. It didn't strike me as too chatty or axe-grindy(usually I feel like I'm oversensitive about those things), but I can see how it could be viewed as such.

Maybe I'm just becoming desensitized to chatfilter.
posted by owtytrof at 9:47 AM on September 19, 2009


LobsterMitten: Licks things.

Cunningly.
posted by Kattullus at 10:00 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


So, what do you do for fun?

I'm an admin on Metafilter, among other things

Oh, great! Could you delete/undelete this thread I hate/love?


Also, not to get nit-picky or anything, but It seems to me a linguist doesn't lick things but rather tongues them.
posted by TedW at 10:16 AM on September 19, 2009


While I kind of agree with you about the thread (and didn't post in it; besides I'm pretty sure that question is a double), I feel that I have the perfect right to be annoyed at the zillionth time someone asks me how many languages I speak. I'm not so much annoyed at that person, but annoyed at some combination of society/education/my field that has placed most people in a position to have no idea what a linguist actually does.

Sure. All linguists say that. When I dated a postgraduate student of linguistics I was in the pub with her colleagues and we were discussing this (that people assume they speak many languages) so I asked them: "Just for laughs, how many do you speak then"

It was grade-A hilarious because they all spoke at least three languages proficiently (not natively - for the reason that you mentioned). Thus it has been with virtually every linguist I have ever met, while insisting (correctly) that you don't need to learn additional languages to study linguistics they all took some pride in the languages that they did speak.
posted by atrazine at 10:18 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's weird that the question is "What are some signs that a person doesn't have expertise in a particular field?" but most of the answers are "How do people misunderstand what your job entails?" I see that the second question is perhaps a subset of the first, and encouraged by the example the OP gave, but I think the question is broader than that.
posted by neroli at 10:19 AM on September 19, 2009


Personally I think he looks more like a lab assistant.

Separated at birth?
posted by chrisamiller at 10:20 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was reading that thread with FishBike's interpretation: not "omg, I hate it when people do this to me, right?" but more of a request to become more informed about other professions, so as not to be That Guy when talking to an emerging technologies librarian/linguist/biologist/political scientist/whatever. I certainly learned a few things from it.
posted by naoko at 10:26 AM on September 19, 2009


Yikes.

Well, moral of the story: Next time I'm chatting w/ someone and they tell me they're in an interesting line of work, the only question I shall ask is, "What's that like?" and base further questions on their responses.

The question itself is pretty snotty. Sounds like the sum of a lotta frustration, but still, bad choice of tone. You know what to do.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:36 AM on September 19, 2009


I don't detect any tone or emotion in the question, and must assume those that do are feeling a tad defensive about their cocktail party behaviour.

Good question. Good discussion. Bad callout.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:58 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


What bugs me about that thread is that there's people who think that dinosaurs are not awesome.

I don't care what they do for work, that's a messed up thing to believe.
posted by aubilenon at 11:04 AM on September 19, 2009 [14 favorites]


I went to the wedding of a friend where most of the other males our age that were doctors. We drank, a lot. We talked doctor a lot, which was okay because some of them were college buddies I hadn't seen in years. Cultural values dictated that no alcohol be served directly at the wedding, but it was held at a fancy hotel with a few fancy bars. Several thousand dollars into our tab, I asked the surgery resident sitting next to me why people choose surgery over other specializations. Was it some sense of eliteness or privilege of opportunity, I asked, or maybe the money? With a seriously insane gleam in his eye he drunkenly shouted, "Because I get to CUT PEOPLE OPEN and am rewarded with money and respect rather than thrown in jail!" A few of us looked nervously around the table and realized, yes, he was being absolutely serious. If I had only known what a noob question I was asking.
posted by mrmojoflying at 11:05 AM on September 19, 2009 [13 favorites]


I love this question (just not at cocktail parties, because nobody really wants to hear the answer. Maybe they don't here, but nobody has to feign interest).

I like to think about linguistics as being applicable in any environment where people (or sometimes even animals or machines) use language.

Linguists are helping to solve court cases, like the multibillion dollar settlement of insurance policy for the World Trade Center...nicknamed the biggest semantics debate in history. Linguists are in marketing departments, analyzing copy, and doing brand development. They're improving speech recognition systems and working with programmers to develop and test games that help improve social skills for children on the Autism Spectrum and people with other language and pragmatic disorders. Field linguists are traveling all over the world documenting dying languages, helping with language revitalization, and dealing with much of the controversy surrounding these efforts. Linguistics is the only field I know that has such a wealth of subfields, including Sociolinguistics, Sociophonetics, Psycholinguistics, Second Language Acquisition, Cognitive Linguistics (see advil's post, above), Phonology, Phonetics, Phonetic Theory, Historical Linguistics, Comparative Linguistics, Forensic Linguistics, Typology, Morphology, Pragmatics, Semantics, Discourse Analysis, Critical Discourse Analysis, and some others I'm probably forgetting. Anyways, there's a lot of directions to go, all equally fascinating (IMHO).

But, as Lobster Mitten has pointed out, we also lick things. And make funny sounds and say words that sound really dirty but aren't. (the cunning linguist joke is not the only one out there folks. Linguists also study ejaculates, cliticization, bilabial fricatives, PP insertion, and my favorite, the Fucking Test. Go nuts with that.)
posted by iamkimiam at 11:26 AM on September 19, 2009 [21 favorites]


(this was my attempt to derail this weird callout onto my favorite topic.)
posted by iamkimiam at 11:40 AM on September 19, 2009


I think it's pretty clear that thread was created purely to inaugurate the "shibboleths" tag.
posted by nanojath at 11:49 AM on September 19, 2009


What does a linguist actually do?

Whatever a linguist does, on a porn site, I'd imagine it is a pretty critical job.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:52 AM on September 19, 2009


I thought it was a very interesting question but if I was in a cranky mood when I first saw it I probably would have read it as:

Hey beautiful people, don't you just hate it when the stupid muggles don't get what we do?
posted by ian1977 at 11:56 AM on September 19, 2009


Wow, that's a really poor AskMe question, whatever it is trying to solve.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:15 PM on September 19, 2009


I'm a buttologist. I prefer investigating the more rotund variants. I'm unable to fabricate my research.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:42 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


> insisting (correctly) that you don't need to learn additional languages to study linguistics

This is a relatively recent development. Back when linguists were linguists and linguistics actually involved the study of languages, all linguists were expected to learn other languages, at least one from a language group other than their own (i.e., non-Indo-European for most of us). Then Chomsky came along with his insane and evil "all languages are the same under the surface, so you don't need to learn any, just do some introspection on English and you'll be fine" theory and it all went to hell.
posted by languagehat at 12:50 PM on September 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


I like some of Chomsky's political stuff, but dude never tried learning any Arabic or Turkish.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


That question isn't chatfilter, there is a problem to be solved there

If the question were "A lot of people have misconceptions about my job so what can I do to steer them in the right direction?" there would be a problem to be solved. But simply talking about the misconceptions is not solving a problem.

That question is the very definition of Chatfilter.
posted by dhammond at 12:59 PM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


You really want to confuse people?

"Oh! You're doctor?"

"Not quite. I work in Sports and Recuperative Medicine."

"Like a trainer?"

"No, I do basic research to determine the failure points of new types of implants and test new methods of repair and surgery. I also run stress tests on athletes and dancers to find better ways of measuring fitness and fatigue."

"So, you're a doctor?"

"Not really, I have a lot of medical knowledge but I don't have an M.D"

"But ...you have a Doctorate?"

"Yes, in Philosophy. The only place I ever see a Dr. next to my name is on my bank card."

Then they just kinda wander away unless I pipe in that he gets to rip open people's knees for a living and talk about how it costs to order human body parts for lab work.
posted by The Whelk at 1:07 PM on September 19, 2009


If the question were "A lot of people have misconceptions about my job so what can I do to steer them in the right direction?" there would be a problem to be solved. But simply talking about the misconceptions is not solving a problem.

The thing is, the question is NOT about "misconceptions about jobs" (and the OP has tried to clarify that it's not about misconceptions about jobs), but almost everybody's either answering with misconceptions about jobs or complaining about the idea of a thread about misconceptions about jobs.

I like the idea of an AskMe thread on the question "For Specialized Field X, what are classic indications that someone discussing this topic is bullshitting?" It might be titled, say, "Academic Shibboleths." Unfortunately, this thread mostly ain't that.
posted by neroli at 1:19 PM on September 19, 2009


I was confused because I thought the question was about the sorts of mistakes that someone posing as an insider/expert would make, but apparently it's just more about general misconceptions that people have about various lines of work.

What's funny about all the annoyance is that unless you are particularly dazzling and fascinating, someone tossing off a quick comment to be polite probably doesn't really give a crap about your shit anyway. They are just filling in the chitchat blanks while wondering if the open bar will have their brand of scotch.
posted by taz at 1:19 PM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


"But ...you have a Doctorate?"

"Yes, in Philosophy. The only place I ever see a Dr. next to my name is on my bank card."

Contrast that to the annoying guy who got a PhD in Dutch Colonial Accounting Ledgers and insists that everyone call him doctor. Dude, congrats on getting through and winning a PhD, but I'm not going to call you a doctor unless you can fix these bullet holes or cut out that brain tumor.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:20 PM on September 19, 2009


The thing is, the question is NOT about "misconceptions about jobs"

That really strikes me as splitting hairs, frankly. The poster asks, "What are the canonical signs that someone doesn't know much about your field?" Well, the answer to that would be that they have misconceptions about the field, so naturally people are going to offer specific examples of the misconceptions.
posted by dhammond at 1:30 PM on September 19, 2009


Then Chomsky came along with his insane and evil "all languages are the same under the surface, so you don't need to learn any, just do some introspection on English and you'll be fine" theory and it all went to hell.

Plenty of people do work in the Chomskyan tradition in languages that are non-indo-European without knowing/learning them (though it can be useful). In fact, it is practically impossible to get a job if you are the type of linguist this quote describes, and has been for many years. I know you hate Chomsky, but it isn't crazy or evil to try to come up with a theory that explains what is common between varied languages...it is crazy to do this by introspection on English but this hasn't ever been a part of the program, at least by design.
posted by advil at 1:39 PM on September 19, 2009


While I kind of agree with you about the thread (and didn't post in it; besides I'm pretty sure that question is a double), I feel that I have the perfect right to be annoyed at the zillionth time someone asks me how many languages I speak. I'm not so much annoyed at that person, but annoyed at some combination of society/education/my field that has placed most people in a position to have no idea what a linguist actually does.

well, even outside what languagehat already addressed about the idea that at one time people who studied linguistics would be expected to be multilingual, there is the additional problem that the word "linguist" does have the meaning of "person who is fluent in many languages". So although that's not what you intend, nor what I personally would understand, it isn't really fair to blame people for thinking that's what you mean. It is a common usage.

TedW's link to the old thread was useful since it pointed to LobsterMitten's answer, which was more of a solution than simply chiming in and agreeing that people are dumb - and her solution was along the lines of making one's profession more accessible when people don't understand it. So rather than blaming people for not getting what your obscure job is, if they're the sort to stare confusedly or ask ignorant questions, you can steer the conversation towards more accessible aspects of your work, lie/go along with their assumptions, or introduce your profession as a description rather than a title. ("I research / teach about theories of language structure / development" - or whatever)
posted by mdn at 1:44 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


So rather than blaming people for not getting what your obscure job is

Like I said in the very text you quoted, I don't blame people -- I blame some combination of society, the educational system, and my own profession.

if they're the sort to stare confusedly or ask ignorant questions, you can steer the conversation towards more accessible aspects of your work

Thanks for the suggestions, but I wasn't asking for advice on how to deal with these conversations (which I've been doing for many years, and perfectly well know how to head off / redirect) -- the point was to answer the OP's question in their 2nd paragraph.
posted by advil at 1:52 PM on September 19, 2009


Huh, when I first read that question, I interpreted as something along the lines of "What are the typical signs that someone is pretending to know something about your field, but actually doesn't?"

Actually that WAS the question, and was clarified as such by a follow up from the poster. Just because lots of people weren't answering that question doesn't mean it's not what they asked. People answer their own made up versions of questions all the time. From the poster:

"What are the canonical signs that someone doesn't know much about your field, or only picked up enough to make cocktail-party conversation?"

"here I'm curious about how people trying to discuss or apply your field do it wrong."


Also the questioner did not ask for things that irritate us and I thought most of the answers weren't irritated. Anyone reading them as being grumpy maybe needs to be less grumpy themselves.
posted by shelleycat at 2:33 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reiterating what some people have said above, there seem to be two different things that people are discussing: 1) What do people say repeatedly to you that is ignorant of your field; and 2) How can you tell that someone is faking specialized knowledge? I think the second question is worthwhile; when someone fakes knowledge of a field and is wildly off, it is extremely irritating to those who work in the field.

I'll give just one recent example. This recent fpp linked to a New York Times article that contains the following sentence:

Giving a dream to a Jungian analyst is a little bit like feeding a complex quadratic equation to someone who really enjoys math. It takes time. The process itself is to be savored. The solution is not always immediately evident.

Speaking as a mathematician, this sentence is complete garbage. Hell, I don't even know what she thinks the mathematician is going to do with this KUH-RAZY polynomial that was just . . . um . . . "fed" to them; perhaps she is implying that the mathematician will factor it? But the quadratic equation gives you the roots of the polynomial immediately, and one can only "savor" the process for the, oh, 5 to 10 seconds it takes to write the formula down.

Anyhow, the point is that the author exposed herself as a pretentious blowhard, via a sentence that she could easily not have included in the article. That, I think, is why the second question is interesting.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 2:42 PM on September 19, 2009 [18 favorites]


Linguine doesn't make itself.
posted by biffa at 2:54 PM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


Dude, congrats on getting through and winning a PhD, but I'm not going to call you a doctor unless you can fix these bullet holes or cut out that brain tumor.

Perhaps you could explain why not?
posted by biffa at 2:57 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


What does a linguist actually do?

Well I got a job at MetaFilter with my linguistics degree.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:18 PM on September 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


...this KUH-RAZY polynomial...

Frobenius Twist, your comment cracked me up! I'm not a mathematician, but I'm geeky enough about mathematics (in an 'educated layperson' kind of way) to find that sentence you quoted amusing. The way you tore it apart, though, with the perfect mix of geekiness and humor, just made my day.

I heart MetaFilter.
posted by velvet winter at 4:28 PM on September 19, 2009


So yeah I'm a business manager.


"You manage a business?"


Yes, Yes I do.


hmmmmmmmmmm.
posted by Gravitus at 4:39 PM on September 19, 2009


Dude, congrats on getting through and winning a PhD, but I'm not going to call you a doctor unless you can fix these bullet holes or cut out that brain tumor.

Perhaps you could explain why not?


Because using the title outside of your academic field is generally regarded as the height of conceit. This is particularly ironic in countries where physicians have only bachelors degrees (MBBS), but there ya go.
posted by goo at 4:47 PM on September 19, 2009


it is neither necessary nor sufficient to gain some fluency the languages you work on.

Sure. But what kind of person is interested in the study of languages in the abstract and yet not interested in learning to speak a few? I would be pretty shocked to meet a linguist who didn't speak multiple languages.

bias: I love languages. I'm mildly shocked at meeting anyone who has never at least tried to learn another language, it would just be much more pronounced if they were into linguistics.
posted by jacalata at 4:53 PM on September 19, 2009


metameat.com
assfilter.com


flogitandmoveon.com
christwhatanasshole.com
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:07 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm the AskMeFi's OP. This is probably too far gone to salvage, but I'll write one more comment before I get on with my life.

FishBike, your first impression was correct, as some have pointed out.

The forum link prompted the question but wasn't the best example, I agree. But many of the answers provided better examples, so I've gone through and marked them best-answer.

I'm surprised how many people mistook my question for "Name some jokes about your job which weren't funny and got less funny over the last twenty cocktail parties", and even more surprised that some people thought I had that kind of axe to grind. Just to be clear, I would love to hear these things, because that would mean I have a real job and get invited to cocktail parties.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:39 PM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


FishBike, your first impression was correct, as some have pointed out.

Heh, even when I'm right, I'm wrong. It just seems to have been that sort of week, sorry.
posted by FishBike at 5:52 PM on September 19, 2009


Wow, that thread became so annoying that you linking it here was like singing "99 Bottles of Beer" in my ear just because it was in your head. You didn't have to do that, man.
posted by palliser at 5:58 PM on September 19, 2009


I can sort of understand this to some degree; when I was a journalist, people were constantly approaching me to ask when I was going to write a story about this or that pet peeve of theirs. About four percent of these people actually had good story ideas.

But overall the complaint is a really silly one. You're upset because people have misconceptions about your chosen field, or that they ask questions that belie a lack of knowledge? Really? Because welcome to the world. There's lots of stuff people don't know about, and as the holder of knowledge, it's hardly your place to get upset that someone you met at a party hasn't done their research.

Whether your area of expertise is math or linguistics or journalism or whatever, there had to be a time in your life when you knew nothing about it. So you asked questions to learn more. It's not a social faux pas; it's learning.
posted by hifiparasol at 6:00 PM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


d. z. wang:
" ...axe to grind.."

"...I have a real job and get invited to cocktail parties.
"


uggg.
posted by Gravitus at 7:11 PM on September 19, 2009


Like I said in the very text you quoted, I don't blame people -- I blame some combination of society, the educational system, and my own profession.

Right, but why blame anyone, given that the people asking the question aren't wrong? They're just using a different usage than the one you presume. (I mean, you could blame the illogical structure of language, but...)
posted by mdn at 7:11 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


uggg

Are you ugging him because he was being self-deprecating? Hmm.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:15 PM on September 19, 2009


uggg.

I believe you misread.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:17 PM on September 19, 2009


What kind of person is interested in the study of languages in the abstract and yet not interested in learning to speak a few?I would be pretty shocked to meet a linguist who didn't speak multiple languages.

When you meet me, we can record your expression. I speak mostly English, some Romanian and I know some good swears in Yiddish. People who think a linguist speaks a lot of other languages are the sort of people that the OP in the AskMe question was talking about. Or, as languagehat puts it, it used to be more true that someone educated in linguistics spoke a few languages and now it's hit or miss.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:18 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sometimes at parties I ask ignorant qustions just to piss people off. Sometimes I just ask ignorant questions because I'm a dumbass. It's only embarassing when I think I'm doing the former while actually doing the latter. This happens more often than not. So mostly I just stand near the bar and drink until I'm ten feet tall and bulletproof.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:22 PM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


I would be pretty shocked to meet a linguist who didn't speak multiple languages.

Well, if you met me, you'd be shocked. Not only that, I'm terrible at learning languages. Learning things about them (which turns out to be an entirely different kind of project), I do reasonably well at though.
posted by advil at 7:33 PM on September 19, 2009


mostly I just stand near the bar and drink until I'm ten feet tall and bulletproof.

I make sure to only talk about myself.
posted by palliser at 7:36 PM on September 19, 2009


Bookhouse: "uggg.

I believe you misread.
"

Not at all.

I uggg for my own reasons.
posted by Gravitus at 8:24 PM on September 19, 2009


Actually, I think it's quite important.

For instance, even if I was interested in the structure of languages (which I guess I am, in a casual way), my high school self wouldn't have even considered studying linguistics because there's the common perception that you need to be good at learning languages to do it. I imagine there are plenty of other misconceptions which hinder people in various ways. Education and transference of information! By whatever means possible! That's got to be good, right? Exclamation mark!
posted by Magnakai at 8:29 PM on September 19, 2009


Linguists also study ejaculates, cliticization, bilabial fricatives, PP insertion, and my favorite, the Fucking Test. Go nuts with that.

Me, I'm more into binding and control.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:38 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I thought the thread was an interesting topic and offered a glimpse into the perspectives of other members' professional interests. I enjoyed reading the comments and learned some interesting details. The commentary tone didn't seem snarky to me; average posts on the blue and gray pale the tone of the thread being called out. The thread is not dialog conversational, which would make the tone more chat oriented.

I do, however, think Cortex is drinking bottles of alcohol that are much too small on his trip to meet the Meta.
posted by effluvia at 8:47 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of delighted that my linguistics remark caused such an uproar.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:29 PM on September 19, 2009


Well, if you met me, you'd be shocked. Not only that, I'm terrible at learning languages. Learning things about them (which turns out to be an entirely different kind of project), I do reasonably well at though.

Maybe this is because you (and Jessamyn) are Americans? I don't want this to turn into some kind of hurf-durf yankee language eater thing, but I think my reaction comes from not knowing very many people with any kind of degree who only speak one language. So my surprise when I meet someone who studies linguistics and only speaks one is amplified.
posted by atrazine at 10:12 PM on September 19, 2009


I'm a linguistic doctor of political science. (LDPS)

(I dissect the language of political discourse.)
posted by blue_beetle at 10:43 PM on September 19, 2009


In someplace like Europe where some degree of multilingualism is common, I'd understand someone asking a linguist how many languages they spoke to expect an answer like eight or nine or more, and certainly not "French, German, and English, just like anyone else." I think you can understand jessamyn and advil not be saying merely "I don't speak any more languages than a normal, non-linguist, person." Which, in the US, is one, or one and a smattering.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:45 PM on September 19, 2009


Maybe this is because you (and Jessamyn) are Americans? ... I think my reaction comes from not knowing very many people with any kind of degree who only speak one language.

Yeah, it could be a U.S. thing. The vast majority of my friends, family, and colleagues have advanced degrees, and I would bet virtually all of us studied at least one second language at some point (in some cases for many years), but I would also bet that most of us aren't actually fluent in a language other than English. For better or worse, English is -- for various reasons of history, culture, politics, and economics -- the dominant world language in everything from communications to business to diplomacy, and the U.S. is a vast, vast place where it is extremely easy for most people (even smart folks with advanced degrees) to get along their entire lives without any practical need to speak anything else.
posted by scody at 10:46 PM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


Ugh.

I think you can understand jessamyn and advil not to be saying merely "I don't speak any more languages than a normal, non-linguist, person."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:47 PM on September 19, 2009


People who think a linguist speaks a lot of other languages are the sort of people that the OP in the AskMe question was talking about.

ooh, burn!

But seriously, why don't you speak more languages? Is it lack of opportunity or lack of interest? (advil suggests lack of ability is another possible reason but I tend to believe that is really lack of opportunity/encouragement)
posted by jacalata at 10:53 PM on September 19, 2009


The Largely Mythological Husband speaks only English. Only.

For his Ph.D. in linguistics, he did have to pass proficiency exams in two other languages, though; language one was Hebrew, which he swotted up based on his memories of Hebrew school, and which he remembers almost none of, and language two was French, for which he took a crash course in reading comprehension and proceeded to forget almost all of it after the exam.

Interestingly, he can learn computer languages at astonishing speeds, and he never forgets them. It's just actual human language he's not so good at.

He had a friend in his program who was from Chile, and she spoke only Spanish and English--she was studying the languages of indigenous Amazonian peoples, which are really really hard to learn, so.

I, on the other hand, know a few languages other than English and am always studying new ones, because I am Queen Dork of Wonksylvania.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:04 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


"So how many languages do you speak?" is a way better thing to get asked than "Librarian? They still have those?".

Suck it up.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:47 PM on September 19, 2009


For a doofus like me, it's a pretty helpful thread. Thanks.
posted by metasav at 12:55 AM on September 20, 2009


Are you ugging him because he was being self-deprecating?

Maybe he just likes sheepy boots. Did you ever think of that?

It's just actual human language he's not so good at.


Genuinely curious, non-snarky question: Then why on earth did he choose linguistics as a field and delve so deeply into as to get a PhD.?
posted by dersins at 1:00 AM on September 20, 2009


christwhatanasshole

My mind is focused on porn, and I'm pretty sure I've seen that one.
posted by dead cousin ted at 1:45 AM on September 20, 2009



"But ...you have a Doctorate?"
"Yes, in Philosophy. The only place I ever see a Dr. next to my name is on my bank card."
Contrast that to the annoying guy who got a PhD in Dutch Colonial Accounting Ledgers and insists that everyone call him doctor. Dude, congrats on getting through and winning a PhD, but I'm not going to call you a doctor unless you can fix these bullet holes or cut out that brain tumor.

Plus, if you self-appoint yourself a professor and put 'Dr Prof ...' on your business cards and Web site, not only will I not address you as either doctor or professor, but I will laugh at you behind your back for being a total twat.
posted by dg at 2:23 AM on September 20, 2009


Then why on earth did he choose linguistics as a field and delve so deeply into as to get a PhD.?

I can't speak for Mr. Sidhedevil, but here are some of the things that the monolingual linguists I know do.

Some are programming computers to process natural English text. (FWIW, this is an especially good place to find confirmed monolinguals. Many of these guys, in my experience, are damn good programmers with no knack for languages whatsoever.) One is programming computers to process text in a Mayan language called K'iche. She's doing this by teaming up with a colleague who grew up speaking K'iche but who isn't a computer programmer.

A lot do controlled experiments of one sort or another. One woman I know does brain imaging studies. Basically, she takes MRIs of people while they read or listen to different sentences. She could use sentences in any language for this, but she's at an American school, so it's easiest to find subjects who speak English. Some do experiments on language acquisition, where they test toddler's comprehension or teach them new words and see how quickly they pick them up. Again, they could do this in any language, but it's easiest for them to find subjects who speak English. One guy studies phonetics — that's the way we produce and recognize speech sounds. He does speech perception experiments; maybe he'll play a bunch of words starting with "p" and a bunch starting with "b," and see how good people are at distinguishing them. A lot of the time, he actually does use subjects who grew up speaking another language besides English, but he only speaks English himself.

A few do things that are on the borderline between linguistics and philosophy. They think about where meaning comes from, what it is, or what it takes for a sentence to be meaningful.

One compares the pronoun systems of different languages. This involves comparing dozens and dozens of languages, far more than any one person could learn to speak in a lifetime. He gets his data by interviewing people who do speak those languages, or by consulting with other linguists who specialize in them. The work he does himself is mostly statistics, plus some theorizing about the patterns that he finds.

One studies the politics of language education in America — things like the Ebonics controversy. Another studies how Americans change their conversational style to signal things like dominance. Others study regional English dialects.

Finally, some are eeeeeeevil Chomskyan syntacticians of the sort that languagehat is talking about. The ones I know tend to use data from a bunch of different languages, but they gather that data from native speakers. In fact, it would be considered unethical if they used data that didn't come from native speakers, just like it's considered unethical to fudge your data in any other science.


This bit is sort of an important point, and one that a lot of non-linguists miss. When we study a language, we want to know how native speakers use it, and we tend to be really, really anal retentive about rejecting data that comes from second-language speakers or whatever. And that affects how we approach our work, even those of us who aren't monolingual. For instance, a professor of mine has been studying Greenlandic since the 80s. He speaks it as well as anyone who didn't grow up in a traditional village in Greenland; for all practical purposes, he's fluent. But still, when he publishes a paper, he doesn't come up with any of the examples himself. He uses sentences that he's recorded native Greenlandic speakers using in conversation — or when that's not possible, he asks a few native speakers "Would you ever say such-and-such?", and only uses the examples that they all give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to.

So there's a lot of emphasis on going to the source for other languages rather than trusting your own judgment. And this means that even those linguists who do study a bunch of foreign languages are doing it as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Right now I'm studying Yucatec Mayan. But the goal isn't to become An Expert On Yucatec and make pronouncements about What You Can And Can't Say In It. Frankly, the short term goal isn't even to become fluent. I figure it'll be years and years before I can speak it better than a kindergartener. The goal is just to be able to go down to Mexico, talk to some native Yucatec speakers, and report back on how they use the language.

And that's why the "How many languages can you speak?" seems like missing the point to some linguists — even multilingual ones. Learning a second or third language is cool and impressive and lots of fun, and it sure makes our job easier, but it isn't the important part. The important question, in our book, is "What languages can you study?" — which basically means "How many native languages do your friends have?"

The other reason I hate the question is that it's often asked by people who are very focused on practical applications — which is cool, but I tend to disappoint them. The stuff I study basically has no short term applications. We keep an eye out for 'em, but basically we study it out of curiosity. My experience is that a conversation that starts "How many languages can you speak?" often heads quickly into "So what's the point of all that?" territory, possibly (this being Texas) followed by the suggestion that I enlist as an Army translator instead, and so hearing the question sort of puts my guard up.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:25 AM on September 20, 2009 [11 favorites]


I'm a buttologist. I prefer investigating the more rotund variants. I'm unable to fabricate my research.

I'm working in the same research area and I've devoted the last three years to investing the impact of the ratio of female waist size to gluteus maximus volume on male erectile function in the public space. My investigations bear out the proposition that in the healthy male below the age of 55, the larger that ratio is, the more likely it is that men will experience spontaneous erections that increase in volume as proximity to the male sense organ complex increases.

The null hypothesis is undeniably falsified.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:51 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I didn't really express myself well. The callout was directed more at the answers than the question, which I guess makes it an even worse callout. Oh well.

I would have loved to hear stories about people who were clearly (or cleverly) trying to fake it. NOT stories about how the rest of the world hasn't taken the time to understand the intricacies of our precious jobs. Or about how people in flyover country seem to think jobs ought to have practicality.
posted by gjc at 4:00 AM on September 20, 2009


Then you should have asked that.
posted by dg at 4:34 AM on September 20, 2009


in the healthy male below the age of 55, the larger that ratio is, the more likely it is that men will experience spontaneous erections

You whippersnappers think you're special snowflakes. Might want to expand your age grouping there sonny. Now, get off my lawn.
posted by netbros at 5:48 AM on September 20, 2009


dg, you're confusing gjc with the original poster of the Ask Me, I think? Or have I got it wrong ...

Forest Gump voice here

AGAIN. /FG

I too wanted to hear stories about people who were clearly trying to fake it, and that's what I thought the question was about because of the example given, but then people were mostly just talking about general misconceptions, and the poster clarified:

TedW linked to a previous question about silly things people hear back after trying to explain their jobs. This is not that question, the difference being that here I'm curious about how people trying to discuss or apply your field do it wrong. emphasis mine

and also confirmed that almost all of those answers "have been exactly what I wanted"

so, yeah - it's really is about how people who try to discuss it (among other things) get it wrong, which is less interesting to me. I agree with gjc, that the topic we imagined was far more fascinating, and I also share the feeling that people being sarcastic and belittling in their responses about how casual acquaintances or somebody they've just met might not understand the work they do (why should they, exactly? are you quite sure you understand exactly what it is they do?), is sort of special snowflakey. Yet I don't think that the answers should be called out, because they were just responding to what the poster indeed confirmed he/she was inquiring about, and even the snarky elitism (o Dog, I hate that word, why the hell am I using that word? just kill me now plz) is sort of understandable in view of someone trying to make a relatively short and punchy clever statement as demanded by the medium we're dealing in. I'm guilty of doing pretty much the same thing right here... if only it were shorter, punchier, and more clever.
posted by taz at 5:53 AM on September 20, 2009


> A few do things that are on the borderline between linguistics and philosophy. They think about where meaning comes from, what it is, or what it takes for a sentence to be meaningful.

Ooh, those people annoy me almost as much as the Chomskyites. Especially because they tend to believe that their Deep Thoughts about Meaning are far deeper and more meaningful than the fact-grubbing of mere linguistics-type linguists. When people respond to a conversation about linguistics by talking about Wittgenstein, that's when I reach for my revolver.
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Then why on earth did he choose linguistics as a field and delve so deeply into as to get a PhD.?

One of the most interesting things I learned during my undergrad in linguistics was why I was so crap at learning languages. I always wanted to speak French better, but didn't know what was holding me back. It was really interesting to delve into the reasons that language acquisition can be really difficult for some people.

More than that, I found sociolinguistics and discourse analysis intriguing. I wanted to know how politicians dodge questions without seeming to. I wanted to think about why my rural farmer friends weren't doing as well in interviews as my urban friends, and whether or not that had anything to do with slight accents and vocabulary choices. I wanted to think about why "fuck" is an offensive, dividing word for my father that tells him you don't respect him, but a sign of familiar respect and "we can let our hair down around each other" for me.

I'm less interested in learning a whole bunch of languages than I am in understanding how we use the language(s) we have. But I'm still taking French. :)
posted by heatherann at 6:38 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


So yeah I'm a business manager.

"You manage a business?"

In terms of work function the aim is to proactively leverage synergies in a non-customer-facing role in order to create enhanced opportunities for continuous process improvement on an ongoing basis though since outcomes have been consistent with quality projections in terms of six sigma analysis over a twenty four month timeframe the organization is approaching the 80/20 limit on low hanging fruit utilization methodologies and best practice necessitates achieving stakeholder buy-in for offshoring and rightsizing of team player resources in order to increase shareholder value on a smarter not harder basis going forward. And you're a linguist, I hear?
posted by flabdablet at 6:59 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ooh, those people annoy me almost as much as the Chomskyites.

Shut up we are friends!!!!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:11 AM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Someone above said: people in flyover country seem to think jobs ought to have practicality.

Learning as means to an end (work) is a very old and very American way to think about work and education. It has nothing to do with "flyover country."

In fact, the earnest use of "flyover country" betrays ignorance about the diversity of languages and opinions within the borders of the US. It's embarrassing to realize that "coastal" (is that the opposite of flyover?" ostensibly educated people believe the U.S. outside "Sex and the City" follows a uniform way of thought and lacks experience with foreign cultures.

...a conversation that starts "How many languages can you speak?" often heads quickly into "So what's the point of all that?" territory, possibly (this being Texas) followed by the suggestion that I enlist as an Army translator instead...

You live in Austin? So I bet your proximity to at least four military bases has more to do with the turn the convesration takes rather than some effable quality about those crazy ignorant Texans.

Stereotypes can be fun and illuminating. Here they reveal whoh as faith in their convictions about people they know little about.

Rant/derail ends here. Excuse spelling/grammar errors; side effect of meds.
posted by vincele at 8:19 AM on September 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


In fact, the earnest use of "flyover country"

vincele, I'm not so sure. Also, I don't believe nebulawindphone said or even implied anything about crazy ignorant Texans. The unkind stereotypes you're referring to certainly exist, and they have got to stop, but in this case it seems to me no harm was meant.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:55 AM on September 20, 2009


> Shut up we are friends!!!!

Aw, I didn't mean you, jessamyn! I was thinking of my kid brother! Him and his Wittgenstein...
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2009


NOT stories about how the rest of the world hasn't taken the time to understand the intricacies of our precious jobs.

Earlier in this thread? Where I noted that one of the things that annoys about people asking those particularly asinine questions is that when you actually answer the question they asked you with an "Actually, we don't do X...", they get all pissy?

You're soaking in it.

Or about how people in flyover country seem to think jobs ought to have practicality.

...and this is one of the other things that annoys, at least for academics: the sometimes startlingly sharp condemnation of your work that lies very shallowly under many of these questions.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2009


the earnest use of "flyover country"

gjc wasn't using it earnestly.

Either he (or she) was using it to put nasty elitism into the mouths of the terrible people he's railing against, even though nobody in this thread has used such language except for him, or he was using it as code-talk for "Real America."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:06 AM on September 20, 2009


For reference, I do political science.

Maybe if you were more specific in describing what you actually do, rather than using a description that really doesn't tell the person anything, people wouldn't ask such "ignorant" questions.

I have a degree in a field closely related to political science, I worked in politics and government for years, and a ton of my friends and associates work on capitol hill, are lobbyists, or are professional political analysists and consulatants, and I have no idea what "I do political science" even means.

If I was at a social event and someone described what they do professionally by saying "I do political science," I would assume that they have no idea what they're talking about, because they would describe their profession better if they did.

Then again, maybe you're giving a better description to people you meet in social situations, and you're just saying "I do political science" in this thread as some sort of shorthand so as not to reveal too much or something. Still, "I do political science" is not very descriptive.
posted by The World Famous at 9:47 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Actually, I usually answer "I teach at the university" or "I'm a university instructor," which conveys the information most people care about. Or, even more commonly, "I work with $HOST."

Some people then ask "What subject?" To which I usually answer "political science," and then I sometimes get asked what office I run for or why did Ralph Hamsterlicker win his race for county coroner in 1972 or similar.

I suppose I could answer "What subject?" with "I build game theoretic models of the internal governance structures of legislatures and test them statistically." I have actually done so once or twice when I got the vibe that my interrogator was about to corner me for an hour about how we need to govern the country with a combination of biblical inerrancy, objectivism, and electromagnetism. But honestly, the circumstances under which it would be reasonable to assume that someone asking me "What subject?" or "What do you do?" actually wanted such a specific answer are awfully narrow.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:19 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


netbros: You whippersnappers think you're special snowflakes. Might want to expand your age grouping there sonny. Now, get off my lawn.

I believe Messrs. PeterMcDermott and Burhanistan are referencing Anthony Ray's seminal work in the field.

Seminal.
posted by hangashore at 10:23 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


How many times do I have to tell you that I'm a Doctor not a Mister? This PhD in Buttology earns me the right!
posted by Burhanistan at 10:33 AM on September 20, 2009


Referring to the gentleman without mention of his knighthood is the height of peasant ignorance.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:33 AM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I named my dog 'Doctor', but he is not a physician, nor does he hold an advanced degree. In retrospect, I realize that this is misleading and I apologize, but it seems too late to change it. Fortunately so far it has not resulted in any fatal or even dire misunderstandings.

When people ask what his degree is in, I'm at a loss and he feigns indifference.
posted by trip and a half at 10:46 AM on September 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Genuinely curious, non-snarky question: Then why on earth did he choose linguistics as a field and delve so deeply into as to get a PhD.?

I can't answer for mr. sidhevil, but the question applies to me just as well. The answer is very simple: because I was both interested in and good at the material, which doesn't involve learning to speak other languages. (Though it can involve learning an awful lot about them; that I can manage.)
posted by advil at 10:53 AM on September 20, 2009


I think you can understand jessamyn and advil not to be saying merely "I don't speak any more languages than a normal, non-linguist, person."

Thanks, this is exactly what I meant! Of course the baseline will vary by culture.
posted by advil at 10:55 AM on September 20, 2009


er, I failed to paste the strikeout...anyways...
posted by advil at 10:55 AM on September 20, 2009


gjc wasn't using it earnestly.

That is true.

Either he (or she) was using it to put nasty elitism into the mouths of the terrible people he's railing against, even though nobody in this thread has used such language except for him, or he was using it as code-talk for "Real America."

Talk about putting words in people's mouths...

But, maybe that's sort of true too. But isn't it elitist to blame ignorance on geography? Perhaps even nastily elitist??

I don't think I'm railing against anything, except maybe the arrogance displayed by people who get offended, or even miffed, when people can't or don't automatically know what we do for a living. The noise of that chattiness derailed what should have been a good question.

I'm also not saying that intellectual work isn't productive. Anything that furthers understanding of the world around us is productive. Case in point, someone has to do the research that helps translators be better translators. But being in academia or the sciences doesn't automatically mean they are contributing to useful, or even useless, understanding of the world. No more or less than any other line of work.

Here's what I'm saying- it's one thing to be ignorant and ask anthropologists dinosaur questions. It is a whole 'nother level to get mad about it. I'm not saying anyone should have to defend what they do for a living to anyone but themselves or their boss. But if you are going to go around detecting condemnation, wouldn't it be better for everyone to have a stock explanation for what you do that explains it in a way that nullifies that condemnation? Isn't explaining what we do always a part of what we do? Why go to cocktail parties at all if you're going to get offended when people ask about your work?
posted by gjc at 11:17 AM on September 20, 2009


When people ask me what I do, I say I have a job or that I work for the man. They say, "Oh, me too," and we all laugh and drink and eat some more cat.

Now that's how you answer a question. I got that out of a "how to make small talk"-type book from a used book sale. I think it was from a few decades ago. It was $0.25. Cheap!
posted by anniecat at 11:49 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


cake. We eat cake. We don't eat cat.
posted by anniecat at 11:50 AM on September 20, 2009 [8 favorites]


Some errors are best left uncorrected.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:09 PM on September 20, 2009


Talk about putting words in people's mouths...

When people have already done so, they don't get much benefit of the doubt from me.

I don't think I'm railing against anything, except maybe the arrogance displayed by people who get offended, or even miffed, when people can't or don't automatically know what we do for a living.

They don't. People get offended, or even miffed, when they're involuntarily put into the position of either having to publicly correct someone for their error, or to lie about what they do. Because, note, the offending questions aren't "So what do you actually do? I've never really known." or anything like that. Instead, they start with some erroneous assumption -- that you must run for office or train people how to, or that you learn lots of languages, and then build off of that erroneous assumption with a question that gives you the simple choice of either lying about what you do or publicly correcting them. Or, I suppose, offering factually correct but uninformative answers like "I have not." or "One."

The thing you're not getting is that the "here are the dumb questions that annoy me" things aren't generally about the questions themselves; they're about the other intended (in the case of "Can you fix my computer?" etc) or inadvertent rudenesses that go along with it. The problem isn't "This person is asking me about my work and doesn't know much about it," the problem is that the way you asked this particular question has put me into a position where no matter what I do, I'm an asshole, or that the question turns out to be a prelude to an attack on my profession, or that when I answer with a simple "I don't know," the person asking becomes clearly offended or seems to think that I'm lying to them.

And of course some people really were just asking and didn't know any better, and take it perfectly fine when you say "Actually, we don't have to speak lots of languages; myself I mostly do statistics" or "Actually, politicians are what we study, not what we are," and then you can get back to talking about whatever. But then again, some people don't. More people than you seem to think don't. And that's where the annoyance is.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would think a dog named doctor would have the PhD in doggerel.
posted by effluvia at 12:54 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Because using the title outside of your academic field is generally regarded as the height of conceit. This is particularly ironic in countries where physicians have only bachelors degrees (MBBS), but there ya go.

So you're only doing it to help them with some ego issue?

Can you explain why it is conceited for someone with a doctorate to call themsleves doctor but it is not conceited for a medical doctor, even one without a doctorate, to call themselves doctor?
posted by biffa at 2:05 PM on September 20, 2009


In modern American English, "doctor" has become in common speech a synonym for "physician" and a term-of-art in specialized contexts, so it would be claiming to have a high-status occupation when you might not actually have one.

On the other hand, a physician who insists on being referred to as "Dr. Surname" outside of a medical setting is as a pompous an ass as the annoying guy who got a PhD in Dutch Colonial Accounting Ledgers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:55 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


You whippersnappers think you're special snowflakes.

People over 55 no longer really warrant the term 'brother', and our study wasn't seeking to test the deniability of the hypothesis with you other uncles, granddads or aging parents.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:57 PM on September 20, 2009


In modern American English, "doctor" has become in common speech a synonym for "physician" and a term-of-art in specialized contexts, so it would be claiming to have a high-status occupation when you might not actually have one.

And yet surgeons in New Zealand will bridle at being referred to as "Doctor", preferring Mr/Ms/Mrs. I assume this is common to surgeons in the English-speaking world.
posted by rodgerd at 4:41 PM on September 20, 2009


And yet surgeons in New Zealand will bridle at being referred to as "Doctor", preferring Mr/Ms/Mrs. I assume this is common to surgeons in the English-speaking world.

Not in the U.S. (and I assume not in Canada), but yes in the UK.
posted by grouse at 5:19 PM on September 20, 2009


There are a few precious souls in there, but then, I actually got out of IT because whenever people found out that that's what I did, next thing I knew I was their personal consultant. So, yeah, the answer to everything was generally "delete system32".

People ask me what I do now, I tell them I'm a Teeth Harvester, and they say What?, and I say Yeah, I gather up the teeth and we put them in a big industrial device and the way it turns out is people think they're buying coral calcium, but boy do they have a surprise in store. The more coarsely ground teeth become the scrubbing particles in your designer exfoliant, and the rejects find their way randomly into packets of dehydrated eel spine snacks.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:09 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Instead, they start with some erroneous assumption -- that you must run for office or train people how to, or that you learn lots of languages, and then build off of that erroneous assumption with a question that gives you the simple choice of either lying about what you do or publicly correcting them.

But those assumptions aren't offensive -- that you run for office, or that you know a lot of languages. Really, who cares that some people asked you a question with a benign misconception embedded in it?

That was the problem with the whole thread -- the misconceptions were either benign, or totally understandable. Someone in that thread complained that when he said he was faculty at a university, people ask what he teaches, when in fact he's not teaching right now, he's just doing research. I mean, really -- someone at a cocktail party says he's faculty at a university, and you're not supposed to ask what he teaches. That is touchy.
posted by palliser at 6:31 PM on September 20, 2009


And yet surgeons in New Zealand will bridle at being referred to as "Doctor", preferring Mr/Ms/Mrs. I assume this is common to surgeons in the English-speaking world.

In the U.S., they prefer the title "God."

kidding! kidding! ha ha ha!

I've known that - about surgeons preferring Mr/Ms/Mrs in some parts of the world - but I've never known why.

So, why? Surgeons are also doctors, yes?
posted by rtha at 6:58 PM on September 20, 2009


rtha, here is a small explanation of the tradition. And I'll note that in those parts of the world, usually physicians do not have a doctoral degree as well.
posted by grouse at 7:40 PM on September 20, 2009


Really, who cares that some people asked you a question with a benign misconception embedded in it?

The problem is that when you answer them, a surprising number get awfully pissy about being corrected.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:43 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


grouse, thanks. Weird. Interesting.
posted by rtha at 8:14 PM on September 20, 2009


The problem is that when you answer them, a surprising number get awfully pissy about being corrected.

This is true. It's truly bizarre.

(And, by the way, thanks for your explanation above. It's very strange that people respond the way they do - and your job sounds awesome.)
posted by The World Famous at 9:20 PM on September 20, 2009


Some {linguists who don't speak any languages} are programming computers to process natural English text.

This is what Mr. Sidhedevil does, except it's for "human languages" in general as well as English in particular.

Also, like advil and heatherann and I think jessamyn said, Mr. Sidhedevil was interested in language, and the fact that he has a hard time learning languages makes the whole conundrum more interesting to him, not less interesting. His dissertation is on a topic related to English-language syntax.

Now, see, I was one of those "interested in languages" rather than in the theory of language people, and except for a truly awesome course about Indo-European with Calvert Watkins, I hated all my undergraduate linguistics courses, which is why I switched to majoring in English.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:41 PM on September 20, 2009


That was the problem with the whole thread -- the misconceptions were either benign, or totally understandable.

If you had to answer the same misconceived question, however benign and understandable its origins, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again—you might get a bit testy.
posted by dogrose at 10:15 PM on September 20, 2009


But those assumptions aren't offensive -- that you run for office, or that you know a lot of languages. Really, who cares that some people asked you a question with a benign misconception embedded in it?

Because when you're on the receiving end of such misperceptions it gets really, really, really tired explaining them over and over and over again. Pretty much any time racism 101 or sexism 101 questions come up on MeTa you can bet at least one person while have a shit-flinging spinout because they've tried to patiently explain some basic concepts again and again and again.

It may not be the most constructive way to deal with it, but at some point it's not that unreasonable to hope people would have a broad enough general knowledge to have some sort of clue about the world outside their door, or at least be in the habit of finding out by asking questions rather than making assertions.
posted by rodgerd at 1:13 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


dg, you're confusing gjc with the original poster of the Ask Me, I think? Or have I got it wrong ...
No, you have it right. Now everyone knows how stupid I am!

posted by dg at 3:57 AM on September 21, 2009


... and possibly that I forgot to close the italic tag :-(
posted by dg at 3:58 AM on September 21, 2009


It was grade-A hilarious because they all spoke at least three languages proficiently (not natively - for the reason that you mentioned). Thus it has been with virtually every linguist I have ever met, while insisting (correctly) that you don't need to learn additional languages to study linguistics they all took some pride in the languages that they did speak.

You needed to have an A-level (or equivalent proficiency such as bilingual upbringing) to gain admission to my degree course.
posted by mippy at 4:52 AM on September 21, 2009


Look, being pissed off at being politely corrected -- that's annoying, so if that's what's being complained about here, I get it.

But I maintain that you can "have some sort of clue about the world outside [your] door," and still think: (1) that linguists know several languages; (2) that faculty at a university teach; (3) that accounting involves math; etc. These misconceptions are really not indications that someone is a generally ignorant person who doesn't care about anything but their own day-to-day. They seem so to you, because you are a linguist, or faculty who doesn't teach, or an accountant, but personally I think that says more about your own failure to understand that everyone has their own lives and their own sets of knowledge, and ignorance of what you happen to do every day doesn't say much about the person's understanding as a whole.
posted by palliser at 5:43 AM on September 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


palliser, it's a complex of stuff that reinforces itself.

I honestly believe it starts in being annoyed by the things that are actual rudenesses, like getting visibly annoyed when someone tells you what they actually do, or treating you badly or differently because they seemed receptive and asked about it so you gave them a less untechnical explanation of what you study and suddenly it's LOOK AT THE FUCKING EGGHEAD.

But, sure, it builds on that. You might not believe it, but those negative reactions are really are common enough that you start to dread even the question even when it's coming from someone who, as it turns out, isn't going to get all pissy, but you couldn't know that.

Let me try to explain using a different example. If you ever want to send an academic into an eye-rolling, spittle-flecked rant, ask them about dealing with their families during a job search (note: applies only to first-generation academics). Academic job searches operate under a different set of rules than normal or corporate job searches, and here are the two things you need to understand:

(1) If a department hasn't advertised a position open, there really, really, REALLY isn't one open and they are forbidden from hiring anyone.
(2) Except for clearly interdisciplinary hires or dual-appointments, hiring is almost completely contained within a single department, and the people in that department do not give the slightest fuck who people in some other department think they should hire.
(3) When they say they're looking for someone who studies X, Y, or Z, that means that if you send an application for any other field of study, they won't even finish looking at your resume.

So inevitably your family asks you why you haven't applied to Nearby University, and you tell them that they ain't hirin' for what you do. All's well so far.

Then your family asks you why you can't apply to Nearby University, and you tell them again that they ain't hirin' for what you do. And all's still well, people forget.

Then your family says that they are so hiring -- they just hired a mechanical engineering professor (and you study, say, Scandinavian literature), so you tell that that they aren't hiring for what you do. All's less well at this point.

Then they say that the English Department is so hiring, you were just at a coffee shop and met someone who was interviewing for a position in early and middle-English literature. So you explain that's not what you do, and you do something else, and they aren't hiring for any position you can apply for. And they look at you like you're really stupid, and all's really not so fucking good at this point.

And then you go back for Christmas and your dad takes you out for lunch and on the way tells you that he's also invited a professor he knows (who teaches computer science, and remember that you do Scandinavian literature) and he's sure if you can impress him he can get you a job. And you tell him again on the way that that's not how it works and that Dr. Computer Science is completely incapable of getting you a position in the English department and he tells you you're wrong about that and that you need to network so that you can get your foot in the door and that's how he got his first job at Big Corp. If you can only impress Dr. Computer Science, of course the English Department will create a position for you. That's how different parts of a big company get along.

Not all of these things have happened to me, but some experience along these lines is nearly universal among academics who are the only academics in their families.

Now, the thing that's annoying about all this isn't that they don't immediately understand the ins and outs of the academic hiring process. Why would they? But at the same time, at each stage in the process your family is refusing to believe you when you tell them that they aren't hiring for what you do. At each stage in the process, your family is telling you that they think you're too fucking dumb to understand the hiring process of your own profession (or are lying to them about that job at Nearby U for some reason). All of which are hugely, massively frustrating.

The practical upshot of all this is that if we're home for some reason and run into an old high school friend who asks us why we don't just work at Nearby U, we sometimes don't take it as well as we should because of the baggage that our families have thrown onto that question.

These innocent questions or misunderstandings work similarly. I've had enough bad experiences being asked what office I run for by the person next to me on the plane or a barber or a salesman making small talk and so on that I've come to quite dislike the question even though I do intellectually understand that most people who ask it mean well.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:36 AM on September 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


A more general background to the problem of ignorance of your profession is helpful, but when taken that broadly -- I don't think parental concern-trolling based on relative ignorance of the industry you work in is in any way specific to academia. My guess is that it's heightened by the relative difficulty of finding work in academia, so any "suggestions" seem even more insulting in their implication that it's your fault you're not finding something. I have been seriously rude to my mostly-well-meaning-if-a-little-interfering mother (is there any other kind?) in relation to her job-search "suggestions."

You know, I actually don't think I'm in danger of making the errors mentioned in the thread -- I wouldn't actually ask what someone "teaches," if they're faculty, for instance, because I understand that they might be teaching some subjects that don't really represent the work they're mostly doing right now, and I'd rather know about that and assume they'd rather talk about that. But I also know what makes me more likely to know that than your barber or a salesman - fancypants schooling and a bunch of friends I made there that are in academia.

Finally, I'm not your mom, but like her, I have a suggestion you've probably already thought of and rejected: have you tried "I study government"? The lack of the term "political" might help in not triggering the train of thought that leads to the council member from Hadosiak they hated. Might lead to a rant about taxes, but at least it's variety.
posted by palliser at 7:08 AM on September 21, 2009


When asked what I do in those situmatations, I pretty uniformly answer "I teach at the university" or, if I'm not near where I live, "I teach college." Most people leave it at that.

Some ask, "what subject?" then I answer "political science." I could answer "government," I guess, but I don't think that would result in any less confusion for that subset of people who get confused.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:13 AM on September 21, 2009


I don't think parental concern-trolling based on relative ignorance of the industry you work in is in any way specific to academia.

It's not. When I was a reporter for a very small-town paper in central Pennsylvania, my family -- who lives outside of Philly -- kept asking why I didn't come home and "put in an application" at the Philly Inquirer. My family's frame of reference was actually such that they thought all I had to do was stop by the newspaper office and fill out a job application, like it was Orange Julius or something.

Yeah, it was annoying. I can see wanting to vent about it. If that's all that thread was, then sure, why not, though I suspect less chatty threads have been closed down in the past. But whatever.
posted by hifiparasol at 7:49 AM on September 21, 2009


I think it's interesting that, at the very least, this AskMe and MeTa callout have shown that both 'sides' of the issue are very real for those who experience them. Hence the controversy.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:15 AM on September 21, 2009


When I first looked at this question, I had an entirely different scenario in mind than the one most people seem to be discussing. And then, stupidly, changed my mind about what the question was about, when according to the asker I had it right the first time.

Specifically, the scenario I imagined was along these lines: You're a dinner party, and one of the other guests, let's call him "Fred", is having a great time entertaining the other guests with his knowledge of linguistics, or political science, or some other topic. This topic happens to be your area of expertise, and from listening to "Fred" for just a few moments, you've realized he is BSing everybody.

What are the common mis-statements about your field that tip you off to the speaker's bluffing?

I assumed this was the meaning of the question because this scenario has happened to me frequently. It's especially fun when "Fred" knows he is talking about something I know a bit about1, and finishes a long, entertaining, and entirely wrong explanation with "Isn't that right, FishBike?2"

1 - I have a hard time thinking of myself as an expert about anything, but some things I overhear are obviously wrong or impossible.

2 - Not my real name.

posted by FishBike at 8:21 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to add an amen to ROU_Xenophobe's comment about the academic job search. I had some frustrating conversations with extended family.
posted by ob at 8:41 AM on September 21, 2009


Some ask, "what subject?" then I answer "political science." I could answer "government," I guess, but I don't think that would result in any less confusion for that subset of people who get confused.

Would answering "gubmint" help?
posted by ob at 8:42 AM on September 21, 2009


> ...a conversation that starts "How many languages can you speak?" often heads quickly into "So what's the point of all that?" territory, possibly (this being Texas) followed by the suggestion that I enlist as an Army translator instead...

You live in Austin? So I bet your proximity to at least four military bases has more to do with the turn the convesration takes rather than some effable quality about those crazy ignorant Texans.


"Crazy ignorant Texans" is your words, not mine. I love it here.

Now, for comparison, I grew up in a bizarrely liberal part of the country where by and large the military isn't even seen as a valid career, and certainly isn't a cherished institution. Back home, the unhelpful ending to the conversation would have been "What's the point of all that? You want to do something useful, you should join the Peace Corps."

And I think that's a frustrating conversation too. It's frustrating, and frankly disrespectful, any time someone tells you after five minutes of conversation that your life's work is worthless and they have a better idea. I'll take confused questions any day, but "That's dumb; go do something else" gets my back up.

Anyway, down here, military service has a lot more visibility and gets a lot more respect — which FWIW is awesome in my book — and so people rarely suggest the Peace Corps and often suggest the Defense Language Institute instead. Usually the people making the suggestion are smart, sane and worldly. Often, I wind up having a pretty cool conversation with them about something else later. (People who know about the DLI are generally either ex-military themselves or just extroverts who like to meet people from all walks of life, and either way it's good for some stories.) But, again, it's frustrating to hear "What you do is pointless. Here's something better" from a total stranger.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:52 AM on September 21, 2009


"I'm a choreoanimator."
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2009


They are just filling in the chitchat blanks while wondering if the open bar will have their brand of scotch.

(Clynelish, for those of you hoping to have me as the charming guest who asks infuriatingly ignorant questions at your next mid-level open-bar event.)
posted by Greg Nog at 12:50 PM on September 21, 2009


Specifically, the scenario I imagined was along these lines: You're a dinner party, and one of the other guests, let's call him "Fred", is having a great time entertaining the other guests with his knowledge of linguistics, or political science, or some other topic. This topic happens to be your area of expertise, and from listening to "Fred" for just a few moments, you've realized he is BSing everybody.

What are the common mis-statements about your field that tip you off to the speaker's bluffing?


Ok then! Let's start over!

Renewable Energy:

They confuse energy and power.

They have no idea as to the comparative maturity of different renewable energy technologies. (E.g. Of course, wave energy will be the real technology of the future! Or worst of all: These things will all be irrelevant soon, fusion will be a far more reliable energy source).

They lack any idea of the scale of energy needs.
posted by biffa at 2:32 PM on September 21, 2009


For everyone who's read this far down, here is a treat: a great (and safe for work) Mitchell and Webb sketch on cocktail-party discussions about work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:13 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


You needed to have an A-level (or equivalent proficiency such as bilingual upbringing) to gain admission to my degree course.

Clearly those designing linguistics courses are among the ignorant who believe that d not knowing more than one language would be a drawback in the field. And people who "had to pass two language proficiency exams in order to gain their phd" are justified in feeling that foreign languages are completely irrelevant to their chosen area of study.

Or, just possibly, 'what languages do you know?' is a pretty fair question to ask someone who describes themselves as a linguist.
posted by jacalata at 11:41 PM on September 21, 2009


Or, just possibly, 'what languages do you know?' is a pretty fair question to ask someone who describes themselves as a linguist.

In the same sense that "What Skynard songs do you cover?" is a fair question to ask someone who describes themselves as a musician. I don't hate people for shouting "FREEBIRD!" at shows, but they don't get any get-out-of-being-an-annoyance-free cards just because they don't know that they don't know what they're saying.

It's not nutty to think that someone who is interested in or actually professionally does linguistics might speak multiple languages, but it's also not actually correct at all to assume they do. I think it's awesome when people can manage not to let their annoyance show through when they're asked a poorly-premised question for the umpteenth time, but I really, really understand where they're coming from when they do get annoyed.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:32 AM on September 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Renewable Energy:

They confuse energy and power


and quote made-up figures in "megawatts per hour" or "megawatts per year".
posted by flabdablet at 7:20 AM on September 23, 2009


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