Touchy discussion subjects for your occupation/group?
December 16, 2008 2:59 PM   Subscribe

What are some topics that are touchy among people in your occupation/group but that well-meaning outsiders often bring up, unaware of the topic's sensitivity?

Among software engineers, discussions comparing or criticizing programming languages are very touchy. I have frequently seen personal resentment or arguments start because one person questioned the merit of an aspect of someone else's favorite programming language. I told a non-programmer friend about this phenomenon, and she found it to be utterly silly. It's understandable that she would feel this way, since a non-programmer may not be aware of how personally bonded one becomes to the programming language one uses every day.

What are some other examples of subjects that are touchy for people within a particular group (whether occupational or otherwise) that well-meaning outsiders unwittingly bring up, since the sensitivity of the subject might not be obvious to outsiders?

I would like to investigate this more and potentially think this would make an interesting research topic for one of my psychology classes.
posted by lunchbox to Human Relations (157 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Well, Metafilter has circumcision, cat declawing, and misogyny, if that's of any help to you.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 3:11 PM on December 16, 2008 [8 favorites]

"You're a librarian? I was thinking about doing that, I really love books!"

Less touchy and more just kinda annoying. It reminds us how little people know about what librarians actually do. But it's nice to know so many people really love books, I guess.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:15 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I am a software engineer, and I still think it's ridiculous to get upset about people questioning a favorite programming language. Your friend must have crossed the border from rational thinking fan into irrational fanatic.
posted by rrenaud at 3:15 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Oh, you're a librarian? What, you just sit around all day reading books?"
"You have to have a DEGREE to be a librarian?
"Well, with the internet and all, libraries must be on the verge of extinction, right?"
"A librarian, huh? SSSSSSHHHHHhhhhhhh!"
posted by Rykey at 3:17 PM on December 16, 2008 [10 favorites]

Teaching - "Wow, it must be great having summers off!"
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:17 PM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

I work in television, and most of the on-camera performers I know hate being asked how old they are.

Also, on-camera people very much dislike being "outed" as famous in public. One host I know- let's call him Georgie- says his fiancee's father will pull over random strangers and ask, "Do you recognize that guy from TV? I'ts Georgie!" This would be to a total stranger and loudly enough for other strangers to hear. This makes poor Georgie the centre of attention, so he effectively has to "perform" for the rest of his dinner or whatever, because everyone in the restaurant is furtively staring at him. Sure, he works in television, but he also deserves to be able to ride the bus or eat a sandwich in peace!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:18 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm not sure I'm entirely with you on the example. I'm a programmer, and I certainly wouldn't be offended if a "well-meaning outsider" were to criticize or compare any programming languages at all. That dispute only really arises among programmers, not between programmers and outsiders, and even with other programmers I don't exactly get worked up about it.

When I worked in tech support, it would drive me crazy when a well-meaning outsider would favor me with a hilarious tech support anecdote, like the CD-ROM cup holder story. There must be other fields where people hear the same damn thing from everyone they meet. On preview: this could include librarians.
posted by pocams at 3:18 PM on December 16, 2008

Not only programmers argue about languages. The notion of whether a language is a distinct language or a dialect can cause considerable animosity.

In a recent example involving an Egyptian Arabic version of Wikipedia, geeks could argue about the pros and cons of their labeling choice.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:20 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I work with at least 50 programmers every day, have known hundreds more, and not a single one takes favorite programming language arguments seriously (unless the result of the argument means new policy will be instated, or you will be forced to work for months in a language you hate, for no logical reason).

What you don't mention around my colleagues is that we may be in another dotcom bubble, recent layoffs in the industry, and how virtual goods are a fad. We are mostly fully vested! Shut up now!
posted by dirty lies at 3:21 PM on December 16, 2008

The two canonical examples are religion and politics which really should never be brought up outside of good friends or known associates (e.g. at church or a party rally).

Other than that my wife dislikes the way stay-at-home mothers are often described as "not working". Because she actually does a lot of work.

Also, note how merely asking this question has gotten people arguing about something...
posted by GuyZero at 3:22 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm a software engineer, and I can't think of a single one of my coworkers who, as far as I can see, is actually personally bonded with a language. In fact, nearly every programmer-type I know is openly disdainful, as a matter of pride, of the very notion of being bound to a language. The semi-exceptions are when languages are really stand-ins for philosophies - eg, I like Python because I prize readability and maintainability at the expense of most other factors; my coworker prefers perl because speed matters to him, and he thinks I'm overly concerned with readability.

Outsiders do sometimes say something like "I've done a little programming, just HTML," which does send some people I know into apoplexy because HTML isn't a programming language at all.

As for an actual answer: Among a lot of RPG/gaming geeks, D&D can be a touchy topic, because a lot of us play it, but there's a subset (myself included) who don't like it, and hate that it's synonymous with the hobby.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:24 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Among software engineers, discussions comparing or criticizing programming languages are very touchy. I have frequently seen personal resentment or arguments start because one person questioned the merit of an aspect of someone else's favorite programming language.

I've seen my share of discussions about the merits of various programming languages, but I don't think I've ever seen personal resentment resulting from those discussions.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:25 PM on December 16, 2008

When you work in retail or food service, any cry of "Why does it COST so much?!" is really, really hard to deal with. Even if you agree with the person that it costs too damn much, you have no control over the price at all.

Similarly, discussing tipping with a service industry person can be mighty, mighty touchy as well.

Basically, treating any stereotype about a profession as gospel and bringing it up to someone working in that field is gonna be mighty annoying, but people do it surprisingly frequently anyway.
posted by piratebowling at 3:26 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

A close doctor friend hates being asked to make armchair diagnoses of people's ailments.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:26 PM on December 16, 2008

OK, the programming language example was not the best. But I think people have gotten the right gist of what I'm looking for.
posted by lunchbox at 3:28 PM on December 16, 2008

I think the OP is talking more about an outsider bringing up a topic that induces vicious argument within the community itself.

I'm a high energy physicist- great ways to induce argument include asking about the landscape, or bringing up the latest popular physics tome. Everyone's got an opinion, very few people exactly agree, and an outsider wouldn't necessarily know just how vicious things can get.
posted by nat at 3:34 PM on December 16, 2008


(when referring to Zen) It's not really a religion, it's a philosophy.
(when referring to Tibetan) It's superstitious and cult-like.
You worship Buddha/the Dalai Lama/ [insert name]
You're a vegetarian, right?
Also, the misconception that buddhists are strictly non-violent and aren't allowed self-defense.
posted by desjardins at 3:35 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

This question isn't exactly the same as yours, but it has a lot of examples of what you're talking about.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:36 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm a bartender and once in a while I get the occasional idiot who likes to ask "so when are you going to get a real job?" Of course I respond with "I happen to like my fake job making fake money to pay my fake bills."
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:36 PM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

in BDSM - bring up the question of who's really in control, the submissive or the dominant. Then take a big step back.
posted by desjardins at 3:38 PM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

It's annoying when an outsider to a stoner group makes "hilarious" stereotypical references and jokes about drugs and the culture. Eg. "Duuuuuuuuuude..."

I think piratebowling has the essence of it, though: treating stereotypes about a profession/group as absolute truths is the thing that causes annoyance.
posted by jhighmore at 3:38 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Wow, look at that big camera! No wonder your pictures are good!"
posted by imjustsaying at 3:40 PM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

more buddhism - bring up the Karmapa Controversy or the New Kadampa Tradition in Tibetan circles and watch the fur fly. e-sangha is a great place to watch buddhists argue. :P
posted by desjardins at 3:42 PM on December 16, 2008

Ignore above, just re-read the question.

Guitarists: Asking what the "best" guitar is. The spark that may ignite the biggest flame you've ever seen.

So I guess there may be a pattern of the question relating to what the "best" element of something is.
posted by jhighmore at 3:43 PM on December 16, 2008

Oh, I love your organization... but you send me too much mail.

As a fundraiser (and someone who gets lots of mail), I know it seems like a lot. But that's what it takes to bring in the money. Every mailing is tested, and studied, and compared to previous years. We are always looking at frequency, timing and content. But the reality, and it's been proven time and again, is that more fundraising appeals you send, the more likely you are to get a gift. If someone feels that they are getting too much mail from charities they support, simply call them up and tell them to stop sending, or to limit how many pieces you get (once a year, twice a year, etc).
posted by kimdog at 3:43 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Cannabis users hate the constant harping on sixties-era stereotypes of spaced-out, whacky pot experiences.
posted by telstar at 3:44 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Graduate students (esp. PhD ones): So when are you going to finish your degree? How many more years? How's your thesis coming along?
posted by peacheater at 3:46 PM on December 16, 2008 [15 favorites]

"Oh you're in computers... I have this pc..."
posted by MiffyCLB at 3:47 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ms. Vegetable works in an insufferable office job. People bring up Dilbert and Office Space, which drives them nuts because they have to live it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:48 PM on December 16, 2008

"So, which one of you is, like, the girl?"
posted by Gotham at 3:49 PM on December 16, 2008 [13 favorites]

Communications/PR: either being labelled as a spin doctor, or, less charmingly, told that I must like lying for a living.
posted by impluvium at 3:50 PM on December 16, 2008

Peacheater: just curious. Is "what are you writing on" acceptable, though?
posted by suedehead at 3:51 PM on December 16, 2008

I just left journalism after 9 years, and kind of always hated when people would say "oh your publication is so liberal/conservative."
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:51 PM on December 16, 2008

As a metal sculptor, I would always have people asking me "Hey, I saw this in X catalog (mass produced, can you make it for me cheaper?"

I know many artists that have the same thing happen to them all the time. People believe we can undercut mass produced items. It doesn't make mathematical sense to me at all, so I never know what to say.

(here I must thank all the customers in the niche I am in now who really do get it. Thank you!)
posted by Vaike at 3:53 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm just going to chime in with one more language anecdote because it may add something to my suggestion of insider/outsider status and the language/dialect debate.

I am American. I live abroad (in a country with its own language despite that language being mutually intelligible with the languages of 2 of its neighbors). I recently had to fill out a rather important form in the local language that will reflect on me personally that asked my "mother-tongue" and listed the following four among the 30 or so acceptable answers:

1. American
2. English (Aus.)
3. English (Ire.)
4. English (GB)

I choose number 4. I suppose any of 2, 3, or 4 are equally acceptable, though Australia and Ireland actually have natives that speak a non-English language (as does the US). I was surprised by the phrasing and of mixed-mind of the thought-process that led to it. (Nationality was asked previously, that was not the point, recognizing the insider/outsider status conferred by "language" seemed to be the point.) I found it interesting that there were not options for something like English (Nigerian pidgin) or even Catalan.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:54 PM on December 16, 2008

In the retail industry:
"the customer is always right"
"I would love to work at X because I love their clothes"
posted by silkygreenbelly at 3:55 PM on December 16, 2008

For unmarried couples, "when are you going to get married"? For married couples, "when are you going to have children"?

For people of most religions: "Oh, what do [Quakers, Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists] believe in?"
posted by sondrialiac at 3:56 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Physical Therapy- "Oh, so you're like a chiropractor"? NO WE ARE NOT LIKE A CHIROPRACTOR.

maybe a little.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:57 PM on December 16, 2008 [9 favorites]

Suedehead: I can't speak for every graduate student, but I think so, yes, if the asker is actually willing to listen to the answer and not just being polite. What I generally find happening is that someone asks me what I'm working on, I start to explain, asker's eyes start to glaze over, I change the subject as soon as I can.
posted by peacheater at 3:57 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do not ever refer to a photojournalist as "paparazzi."
Do not ever ask a photojournalist if he or she photoshops pictures or request that he or she add or remove something to a photo in photoshop.

We're extremely touchy on both fronts because journalism is about providing accurate documentation and maintaining the public's trust.

The behavior of much of the paparazzi has impaired our ability to do our jobs.
Suggesting we alter our photographs in any way... well them's fighting words.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 4:04 PM on December 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Can we augment the OP's question by suggesting what would be a better conversation starter than the touchy discussion subject, once we've identified that touchiness?
posted by telstar at 4:07 PM on December 16, 2008

For translators:

"I did a year of French at high school. I bet that I could translate."
posted by TheRaven at 4:08 PM on December 16, 2008

I used to work in radio... I once had a Dental Assistant go on and on about how she liked Satellite Radio SOOO much better than traditional radio after learning what I did. PLUS she had her hands in my mouth the whole time, so I couldn't defend traditional radio or give her any pros and cons.

Pissed me off so bad, especially coming from a Dental Assistant... I mean, if ANYONE should understand how annoying it is to have people comment about what they don't like about your profession it should someone in the dental industry.
posted by veronicacorningstone at 4:09 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to own restaurants. Easily 90% of the people I met, after hearing I was a restaurateur, responded, "Oh, I'm thinking of opening a restaurant someday. I love to cook."

And when I was a fiction editor, the dreaded, "Oh, I would love you to take a look at my novel/short story/screenplay/grocery list/etc?"
posted by thinkpiece at 4:14 PM on December 16, 2008

Among archaeologists, its always kind of a sigh and face palm when someone says something like "Ohh cool! What was the last dinosaur you found?" (Thats paleontology btw, archaeology is people). Or the inevitable 'Indiana Jones' jokes. Not like that ever gets old... Indy would be considered little more than a grave robber by todays standards.

It's not really a sensitive subject, just gets really annoying at times.
posted by elendil71 at 4:14 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Could you send me the names of some other graphic designers, or a site where I could find lots of designers? See, I'm going to have a contest--whoever does the best design for my logo/brochure/website wins $100!"
posted by mattdidthat at 4:19 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Federal government employee: "Must be nice to have a stress-free job where you don't have to do anything!"

Photographer: "My cousin has a camera that takes real good pictures. I'm going to have him shoot my wedding." or "What f-stop are you using?"

Magician: "How does [hot magi of the moment] do that thing where [he does something that looks cool on tv with special lighting and music, but is not very impressive to other magicians]?"

Web designer: "Can you show me how to make a website so I can put my [band CDs / t-shirts / artwork / whatever] on the web and sell a million of em?"
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:19 PM on December 16, 2008

For Librarians: digitization and weeding.
posted by gyusan at 4:19 PM on December 16, 2008

When people are stuck having to make chit-chat with me about the animation industry, they almost always start with, "I guess that stuff's all done by computers now, eh?" and then eventually get around to asking, "So why aren't most new shows as good as the old Warner Brothers cartoons?".

The first questions tough because it shows that people really don't understand what animation is and the second one's too depressing to talk about.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:26 PM on December 16, 2008 [6 favorites]

> "Wow, look at that big camera! No wonder your pictures are good!"

I agree with this. I wouldn't call it "touchy", but for any activity that involves equipment, it is insulting for someone to attribute your success to "expensive equipment" when the insiders know success is due to the person using the equipment.
posted by meowzilla at 4:26 PM on December 16, 2008

For librarians, I'd like to add another: "I went into (your library) and it was full of smelly homeless people."
posted by holyrood at 4:32 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

bonobo, that's fuel for a great thread in itself. Within 20 seconds I can usually tell if a cartoon is tasty old school, or vacant, unfunny new shite. Please construct a thread explaining what the hell happened.
posted by telstar at 4:33 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

On this bodybuilding forum, one prominent poster proposed to another that they agree to disagree over who was better: Ronnie Coleman or Dorian Yates.

42,216 posts later... [may be NSFW]
posted by Joe Beese at 4:35 PM on December 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

When I was a teacher one touchy subject that teachers avoided discussing with one another for fear of starting an unresolvable argument -- which I believe was the intent of the OP's question -- was student tracking (i.e., homogeneous vs. heterogeneous class groupings based on perceived ability or achievement). You were either in one camp or the other, and most of the time the choice was made by the school's administration or the school board, which meant that if you were on the wrong side of the stated policy you had to suck it up and teach against your educational philosophy. God, I'm glad I'm no longer teaching...
posted by mosk at 4:37 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Art photography-- Folks discussing an auctioned item (for charity): "What's the big deal? With a photo can't you print another one?"

....or, "I loved your picture so much I scanned it and made a reprint for my friend!"

....or, "Doesn't everyone know that digital is better than film at this point?" (the answer to that is, maybe better than the snapshots YOU were taking with your 35mm point and shoot....)
posted by availablelight at 4:40 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Wow, look at that big camera! No wonder your pictures are good!"

I agree with this. I wouldn't call it "touchy", but for any activity that involves equipment, it is insulting for someone to attribute your success to "expensive equipment" when the insiders know success is due to the person using the equipment.

[my solution to this has been to offer to allow the person to take a photo with my camera of the same scene I'm scoping out, and then comparing the results with them afterwards. This has shut up at least one family member and one significant other on the subject of, "if I had a camera that nice, my photos would be good too!").
posted by availablelight at 4:42 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Editors: "So, you check spelling?"

Art museum employees: "My kid could paint that."
posted by scody at 4:43 PM on December 16, 2008

I hate it when people's first reaction, upon finding out that I am an attorney, is to tell me their favorite lawyer jokes.

There's no other profession where it's socially acceptable to insult someone's profession as soon as you find out they are a member of it.
posted by jayder at 4:44 PM on December 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Librarians: "Oh! You don't look like a librarian."
posted by cestmoi15 at 4:45 PM on December 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

These posts are actually the reasons that I don't bring up stereotypes or common issues with people in other professions. If I am genuinely informed on an issue, I will try to make that clear enough, but I let the other person lead with it, at first. To make conversation, all you have to do is say, "What's that like?" or "I bet that's exciting!" or "Busy this time of year?"
posted by Countess Elena at 4:49 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Wow, look at that big camera! No wonder your pictures are good!"

I agree with this. I wouldn't call it "touchy", but for any activity that involves equipment, it is insulting for someone to attribute your success to "expensive equipment" when the insiders know success is due to the person using the equipment.

I was just talking to a photographer last week about this precise thing. He said he responded once by saying, "wow, this meal was so good, you must have some really great pots and pans."
posted by jayder at 4:49 PM on December 16, 2008 [7 favorites]

oh jayder it is true. But I couldn't think of an example of something a person's said to me, upon finding this out. It's just the crumpling of the nose, the slight "Oh," the wince disguised as a smile. All that still counts as polite.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:50 PM on December 16, 2008

Graduate students (esp. PhD ones): So when are you going to finish your degree? How many more years? How's your thesis coming along?

Pet peeve from my years in a Ph.D. program: "So you're a graduate student! Career student, eh?"
posted by jayder at 4:53 PM on December 16, 2008

"I'm a geographer." "Ooh, what's the capital of ____?" This is the easiest way to anger a geographer.
"I'm a cartographer." "Ooh, photography!" or sometimes "Ooh, car photography!"
"I work in GIS." "Ooh, you do google image searches?" This one is my favourite.
posted by troika at 4:53 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You teach English?

You must love literature...hate grammar mistakes...know a lot of words...

Wait, you're a rhetorician?

You must be really good at lying to politics...

You mean you study the English language as it is used in various cultural discourses?

Isn't that just a cop out for saying you teach English?
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:00 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anime otaku: subs vs dubs.

Software developers: what version control do you recommend (big policy impact)?
posted by Tobu at 5:00 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a graduate student in cognitive psychology. When I tell people I'm studying psychology, I always hear:

1. "So, where's your couch, heh heh?"


2. "[Insert name of family member or common acquaintance here] should be your first client!"/"Maybe you can finally tell us what's wrong with so-and-so."

To which I usually reply with some really generic explanation of what I actually do (e.g., "No, I don't counsel anyone. I actually do research on how people learn and use language.")

Perhaps even touchier is when people try to insinuate that psychology is not a "real science."
posted by rebel_rebel at 5:11 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Music (maybe not 'touchy', just annoying for the repetitiveness of certain comments): They hear that you make music for a living and there they go: the neighbor, whom I never heard hum a single tune, claiming that he would have LOVED to be a musician but alas (whatever).
The sponsor for the first and second prizes in a professional ensemble competition, who wouldn't believe that we, the winners of the second prize, had "no real jobs besides" (I'm not making this up).
And then the flute joke. You've been driving across the countryside in your station wagon for hours, you arrive at the concert place, you unpack your equipment and when you finally try to wobble and sweat everything through the door on some dolly or other, the keeper of keys invariably says: I bet you regret that you didn't learn the flute. Literally hundreds of times, different guy, same talk.
Or the eternal blahblah about Steinway and Bösendorfer grand pianos "you know, and then I just was soo curious, you know, so I went on stage and I actually looked, you know, and would you believe it! It was a Bösendorfer!"
All really nice people - that's not the point. I think what makes me so tired about this kind of conversation is that all these topics and jokes are totally non-consequential for what really happens when you are, oh my, a Musician. Music is a sleeves-up occupation like most others: you work on something until its ready and can be presented to other people. I mean, nobody takes the car repair guy by the arm and says "is this oil you're using there? How absolutely fascinating. I really wished my parents had taught me to use oil in this fashion. You are one lucky guy!"
posted by Namlit at 5:12 PM on December 16, 2008 [6 favorites]

Mentioning Star Wars or Star Trek at some of the places I've worked is sure to start up an ironic, humorous, yet curiously well-informed nerd battle.
posted by zippy at 5:15 PM on December 16, 2008

I started undergrad as a zoology major. "Oh, do you want to work at a zoo?"

I had a political appointment in a U.S. presidential administration. The president was defeated, and I and my fellow appointees must leave just as the president must leave. "Oh, but why can't you stay with the new people? They'll need people! Why aren't you trying to stay? [thinking that I'm not trying to keep my employment and my livelihood]"

I have an entry-level salary, but am receiving what the employer promotes as 100 percent reimbursement for tuition, in my case, private university graduate tuition. "Oh, wow, they're paying for everything!" Uh, no, the tax liability incurred from this *taxable* benefit is killing me. They're not paying for books or gear, either.

I am not married. "Are you/have you ever been married?" No, I answer. "Well, why not?"
Well, asshole, because the various men and I didn't marry, not that you need to know. Ask THEM!

The ultimate, from the receptionist at Kaiser Incompet ... err...Kaiser Permanente OB/GYN: "Do you have any children?" No, I don't. "Well, why NOT?" Uh, you bitch, tons of women come through an OB/GYN office who CAN'T have them; sure go ahead and bug them. In my case, I say "well, for one thing, I'm not married..." "Oh THAT doesn't matter!" Depending on who you are it does matter, but it shouldn't have been asked in the first place.

Sorry, got a little wound up there.
posted by jgirl at 5:26 PM on December 16, 2008

Namlit reminds me of when I played the flute during high school. Being the only male flute has it's problems and perks, sure, but then there was the goddamn flute joke.

You play the flute? So this one time an band camp, amiright?

I must have heard that one at least dozens of times.
posted by Axle at 5:30 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

As someone in a library and information science program, I get sort of peeved when people ask me what kind of library I want to work in when I graduate, especially when I say, "I don't want to work in a library; I want to get a PhD and do research," and they look at me like I'm nuts. "What kind of research? Don't librarians just check out books?" - as if information science doesn't exist or isn't complex enough to require a research process at all. I've just started saying that I want to work in a digital library and leaving it at that, even though that's pretty much a total lie.
posted by k8lin at 5:42 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

"You work with computers? Wow. Can you take a look at my phone?"

"You work in computers? Wow. I've been looking at buying a laptop lately, which one should I get?"

"You work with computers? Wow. My uncle is having a problem with his Excel."

And finally:

"You work with computers? Man, I fucking hate computers!"

Same here, pal.

/Doesn't actually work in IT anymore.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:45 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm a classical-theatre director. When I bring up Shakespeare, a certain type of person inevitably starts intoning "TO BE OR NOT TO BE" in his worst bombastic actor impression. Or else he says something like, "Shakespeare? For sooth, verily, my good sir. Doth thou want to order a pizza?"


Actors always joke about (or get irritated by) people asking, "How do you learn all those lines?"

My day job is programming. What I hate hearing most is something along the lines of, "Just change that red button to blue and make a screen pop up that has a dropdown menu on it with all the US zip codes in it. I'll need it in five minutes." And then when I say that will take a couple of hours, I hear, "But I just asked you to do TWO little things!"

In other words, I think what most programmers hate is the fact that though non-coders know nothing about coding, they think they know what programming tasks can be done quickly.
posted by grumblebee at 5:56 PM on December 16, 2008

"Oh! I just saw an article about that exact thing you research!"

I've made this mistake with biologists. Often the journal articles that get published in the big jounals (Science, Nature etc..) are chosen in part because they are about controversial topics, run counter to scientific conventional wisdom or will provoke a strong reaction from people in the field. And there's a good chance that the person you're talking to will be on the other side of the controversy. It's also possible that since the article is in their same field that it was actually published by a rival. D'oh.
posted by abirae at 5:56 PM on December 16, 2008

Of course the jokes get old, but when someone tries to be nice and conversational, can't you forgive them for being ignorant about your job or not coming up with a smart and unique question? Isn't a love for books a common enough reason to become a librarian? Judging from the old thread, we should say "You're a librarian? I was thinking about doing that, I really hate people!".

I'm a physicist and we seem to have a reputation for this type of arrogance. People hesitate to ask things, afraid to sound stupid. When someone does, I'm delighted and will do my best to explain the Large Hadron Collider of why flies can still fly in airplanes in a few non-technical sentences.
posted by springload at 5:57 PM on December 16, 2008 [6 favorites]

A lot of these seem more like ignorant outsiders commenting on your profession and the annoyance stemming from that ignorance. But for in-community things, this is all I got.

Amongst Burning Man attendees: should it be ok to pee on the playa, or no?

(I am all for it)
posted by apostrophe at 6:00 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm in a PhD program in a cognitive science department. (hi rebel_rebel! we should "meet")

A few I've run into
For all grad students: "What can you do with that when you graduate?"
In my department: "So that's like psychology, right?" or "You'll be a brain surgeon some day, huh?"
Among those of us who also self-identify as linguists: "What languages do you know?"
posted by knile at 6:09 PM on December 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

"So how tall are you?"
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:13 PM on December 16, 2008

"Oh you're a production assistant/screenwriter/craft food services/gaffer/set decorator/key grip on that new film? Can you get me a part in it?"

WE DO NOT CAST THE MOVIE. Go hit up the producer or casting director or director, but leave us alone. It's no fun for us to explain in detail how little power we have. And no, because you are my boyfriend's uncle's best friend, doesn't mean I'm going to talk to the producer on your behalf to beg for the chance to get you an audition. I don't care if you were an extra once in Karate Kid 3.
posted by np312 at 6:17 PM on December 16, 2008

If you are a songwriter, people keep coming up and showing you their songs/lyrics/poems.

99 percent of the time, it's not very good. And then you have to figure out how to say something nice and not hurt their feelings, all the while they are looking at you with these longing puppydog eyes, wanting validation that you cannot really give them.

(Folks, if YOU don't know for yourself that it's good, it ain't. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:20 PM on December 16, 2008

"Is that your natural hair color?!" Why, yes, it is.

"Your eyes!! Are you wearing contacts?!" No, I'm not. (I wear glasses all of the time, since age 6, and am wearing them when people ask this.)
posted by jgirl at 6:25 PM on December 16, 2008

A few years back, after finding out I'm in a neuroscience/biomed research PhD program:
"I wish I had the money to just go to school and not have to have a job!"
"Well, you're going to be raking in the big bucks when you graduate!"
(*quite* awkward...)

And being told that writing isn't/shouldn't be hard for me since I'm a writer.
posted by NikitaNikita at 6:34 PM on December 16, 2008

For parents who have adopted:

"Do you know their real parents?"

If you have have two adopted children:

"Are they really sisters?" "Are they really brothers?"
posted by trii at 6:34 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, you work in publishing? I have this great book idea!
What do you think about the Kindle/Sony eReader?
You know publishing is disappearing, right?

Oh, you're a belly dancer? (Hums that little nile ditty) That's like a stripper, right?
My hips don't lie!
Oh, like Shakira!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:35 PM on December 16, 2008

No way, you're a sex educator? Do you teach them how to give a good blow job?
posted by Stewriffic at 6:41 PM on December 16, 2008

i'm also a phd student. my favorite is "so you're not going to be a real doctor?"
posted by be11e at 6:47 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I used to work in newspaper advertising. I'd get things like:

"Will you tell them to stop calling me to subscribe!"
or "Why did they drop [insert comic or column or feature here]?"
posted by SisterHavana at 7:03 PM on December 16, 2008

Wind turbines? I've heard they're really noisy ...
— Have you been near one?
Erm, no, but I read this blog ...

Also, power types tend to cringe when politicians talk of keeping the lights on.
posted by scruss at 7:04 PM on December 16, 2008

If you know someone that has access to secure information, for fuck's sake don't offer to buy it off of them, even as a joke.

I have a few friends who are self-styled "anarchists" ("hurf durf the gubmint thinks I'm a turrist!") and one of them jokingly offered me money for government secrets. First, I don't have access to anything interesting. Second, I could lose my job over shit like that. If I didn't know him as well as I do, I would have reported him to the feds. I won't go to prison because you want to be a smartass.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:08 PM on December 16, 2008

More grad students:

So, how's your research coming? Any progress on the ol' thesis? When do you think you're going to be finished? .... Really? Why does it take so long?


These actually sound like reasonable questions, but to a grad student who is struggling through, the amount of work remaining appears poorly defined and unbounded and thus it is very difficult to answer these questions. Moreover, the student is probably dying from stress about the whole situation and it is painful to think about and discuss.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:09 PM on December 16, 2008

"Oh, you work with kids who have autism? So they're like Rain Man, right?"
posted by corey flood at 7:31 PM on December 16, 2008

Echoing buddhainabucket: if you're a physical therapist, you really don't like hearing, "Oh, like a massage therapist/chiropractor." Aaaaaarrrrgh, no.
posted by jennyjenny at 7:35 PM on December 16, 2008

I started a huge argument among a group of basketball fans by mentioning Bill Laimbeer..

Web developers: 'You know, I've been thinking about putting up a website, I could really use a site for [....] (hint, hint)'
posted by citron at 7:48 PM on December 16, 2008

As a 9-5er, I get touchy when my education-based friends invite me to go to Disney for two weeks in July. Sorry, I have to work. Or when they complain that they had to stay at work past 4 o'clock. Or when my grad school friends want to party on a Tuesday because finals are finally done!

My biggest peeve along these lines is "your doctor said what? No, that's not right. I'm a nurse, I know better."

Yeah, OK.
posted by gjc at 7:53 PM on December 16, 2008

General propriety tells you not to pry into parents' decisions regarding conceiving, giving birth, breast-feeding, or raising their children (or at least, it should). But especially don't do this on internet sites dedicated to a specific viewpoint regarding any of the above. Even the most innocent or well-meaning comment can cause terrible offense, let alone those that are actually trying to rock the boat.
posted by juliplease at 7:59 PM on December 16, 2008

I'm a musician - more specifically, I'm a grad student, and I do research into music education. I play bassoon as my primary, along with a host of other wind instruments.

But it doesn't matter - as soon as I say I'm a musician, someone brings out a guitar and hands it to me. I honestly, seriously, don't play guitar. Never learned. But I feel like I should, because that's what everyone expects of me as a "musician." It's usually at this point that the guy next to me, who has some other career all together, and can play a little guitar, picks it up and starts playing. And then, the questions start, "Well, he's a lawyer/banker/something else, and can play guitar! So what do you do in music if you can't do that?"

I know this comes across more as jealousy, but seriously - I bust my ass in music. I do research, I do studies, and I practice my ass off on bassoon. Give me a bassoon, ask me to play something for you, no problem. That guy who knows 5 chords is a musician, yes. He is not, however, a professional musician. He doesn't spend hours honing his craft. He plays 5 chords, and because it is more easily expressible, it is more valid.

The other thing is "Oh, you're a musician? Can you teach my kid some lessons this weekend for free?" I spent big money to not only learn my craft, but also learn how to teach it. My time it worth money. You can find someone else to teach your kid - I charge by the hour. If you can't pay it, find someone else. Just because music was your hobby, or it's your kid's hobby, doesn't mean that it's my hobby. People expect to get paid for their work - why should I expect any different?
posted by SNWidget at 8:03 PM on December 16, 2008

My general pet peeve is when people ask me what I do for a living, and when I try to tell them (it's complicated; it's not something people outside the industry know much about), they didn't really care and they act bored or dismissive. You are the one who asked me! You don't have to ask, we can just move the conversation right along to politics or the weather or whatever.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:15 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lab tech: Oh! look here's the vampire.
Can you tell me what these test results mean?
Yes it hurts to a have a needle stuck in your arm.
posted by bjgeiger at 8:15 PM on December 16, 2008

Ug. I'm a library clerk and people who don't know the difference always call me a librarian. So, of course, I have to get into how I don't have an advanced degree yet (making feel a little bad because I do really want to go to grad school). Then they'll ask what librarians learn in library school. If I knew all that, I probably wouldn't have to go :D But really it's just too much to explain.

Finally, they ask, why do you need a degree, you are doing the same job as that guy over there (pointing to reference desk). I like to tell them so I can make as much money as the guy over there, but one of my library teachers said it best when she went: "Hey, if I had to go, so do you."

I've actually given up saying I'm not a librarian unless someone specifically asks. I find nodding and smiling to be much less headache inducing :D
posted by CoralAmber at 8:32 PM on December 16, 2008

This doesn't have to do with my profession. However, I and some friends of mine long ago lost count of how often we are out, and someone we're just meeting says blah blah blah my dog needs, or blah blah blah my horse does, and then someone we do know goes on and on and on about what they should NEVER EVER do and what they MUST ALWAYS do and how horrible and wrong and useless and disproved by science the never evers are - while my friends and I (some of who are professionals) know damn well that the someone we do know cannot manage their animal at all, at best, and at worst the poor creature is a neurotic mess as long as the loving owner is within earshot.

But it's just not polite to wreck a dinner party by bellowing, "Oh really, that's how you train a recall? Because I can whip I my freaking cell phone right now and show a call log from Tuesday where you called me, weeping and begging me to rush right over because your dog bolted out the front door (again), and you called five minutes later to see if I was on my way, and you called five minutes after that to say you were down the block looking for him, and then five minutes after that I called you to say I had him, picked him up at the neighbor's house where he always goes (and she always lets him because she feels sorry about his home life in a dark garage, where you lure him with a chicken breast and leave him locked up for hours because you can't be bothered to actually do training beyond chucking food through a doorway and slamming it after him so he has no idea what is expected of him.)

Impolite to make a fuss at the time, and there's no real gain in having a bitch session later. All you can do is mumble about different animals need different things, case-by-case, I'm sure you'll work it out, and change the subject to the host's lovely window treatments or something...

And that's just me, a regular person. I imagine professional trainers want to kill people daily. If everyone who got gooey over a Save the Nudibranchs PSA on TV thought that qualified them to my job, I'd want to kill people.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:35 PM on December 16, 2008

Enterprise taxonomist/ontologist: "Oh, what does this company do that involves [stuffing dead animals/treating cancer]?" Oh, aren't you so semantically clever? No. No, you are not.
posted by susanbeeswax at 8:36 PM on December 16, 2008

Another cognitive science/linguistics person here (rebel_rebel & knile, want to start a club?)

Cognitive science - "Oh, so you study neuroscience" or "So, what kind of patients do you want to work with?" And it's always painful, as mentioned above, when they ask what it is, but then glaze over when I tell them.

Linguistics - probably a tossup between the old standby "How many languages do you speak", and all the jokesters who think they are the first to discover "cunning linguist"
posted by heyforfour at 8:37 PM on December 16, 2008

in my mom's group, which consists of mostly crunchy-granola types, the mention of any aspect of the "mommy wars" (i.e., formula feeding vs. breastfeeding, day care vs. stay-at-home-mom-ing, cloth diapers vs. sposies, attachment parenting vs. cry-it-out) is guaranteed to elicit an emotional tirade from at least one of the moms.

also if you mention c-sections, you've pretty much kicked a hornet's nest with a pair of steel toed boots.
posted by fancyoats at 8:59 PM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

In my field (philosophy) the big divide was analytic vs. continental, but it's not very prevalent in my department, and I think in general the animosity is dying.
posted by chndrcks at 9:02 PM on December 16, 2008

Campaign field staff: "Really? Maybe YOU can get me a yard sign!"
posted by naoko at 9:12 PM on December 16, 2008

One more thing about photography: Don't ask a professional photographer acquaintance if they would "bring the camera" to your wedding reception/parents' anniversary/etc. That's work, which is why you generally pay someone for that. Invite someone as a guest, or hire them to work the event as a pro.

{I don't ask accountant friends if I can spring tax forms on them to keep them busy if they show up at my birthday party....)
posted by availablelight at 9:22 PM on December 16, 2008

Currently, I'm an ESL teacher (applied linguistics!). This means that random strangers often assume that I will be right on board with their anti-immigration rants and their advocacy of English-Only policies and their half-baked "common sense" notions about why bilingual education is bad.

In reality, most ESL teachers I've met are in favor of liberalizing or at least reforming immigration laws. Because we've gotten to know our students, we often know that they're coming to school on two hours of sleep between three jobs, and (unsurprisingly) it's pretty hard for the language to stick. On top of that, a lot of us have tried learning a language radically different from our own while living abroad (which the people babbling at us inevitably haven't). Furthermore, we've actually read the research on bilingual education, so we know where "common sense" reasoning on how to teach and learn falls apart (right out of the gate, actually).

Even though we'll argue about the fine details among ourselves endlessly, we are, generally speaking, the last people you want to spew your hatred of immigrants, bilingualism, and multiculturalism to.

(AWKWARD moment with an orthopedic doctor at the school clinic: he was trying to squeeze fluid out of the ganglion cyst in my wrist when he discovered that I was in grad school for TESOL and went off on an anti-immigration rant. There I was, blanching and trying to figure out how delicately respond to someone who had a needle jammed into me...)

Another very sore point is the notion that anyone who is a native speaker of a language is a qualified teacher of a language. Sure, there are born teachers, but most of the time, knowing how to speak a language and knowing how to teach a language are two totally different skill sets. (And quite frankly, it explains some of the terrible language classes I experienced in college. In retrospect, almost none of the language teachers I've had in my life were actually qualified to teach.) Most people don't know that there are certifications and master's degrees in our field. Really, don't get me started on this one.

Great question!
posted by wintersweet at 9:24 PM on December 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Something different: As an American expat in the Middle East, wearying to hear gobs of "Americans are... ," "America is...," or an anti-Bush tirade (and I despise the guy), be it people from this region, Australia, the UK, etc. Rare that people who go down that road have ever set foot in the country, have the first clue what they're talking about.

Other touchy subjects among the Western expats: unhappiness here/missing home vs. the money that can be saved, men regularly going to neighboring countries for whoremongering, a significant percentage of men marrying women from the third world who are half their age or less.
posted by ambient2 at 9:41 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a grad student, I would like to chime in on how "How's the thesis/studying for the orals/etc." bleaches my mind of anything conversational—but with the caveat that if you have just FINISHED your thesis or whatever it is the single greatest thing you can be asked.
posted by felix grundy at 9:46 PM on December 16, 2008

To elicit debate within the group:

"Oh, so you're a computer programmer? What do you think about test-driven development?"

(Seattlite) ignorance of the industry:

"Oh, so you're a computer programmer? Do you you work for Microsoft?"
posted by whycurious at 10:28 PM on December 16, 2008

I hate it when people's first reaction, upon finding out that I am an attorney, is to tell me their favorite lawyer jokes.

There's no other profession where it's socially acceptable to insult someone's profession as soon as you find out they are a member of it.

And it's not just jokes--it's outright insults. I went to an upscale salon to get my hair cut, sat down in the chair, was asked what I do for a living, and said I'm a lawyer. "I'm sorry," the stylist said, in a scathing tone. I wish I had just walked out, wet hair and all. I can't tell you the number of times I've been directly insulted like this.
posted by HotToddy at 10:38 PM on December 16, 2008

A Massage Therapist's role is widely regarded in the industry to included educating the general public as to what massage is and is not and to dispel myths and preconceptions

Mostly I try to give an educational response to the FAQs - "No, my hands don't get tired because...", "Yes, I do receive regular massage myself ....", "If you want my professional opinion on that you should make an appointment so I can assess the issue properly..."

A couple that really make me roll my eyes and forever label the asker a moron in my mind:
ANYTHING about happy endings.
"Oh you do massage? Your husband/boyfriend is so lucky!."

Within the industry, topics of licensing/registration and the growth of chain franchises are two examples of many topics that divide the profession
posted by goshling at 10:53 PM on December 16, 2008

It seems that most people dislike talking about what they do... especially with a person who presumes to know anything about it.
posted by specialfriend at 10:56 PM on December 16, 2008

For journalists: "How's it going?"

For photojournalists, in addition to the above, anything dealing with compensation or gear. Or, "Hey, my teenage niece wants a camera, which one should I buy her?" or "Hey, I'm getting married (playing a concert, acting in a play) next week, and since you're already planning on coming, could you bring your camera?" or, after shooting an assignment at a business "Hey, since you've already taken the pictures, can you just email me some." or "No need to spend your time, just send me a cd with all the pictures on it." or "So do you write stories, too, or do you just take pictures?"
posted by msbrauer at 11:16 PM on December 16, 2008

me: "I'm getting a degree in math."
them: "I'm terrible at math."

me: "I'm getting a degree in philosophy."
them: "This one time, I took an intro. class at a small community college, and the teacher was a weirdo!"

them: "So you're double-majoring? You're must be smart!"
posted by philomathoholic at 12:12 AM on December 17, 2008

+1 goshling

"Oh, you're studying to be a massage therapist!" wink wink

No, I don't do happy endings. Here's the phone number for Chrisindy's if that's what you want.

"Oh, you're studying to be a massage therapist! Your gf must LOVE that!"

Current, yes, my ex hated it.

"Oh, you're studying to be a massage therapist! Are you gay?"

This one had me stumped.
posted by flutable at 1:57 AM on December 17, 2008

As a musician/artist, I do find it slightly faux pas-ish when people come up to you after a show and with great enthusiasm proclaim "hey I downloaded your album for FREE from pirate bay!!!"

And then they honestly think this entitles them to becoming your new best friend, including going backstage to have free drinks.
posted by gmm at 1:58 AM on December 17, 2008

In learning research, your experiences in education system are not interesting datapoints.
posted by Free word order! at 2:06 AM on December 17, 2008

I'm a business writer. Regular facepalms are induced by:

"But it's only a couple of paragraphs - why would it take that long/cost that much?"

"Well, I've drafted something - could you just tidy it up a bit for me?"

"Yeah, we really need to add some paragraphs that talk about $current business jargon"

"No, we need to include all of that boilerplate. All of it. It's all essential. We spent six months writing that."

"Bob on our team is a really good writer, we'll have to run your work past him."

"I'm really not sure about that word/sentence/concept. Could we use $utterly unrelated word/sentence/concept?"
posted by Happy Dave at 2:27 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Most of the answers appear to be pet-peeves, not actually touchy subjects with opposing points-of-view that may not be appreciated to the casual observer. A couple other actual touchy subjects I've thought of:

Is copyright infringement of digital content theft? (Obviously, copyright infringement isn't theft, it is copyright infringement. You'll find many people saying it is theft though.) Here is Scott Adams' take.

Is copyright infringement of digital content a victimless crime?

Should consensual (or victimless) crimes (i.e. prostitution, drug-use, etc) be illegal?

The right of displaced persons to return to homelands, especially the Palestinians.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:04 AM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Alternative education people/homeschoolers: merits of degrees vs no degree, or homeschool vs unschool vs trad school vs alternative school

My particular brand of alternative education: Isn't Harvard the #1 university in the WORLD? Why not go there? Don't you CARE about your education? (...-_-;;)

Pagans: What's "Pagan"? Do you believe in God? Magic is make-believe! How can you believe in faeries?!

Creative Industries: What's that? Is that graphic design?

Being a Bangladeshi in Malaysia: Is your dad a diplomat? or No, seriously, what are you?
posted by divabat at 4:51 AM on December 17, 2008

"Why do you waste your time on those people, they're animals, they can't help themselves."
posted by The Straightener at 5:20 AM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

"You write books? I should write a book"

"You're a professor? You must love summers off"

"You could use me as a case study." or "Oh no, you're going to analyze me"
posted by anondonna at 5:54 AM on December 17, 2008

As an add-on to the library science comments: "I didn't know you had to go to school to be a librarian!". This is actually a big deal in the profession right now, as a lot of traditional library jobs are being replaced by paraprofessionals without advanced degrees. Yes, it requires a master's, and no; we don't just sit around and read all day. Sadly.
posted by amicamentis at 6:03 AM on December 17, 2008

Jhighmore, it's called the bass.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 7:02 AM on December 17, 2008

Anyone who's ever hit senior year of college will get ticked off by the question 'What do you plan to do after college?'

A subset of the programming language debate is potentially worse than its container. Do not ask a group of web developers which of {C#, PHP, Ruby} is best.
posted by spamguy at 7:15 AM on December 17, 2008

"Oh, you're a photographer? Can I hold your ($2000+) camera? I want to buy one of those."
posted by geeky at 7:37 AM on December 17, 2008

In a mixed group of bicycle riders and non-, bringing up either people on bikes doing stupid/unsafe things in traffic or people in motor vehicles doing things unsafe to bike riders.
posted by clavicle at 7:40 AM on December 17, 2008

In law, I don't think there's a universal touchy subject (other than being insulted, which happens a lot) because of the diversity of fields and the fact that there are usually two sides on every issue (e.g. immigration, labor v. management, prosecution v. defense, etc).

On the other hand, it's somewhere on the spectrum of amusing to annoying to watch legal dramas on tv and movies and see things that would never, ever happen. My favorite little one is when an attorney jumps up in court and yells Objection! (without saying anything else) and the judge immediately says back Overruled!

What I usually say back to people who immediately make disparagin remarks or insults when hearing what I do: "yeah, everyone hates lawyers--until they need one."
posted by Pax at 7:53 AM on December 17, 2008

lunchbox, this librarian wants to highlight gyusan's answer as the one that actually answers your question. (By weeding we mean removing books or other things in a library's collection, and while non-librarians have no end of uninformed things to say about this practice, it is also a fine way to start an argument among actual library people.)

Among many musicians and most flute players, please, please don't say "So are you a FLUTIST or a FLAUTIST?"

While arguments between knitters tend to be pretty good-natured, I'm hard put to think of anything that we can't start an argument about. Your favorite yarn, fiber, needles, technique, pattern, and colors all definitely suck.
posted by clavicle at 8:10 AM on December 17, 2008

Another one that will actually start debate within the librarian community is Wikipedia. In my experience, librarians' attitudes towards Wikipedia as an information source vary from "worthless" to "pretty good, as long as you keep in mind a few caveats."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:50 AM on December 17, 2008

"Oh, you're a pastor? Must be great to only work one day a week!"
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:05 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hope it's OK to reply again; thinking of things that will actually stir up longstanding controversies in the in-group (ESL/EFL teachers/applied linguists) but often get brought up by slightly clueful outsiders:

- Sapir-Whorf & Chomsky & Pinker (oh my)
- British English vs. American English, especially grand pronouncements as to the purity of British English or the practicality of American English
- the validity of other World Englishes, e.g. Indian English
- using students' native language(s) in the classroom
- accent reduction/teaching pronunciation
- teaching grammar (how and how much)
- grading, feedback, in-class correction
- TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, and every other English test out there (actually, nearly every professional teacher despises these tests, but people often ask us about them and we have varying opinions on what should be done about them--plus many people despise them and work for the companies that produce them, which makes other people apoplectic)

You can get perfectly sane, pleasant teachers at each others' throats by bringing up these topics.
posted by wintersweet at 9:05 AM on December 17, 2008

As an actress - "When am I going to see you on television?"
posted by Evangeline at 9:06 AM on December 17, 2008

"Oh, are you self-ordained? My cousin did that on the internet."

My sinful, egotistical mind: No, you prattling twat, I spent a ridiculous, house-sized amount of money on a terminal, three-year graduate degree from one of the finest universities in the world, learned two dead languages and read more pomo nonsense-speak than any human should ever have to so I could take a job that many people are proud to have become qualified for by sending $5 to a website somewhere.

My mouth: "Nah, I went to school. But, you know, priesthood of all believers and that. I think really anyone could do this kind of thing if they had the time and inclination. Peace and blessings."
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:16 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Reconsidering the intent of your question, I think many animation industry drones have fought one side or the other over the question, "Ralph Bakshi -evil hack or evil genius?"

I think I also remember a few drunken arguments as to wether or not Japanese cartoons could be considered "true" animation (being shot with only 8 drawings per second instead of 12, puts it just uncomforably below the threshold that utilizes the persistence of vision).
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:24 AM on December 17, 2008

to an arachnologist: Oh our house is full of should come over and take them.
posted by dhruva at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2008

I'm a Software Engineer who works on digital television software.

No, I don't get to watch TV all day at work, despite having full cable and HD. Hell, most of the time, I completely ignore it. So, no - this would not be your 'dream job' if you're a couch potato with a fetish for Oprah and American Idol. Please don't tell me that it is.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2008

To a manuscript editor:

"I really like to read and am a good speller. I should totally become an editor."

Even worse if they're talking to a manuscript (not acquisitions) editor:

"Oh, you're an editor? I'd love to discover the next Stephen King/John Grisham/who-the-eff-ever. I think I'd be good at it. I should totally become an editor."
posted by penchant at 11:01 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also annoying to an editor: The people who ask "Oh, you're an editor? Will you edit my resume/thesis/book manuscript/personal statement?" who don't even consider that it is something for which they should pay you.
posted by penchant at 11:32 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I play banjo. I hate it when people find that out and immediately ask if I can play Dueling Banjos. This happens about 30% of the time with non-musicians. I have a pianist friend who has the same relationship with the Charlie Brown theme song, but at people have mostly heard other songs on the piano.
posted by smartyboots at 11:36 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may just be a certain subset of programmers, but I've seen friendships and projects ruined over open-source/proprietary/GPL/BSD/etc. debates.

Laptop musicians, after a show: "So you were really just checking your e-mail up there, right?"
posted by naju at 12:08 PM on December 17, 2008

Read this thread for an example.
posted by theora55 at 1:31 PM on December 17, 2008

"I don't give to charity, because I hear that most of the money doesn't get to the people it's supposed to".

"Philanthropy? Isn't that like a tax dodge for rich people?"

"I have to pay for your workshop/publication/expert advice? That's not very philanthropic, ho ho ho!"
posted by andraste at 1:47 PM on December 17, 2008

Most of these answers seem to be stereotypes or generally ignorant comments, but not seemingly benign-but-actually-controversial subjects brought up by well-meaning outsiders.

For an example of the latter, check out this askme regarding how to make a recording louder.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:22 PM on December 17, 2008

I've heard people ask sheep ranchers how many sheep they own. It's basically the same thing as asking someone how much money they make, in that it's not an appropriate question.
posted by emd3737 at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2008

In my field (philosophy) the big divide was analytic vs. continental, but it's not very prevalent in my department, and I think in general the animosity is dying.

chndrcks, I heard that in St. Andrews (UK) the philosophy department has two entrances right next to each other, one for analytic, one for ethical philosophy, and they're separate parts inside the building. The rumour was that professors from either side don't talk to those from the other.
posted by yoHighness at 3:44 PM on December 17, 2008

Many people's egos depend on their being seen as a respected expert doing incredibly complex and important work. So they take themselves seriously, and will get touchy about any remark, no matter how innocent or jokey, that treads on this turf.
posted by magic curl at 5:04 PM on December 17, 2008

I'm surprised no one has mentioned gay marriage yet. A conversation about the right of homosexuals to marry could turn uncomfortable fast in many crowds. Passions run high on both sides, especially after Prop 8.

And even more controversial is polygamous marriage. I think there are quite a few folks in favor of gay marriage that believe polygamous marriage goes beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.

For the record, I intend no insult to either side. But I strongly support civil recognition of marriages for any consenting non-related adults that want to get married.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:19 PM on December 17, 2008

Tell someone you're studying journalism.

"Oh ... that's dying, isn't it?"
posted by jgirl at 6:42 PM on December 17, 2008

"So, can you get me good drugs?"
posted by gingerbeer at 9:24 PM on December 17, 2008

[In the "you'll sound ignorant and annoy people" category:] Don't talk to city planners about how hard it is to find parking downtown, e.g., "you're a city planner? God, they need more parking downtown." Also, don't complain about how tall those buildings are.

[In the "you wouldn't think this is controversial but it is" category:] Whether or not those new buildings are ugly. New urbanism. Cap and trade.

Also, I'd tread lightly around the topic of the Obama economic stimulus package when dealing with anyone who works in the infrastructure field.
posted by salvia at 12:25 AM on December 18, 2008

Another topic nobody has mentioned that is incredibly touchy in many workplaces and campuses is affirmative action. That includes promotion of minorities and women and has both support and disapproval from the "in-group" and the "out-group".

Financial reparations for family of slaves has vocal supporters and detractors and comes up with surprising regularity in news reports, although I've only seen it become acrimonious on the internet.

And my final suggestion of touchy subjects is reclaiming pejoratives (for example bitch, fag, nigger, slut, and whore). Some members of the "in-group" resent being referred to in a pejorative fashion, and some members of "out-groups" resent being told words are valid but only for "in-group" members.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 12:45 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Oh, so you can help me with this [Microsoft product] problem that I'm having..." Actually, no. I'm an IT auditor / consultant and I don't know any more about [Microsoft product] than you do.

"So you work with computers!" Not really. I've always worked in IT but for the past twenty years I've spent most of my working days reading, writing and talking to people.

"So you're a math wiz!" No. You don't need to be a math wiz to work in IT.

Not really hot-button issues, but it would be nice not getting these questions / comments as often as I get them.
posted by rjs at 4:03 AM on December 18, 2008

Very good research topic! A friend of mine said he would never hire someone into video game testing who said his favorite game was Halo. I've made fellow game designers silent when I told them "eh, Half-Life 2, couldn't get into it"
posted by philosophistry at 12:24 AM on December 19, 2008

For lawyers: So, do you represent the good guys or the bad guys?
posted by The World Famous at 6:43 PM on December 19, 2008

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