Make It Specific (Issue 588)

In which we are encouraged to describe ourselves in terms of the specifics of what we do rather than the titles others give us.

A middle seat!  (Snarl!) I had forgotten to check in online early enough to secure a low boarding number, so, it was a middle seat, again. I picked a row to my right in which the window and aisle seat people looked pleasant, plunked down, and said (with some enthusiasm, but not in an overly friendly way) “Hello, Happy Thursday!” to my window-seat row mate, a woman in her late 20s.

To my great surprise, she looked up, smiled and said, “Hello!” After a few moments pause, she asked me, “Do you go to the University of _____?”   (I was wearing a black fleece with the University emblem on the right chest.)

“No,” I replied. “My daughter goes there. I have two kids and  two fleeces, one each with their University emblems on them. Today is daughter fleece day.”

“Oh, I know that University,” she said. “My college played them in several sports. (Pause)  My dad used to wear my college sweatshirt all the time. Good for you! I’m sure your daughter is happy when you wear it.”

To make a long story short, we talked for about half of the 2 1/2 hour trip home. I learned that she had grown up in Houston, Texas; been inspired by the space program; majored in astrophysics in college including a year studying in Spain, where she learned about mobility problems in the aged. She did a year-long independent study that involved studying the impact of globalization on indigenous music and culture in six countries around the world.

As a result of her experience in Spain, she shifted her focus for graduate school to bio-physics and bio-mechanics. She loves football and gravitated toward flag football  (‘It’s what you do when you’re the only girl in the physics program,’ she said.), graduated with a PhD in physics and began work designing complex machines that guide multiple catheters during heart surgery.

Whoaf!

I turned to her and said, “That must have been pretty hard for you in the bars…”

She laughed and said, “Yes. Before I got married, I would go out to the bars with my girlfriends. Guys would come up to us and ask the usual getting-to-know-you questions. After a while, I learned to be vague.”

“A guy would ask, ’What do you do?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m a graduate student’  hoping that would be enough. And, then they’d ask, ‘So what are you studying?’  And, I’d say ‘science,’ hoping THAT would be enough.  And then they’d ask, ‘Well, what kind of science?’  and I’d say, ‘Physics’ … and you could just see their eyes glaze over.”

So…. there’s a lot of sociological, gender stereotyping, etc. etc. etc. stuff we could talk about here. But let’s focus on “personal positioning.”

Banking is not much in favor these days.  Somewhere below physics majors.  So, when we are out in group business or social situations, people ask us the same question, “what do you do?” And we can almost hear the same conversation (and this will apply most directly to bankers, and one could adapt this for any industry):

“What do you do? And we’d say, ’Oh, I’m in finance,’ hoping that would be enough. And, then they’d ask, “So what kind of finance?”  And, we’d say, “Small business” (or whatever), hoping THAT Would be enough, not REALLY wanting to get into a rant with someone about banking, robber barons, etc. etc.  And then, they’d ask, “So what do you help them with?  And we’d say, ‘banking’…. And we can just imagine their eyes glazing over.”

So one of the problems with “physics” and “banking” is that they are  B R O A D terms that individuals define however they define them when they are in conversations with us.  And, like my seat mate, all of us embody a wide variety of experiences, more than we could ever share in impromptu conversation.

One trick is to get specific.

Imagine if my seat mate had said (in the bars), “You know how, when the Space Shuttle docked with the International Space Station, there was some navigation and steering involved to make that happen consistently? I write some of the computer code that controls that.”

Now, that’s still fairly arcane stuff. Maybe still not good pick up conversation in bars. However, it’s a lot more understandable, less intimidating, and less prone to stereotyping than “physics.”

Same thing with bankers. If a banker said, “You know how, when you get busy, sometimes it’s hard to get to bank or pay the bills or do other errands that are important but feel like a waste of time? Well, I work with business owners and I help them reduce the amount of time they spend on tasks like that so they have more time to do what’s critical in their businesses.”

Depending on the audience, that could still sound fairly arcane and it, also, may not be good pick up conversation in bars. However, it’s a lot more understandable, less intimidating, and less stereotyped than “banking.”

The trick is to describe a specific challenge and give a SMALL chunk of information about how you address it, specifically.

If we do this, our conversation partners will have something specific they can pick to continue the conversation. The answers” physics” or “banker” don’t suggest any particular conversation direction (other than, maybe, “run away, run away”).

“Writing code for the space shuttle” or “helping business owners “reduce time on irritating tasks” suggests lines of questioning or conversation that the listener could pursue. Much better.

And, in the end, my seat mate married her lab partner,  another physicist.

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