One of the stereotypes of people working computing is that they aren’t great at socializing, and I have to say when I was young that was very true for me. As a shy child I had difficulty striking up conversations with strangers or even responding when people would try to talk to me, which is partially why I admired my mother so much. She could talk to anyone and everyone and seemed to be constantly engaging people in conversation. Happily, as I’ve grown older I’ve become more like my mother when it comes to socializing. It’s now comfortable and easy for me to engage strangers in conversation, and it’s a rare day when I don’t talk to someone when I’m out and about in the city.

I find, however, that some of the typical subjects of conversation don’t work well. For example, it’s very common for someone (a store clerk, someone on the train, etc.) to ask me what I do for a living. The conversation then tends to go something like this, taken from an actual encounter in a clothing store yesterday. As a note, I was getting a “teacher” discount at the store from someone at the store who knew I worked at DePaul. So the person I was talking with already knew I was in education:

Friendly stranger (in this case a store clerk): So where do you teach?

Me: DePaul University.

FS (surprised look on his face): Oh. <pause> What do you teach?

Me: Computer science.

FS (visibly taken aback): Oh. <much longer pause> How long have you taught there?

Me: Since 1996. <continuing as his jaw drops> I just love it there. …

The poor clerk decided to cut his losses and run soon after I finished talking about DePaul. Given that I prefer to shop without interference from clerks, this wasn’t a terrible thing. Still, he was pretty persistently friendly until that point.

This kind of conversation occurs over and over when I talk about what I do, and there are two points that always cause the shocked expressions: 1. that I teach at the college level, and 2. that I teach computer science. The first might be explained by the fact that most people hear “teacher” or “teach” and think about K-12. In that case you would assume they would do a quick mental switch and be fine. But they don’t. The only theory I have is that I don’t look like a college professor, although I’m not sure why.

But the much bigger sticking point is the fact that I teach computer science. People more often than not have absolutely nothing to say when I mention CS. And I mean they have absolutely nothing to say: there is no bigger conversation killer than being a computer science professor. This puzzles me so much. What is it about teaching computer science that inspires absolutely no small talk? I’m fine making small talk with people who do things radically different than what I do. In fact, the more different someone’s profession is from my own the more I’m inspired to ask questions. There’s clearly something I’m missing here, so feel free to share any ideas you have. I’d rather not have so many casual conversations be sacrificed to my profession.

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