When You Meet Someone, The First Thing You Think To Say Is Probably The First Thing Everyone Says

I'm an artificial intelligence researcher, and when I introduce myself
as such I get the same joke over and over again. I've mentioned this
in a previous blog entry:


People always point to their friend and say "That's what he has" or
refer to themselves, "that's what I have." Then there's the inevitable
complaint from some humanities student about how AI will take over the
Earth or is impossible.

When I was studying psychology, people would always half-jokingly act
scared and suggest that I was going to analyze them or their
dreams. This was even more irritating because Georgia Tech's Psych
department didn't even have a clinical program. I'm sure many, many
jobs have this kind of thing going on. You have to deal with the same
jokes, the same comments, over and over.

My man Daniel Saunders put it well: "When you meet someone, the first
thing you think to say is probably the first thing everyone thinks to
say." In other words, don't say it. You think you're clever, and you
probably are, as much as everyone else is, and that's the problem.
Unless it's extraordinarily clever, they've probably heard it, as they
say, a million times.

Monty Python makes fun of this phenomenon it the travel agent sketch:

Tourist: My name is Smoke-too-much

Bounder: Well you'd better cut down a little then.

Tourist: What?

Bounder: You'd better cut down a little then.

Tourist: Oh I see! Cut down a little then.....

Bounder: Yes...I expect you get people making jokes about your name
all the time.

Tourist: No, no actually it never struck me before. Smoke...to...much....(laughs)

Bounder: Anyway you're interested in one of our adventure holidays?


Anyway, that's the advice for this entry.

  • If someone's name is "Michael Jackson," don't start singing "Beat It."
  • If someone is a proctologist, don't make a disgusting joke.
  • If someone studies business ethics, don't say "isn't that an oxymoron?!"
  • If someone does math, don't tell them you hate math or how much you sucked at it in high school. No one cares, you self-obsessed bore.
  • If someone is an intern at the White House, don't ask them if they blow the president.
  • If you meet a doctor (in a social context), don't tell her about a problem you're having.
  • If someone has a double-major in two seemingly disparate disciplines,
    don't comment on it.
  • If someone's in a fraternity, don't tell them right off the bat about how you disapprove of them, or ask if they've raped anyone lately.
  • If two people are twins, don't ask if they can tell each other apart. The idea is so absurd it's not even funny the first time. And believe me, your time won't be the first. Also, don't ask them if they have telepathy.
  • If someone's a lumberjack, don't sing the Monty Python song.
  • Don't tell psychologists that you bet they're reading your mind or analyzing you.
  • If someone's name is the name or in the chorus of a song, don't start singing it (e.g. Roxanne, Celia).
  • When you hear someone's major, especially if it's in the humanities, don't ask "what are you going to do with that?" Most people's jobs have nothing to do with their major. Also, it's okay if people don't know what they want to do with their lives when they're still in college, so knock it off.
  • If someone's birthday is on or near Christmas, don't ask if they get fewer presents. Of course they do.

When I do these things and get caught I'm apologetic and terribly

I'd love to hear your experiences with this in the comments, giving or
receiving. What's your job/major, and what do people always say when they
hear it?

Receiving these remarks requires more patience than a New York City
ER. I've recently figured out why (this may be obvious to many of you,
but I just realized it). You correct someone, or you tell them "I've
heard that a million times." Then someone else does it, and you say it
again, or laugh again. Eventually you get really irritated and tempted
to yell at them. Why? Because at some level it feels like it's the
same person saying it to you over and over, and why can't it get
through their thick head?
You forget it's a new person saying it,
who is no more more deserving of your rage than the lucky first person
who just happened to do it before you got so irritated.

On a positive note, what should you say when someone tells you
their job (since in our culture that's kind of how we introduce
ourselves)? Remember that people are interested in the details of how
they do their jobs. So never ask questions like "What's that like?"
Ask specific questions, like "How much of your time is spent on the
road?" or how they solve certain problems.


Dustin said…
Two cases, both from personal experience:

If someone has said they're heading to improv rehearsal, don't:
- ask how they can rehearse if its improv
- ask if they're improvising right now.
- demand them to be funny

When someone asks me what my major is (Applied Mathematics and Engineering) I immediately feel tense because I'm going to have to tell them, and then they will inevitably comment on how intelligent I must be, and then I'll explain that I do theatre too, and generally I just don't like this sort of conversation.
Daniel said…
Another thing to watch out for is dredging up whatever tiny piece of information you know about the area, like from a magazine or a long ago intro course. People always talk to me about whatever the latest thing they learned about psychology was, inevitably in social or clinical psychology. People don't understand how specialized scientists are, even within my field of cognitive psychology, and it's usually something I don't have anything to say about.

On the other hand, I'm pleased and impressed when someone happens to bring up one of the big questions in perceptual psychology, and that'll start me talking. Maybe the lesson is to act like you don't know anything in the field, and stick with regular intelligent questions, unless you actually understand the levels of specialization in that area and which that person is in, and then you can use the knowledge you have. In that case don't just trot it out, looking for congratulations, but use the knowledge to ask an offbeat question that interests you, again from the humble perspective of an intelligent layman.

And another important point is if you are expecting people to tell you cool things about their job and how they feel about it, don't forget to tell them cool tidbits about your own job in exchange.
Anonymous said…
See here or here
Daniel said…
I just heard a new one:
If someone's a linguist, don't ask how many languages they speak.

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