December 22, 2008

Explanation Please

I recently overheard an exchange that boiled down to a woman telling a man who was obviously quite close to her, "Oh, the work you do is so important and wonderful, but it's too complicated for me. I just couldn't understand it if I tried."

I wanted to cry. For him. Her I wanted to shake.

How lonely it must be to have someone dear to you tell you that putting your intelligence to good use raises a barrier between you. How lonely to have embraced a vocation they won't work to understand. To know that if you talk about the ins and outs of what you do, the little things that make it fascinating, challenging work, you'll be speaking to the air.

She, on the other hand, has no idea what she's missing.

I wanted to invite him to come over and tell me about his job, and not just because the whole situation tugged at my heart (or because he was smart, articulate and kind of cute). My reaction to finding someone immersed in the esoterica of a field I know nothing about is somewhere between a friendly chat about their day and a job interview combined with taking a life history.

If I were to persuade him to talk, despite the inhibiting presence of his lovely whatever, we'd start with the basics. "Where do you work? What's your job title? What kind of training/education is required for that?" Then we’d hit the big question: "What do you actually do day to day?"

If I were lucky, I'd get an answer that I didn't understand. More likely, I'd have to prod a bit for details. I would try very hard not to glare at the whatever at this point, because I'd know the generica I was fighting to be a product of the incurious reactions he receives every day. (Just a note, the genders here are entirely situational. This also happens with them reversed.)

Eventually, though--assuming neither of them decided I was a stalker--he'd hit details that meant nothing to me. That's when the fun would start.

"What is an XX?"

"How do you do YY?"

"Can you explain how ZZ works?"

You've seen the classic maze-solving screensaver, right? The one that draws the maze, sends out a line that randomly takes each turn until it hits a wall, then backs up to the last unchosen branching and picks a new turn over and over until it finds the exit? That's what this conversation would look like if it were diagrammed. Of course, in this case, each branch would be a new concept or process I needed explained and instead of hitting the wall, I'd gather enough information to understand the next higher explanation.

The conversation would end only when he was dragged off by his whatever or when I had a pretty good picture of what he did do with his day. At no point would I ever say, much less think, that I couldn't understand what I was being told. If I needed more explanation, I'd just ask.

I really have conversations like this--about people's jobs, hobbies, PhD projects. As a result, I know a fair amount about things like brewing, systems architecture and administration, the politics of management in industry and academia, fundraising tactics, how to tease apart two very interesting proteins that are widely considered to be the same but may not be, church history, etc.

Am I an expert in any of these things? Oh, no. Not even close. I can't do any of these things that have been described to me. Deep knowledge and practice are what make an expert, and I've acquired neither. All I can do is understand what I'm hearing and ask intelligent questions.

So what do I get out of it? I could say that I get material for writing, which would be partly true. A shallow knowledge of many things can lend richness and realism to a fictional world, as long as the writer understands her limits. I could say that I get the friendship of extremely bright people, which is much more of the story, but still not complete.

The other thing I get out of this is the chance to test myself against a new field, a new idea. I get something the person who says, "I can't understand that," will never have.

I get proof, over and over, that I can.


ScientistMother said...

It is so isolating to be in his position. No one in my family even tries to understand. Or at least they never did. They have made the realization that it has pushed me away, unfortunately I am not sure if they are sincere. Or more accurately, don't believe they are sincere in their efforts to understand.

Anonymous said...

My 2 year old cousin majorly hearts animals. Dinosaurs, anything SpongeBob related, bugs, etc. Because my aunt and uncle know nothing about animals, they ask him "do dinosaurs make 'varoom varoom' noises like trucks?" or "can the bug climb the wall like Spiderman?" Meanwhile, I'm explaining how spiders make silk, spiders aren't bugs, and the Brontosaurus doesn't growl or have an engine while playing with him. I know how you feel, I'm the "smart one in the family" and my efforts to include the family in the playtime learning have been futile. makes me very sad.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Oh, ScientistMother, I'm so sorry. If they are making any attempt, though, I suspect they're sincere in at least their desire to understand, even if they don't quite know how to make the effort. My grandmother is a lot like that these days. She asks a question, knowing it's important to ask, but she's decided she can't follow the answer with the medication she's on. It is hard to deal with.

Anonymous, I'm very happy that your cousin has you in his life, at least. One adult who can understand why these things are so cool can make a lot of difference.

Sanity said...

I've long since shortened what I do to "I'm a physicist" or "I do research at universityname" and not provide the long explanation unless people ask. Sure, it's not as simple as "I'm a mason" but it works most the time.

I've also given up on explaining my job to my family, but at least most of my friends have an idea what I do, and I have an idea what they do.

Aside from that, I've found that most jobs do have similarities. We all have coworkers, we all screw up and we all have stories. You don't need to understand everything to talk about it.

For example, my father used to be an podologist, and at the diner table I used to listen to his stories. I'd just ignore all the complex latin names and phrases, but still find it interesting.

My girlfriend works in bio-medical enginering, we've been together for 5 years now and I still don't understand a thing about her field, but I know exactly what she does at work and (hopefully) the other way around as well.

Stephanie Zvan said...

alcari, I'm guessing you know more about bio-medical engineering than you think you do, enough at least to know what the priorities of the industry are, what good it can do, and what the pitfalls are for someone working in it. All of that is very helpful information, even outside one's own field.

What kind of physics?