Academic Shibboleths
September 19, 2009 3:18 AM   Subscribe

A recent tomorrow was criticized for describing a mathematician as working with equations and "running the numbers". What are the canonical signs that someone doesn't know much about your field, or only picked up enough to make cocktail-party conversation? (categorized science and nature, but other disciplines welcome!)

And, to take things to the next logical step, what kind of questions could an ignorant but curious person ask of you or a colleague that you would love to answer? For example, following a speech by Sarah Palin, several biology majors were just waiting for an excuse to tell me exactly how much money fruit flies deserved.
posted by d. z. wang to Science & Nature (141 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
As a computer scientist working at the interface of informatics and biology, I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked to "have a look" at someone's Windows installation, or set up a printer. I was once even forced to agree to fix one of Derren Brown's computers live on BBC radio, when we both appeared on the Simon Mayo show.
posted by gene_machine at 3:32 AM on September 19, 2009 [15 favorites]

The above implies that I fixed the computer live on radio. I did not. In fact, I'm still waiting for him to send it to me.
posted by gene_machine at 3:35 AM on September 19, 2009

Medicine - I think the commonest one is using 'bacteria' and 'virus' interchangeably.

A non-scientific one - I used to work for a charity, and people were always saying "Oh, you volunteer?". No, it was my paid job. Charities pay people to work for them - if you want people reliably 9-5 over the long term you need to pay them so they can, you know, eat and pay rent and things.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:03 AM on September 19, 2009

"I can't be an accountant, I'm not good at math."

Math? I do math? I don't do math. I do software and conceptual frameworks and lots and lots of regulations. I often, since I work at a lower level, do a lot of flattening-out of crumpled receipts. And data entry, a lot of data entry, to the point where I sometimes tell people that I went to college for five years so that instead of being a data entry clerk at $9/hr I could be a data entry clerk at $50/hr someday.

But I don't do math. The computer does the math. Even if I could do all the math in my head I wouldn't. And it rarely goes past simple arithmetic anyway.

What I'd love to be asked: "Why are income taxes so complicated?" Rather than people just complaining about how they want a flat tax. They never really want a flat tax. They just want income taxes to be magic.
posted by larkspur at 4:07 AM on September 19, 2009 [14 favorites]

Computer science: one of my pet peeves is movies that depict solving a programming problem (from hacking to accessing an alien computer to writing an AI) as a task requiring precisely 10 seconds of typing.
posted by zompist at 4:31 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: also in Computer Science.

This is somewhat specific, but you can pick out unexperienced programmers by paying attention to broad statements. If they say "Java sucks" or "C sucks" or "language X is ALWAYS better than language Y", there's a very high chance they have no idea what they are talking about. Similarly for operating systems, or anything else that is too large and varied for a large stroke.
posted by mezamashii at 4:39 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Computer science: one of my pet peeves is movies that depict solving a programming problem (from hacking to accessing an alien computer to writing an AI) as a task requiring precisely 10 seconds of typing.

and absolutely zero mouse usage on windows based systems.
posted by missmagenta at 4:53 AM on September 19, 2009

I have a degree in anthropology, and am currently getting another in an archaeology-related field. You would not believe the number of people who assume this means I like dinosaurs, or who feel the need to tell me their kid loves dinosaurs, or anything about fucking dinosaurs. I go between gently correcting them and just smiling and nodding.

They never really want a flat tax. They just want income taxes to be magic.

I used to write software to do people's taxes. It may have been only for two months a year, but I can assure you I very, very much did want a flat tax :)
posted by kalimac at 5:11 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Ah, archaeology, which I fondly refer to as my cocktail party degree, since people love to talk about it but it won't pay you shit: the dinosaurs thing makes me stabby. It makes all of us on edge. Fuck dinosaurs, man.

But more specifically, the assumptions that show you don't know what you're talking about: "Oh, so you've been to $Exotic_Location." Egypt, Greece, whatever. No. I've done archaeology in the following strange and exotic locations: Connecticut, South Dakota, New York, and, my longest dig: Missouri. To be fair, it was the middle of nowhere.

"So you dig stuff up, though, right?" For about 15% of the time that I'm actually on a site. Oh, and we often try to leave some of it in the ground. A lot of it isn't interesting to outsiders at all.

Shibboleths could include (and these are slightly more specific for North American):
the importance of pollen
storage/preservation issues
conservation of artefact issues - especially for metal
feet versus meters for American Historical Site archaeology
how fucking expensive Munsell pages are (and do you even really need one?)
total stations and how awesome they are if you could afford one
favorite sifting-grid size
the ethical Angst that is NAGPRA
where you can get cheap supplies, of any sort
and, finally, where the best bar is in any given town (I've only met one non-drinking archaeologist and he was a Mormon).

Bonus 'No You're Not' Question for the US only: Ask them to give an example of a site number for the state they're currently working in. There's a standard format.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:36 AM on September 19, 2009 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Intellectual Property: interchanging the word "trademark" with the word "copyright."
posted by Shebear at 5:38 AM on September 19, 2009 [10 favorites]

Library work: oh, it must be great to just read books all day.
posted by box at 5:43 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm a librarian in an academic library. People generally think that I a) sit around reading and buying books off amazon, b) check out books to patrons, c) shelve books. In actual fact I don't touch any books aside from the one I keep in my purse to read on the bus.

I am an emerging technologies librarian, and I generally spend my time consulting and/or training faculty and staff (when I'm not working with a team to reconceptualize and rebuild our library's website, my last big project.) But I can't really fault other people for not knowing what an emerging technologies librarian does; there aren't very many of us around and none of us do the same things. But even my more traditional colleagues don't check out or shelve books. They barely even do reference anymore.

Clear signs that people don't know squat about academic libraries: they presume all libraries use Dewey, they figure we have all the bestsellers on a prominent shelf somewhere, and that checking out and shelving books is our primary professional activity.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:52 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Running the numbers" doesn't have to be nonsense for a mathematician. For instance, it's sometimes very hard to solve the general case, so simplifying down to a specific case, even a specific numerical case, can help. Then you try to generalize your experience back "up".

Or, in the case linked, some kind of cryptography. You have some actual numbers that you are trying to manipulate using various algorithms.

Another example might be number theory. You could "run the numbers" looking for a counterexample for a while, before applying a lot of brainpower looking for a logical proof/disproof.

(An old shibboleth for computer scientists and/or software engineers: Y2k. STOP ASKING ME THAT YES I WORKED ON IT FOR 10 MINUTES FOUND ONE PROBLEM NOW I'M DONE AND THE WORLD WILL NOT BE ENDING)
posted by DU at 5:52 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wind developers (usually business development managers) describing a potential wind farm as 'a NN% capacity factor site'. Capacity factor is dependent on machine selection, placement, and a whole bunch of uncertainty corrections.

Energy vs power. A lot of people get that one wrong.

Energy vs capacity sources on a grid, and how they're there to meet demand. Anyone who can explain this without the listener's eyes glazing over is a hero.
posted by scruss at 5:58 AM on September 19, 2009

This related AskMe may be helpful.
posted by TedW at 6:04 AM on September 19, 2009

Library work: oh, it must be great to just read books all day. (box)

Publishing: oh, it must be great to just read books all day.

Also, special bonus for my undergraduate major, Linguistics: how many languages do you speak?
posted by ocherdraco at 6:10 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, the most annoying people are those who just throw jargon words and phrases together while clearly having only the faintest idea what they mean. Or who announce their theory of how everything is really tied together and "it all evens out in the end" in some sort of Timecube Lite formulation. It's hard to give examples of these due to the cognitive dissonance involved, but I'm sure that is clear in any field.

Other good examples abound in evolutionary biology. One is the idea that after all these years of evolution, we are now perfect and will not evolve further. Another is the idea that every trait can be explained by natural selection, and through thought experiments alone. These can be easily found in MetaFilter threads on evolution.

When people ask what I do these days, I usually say "human genome research." This has the benefit that almost everyone has heard of the human genome and know that it is important, somehow but most people have no idea what it is. The people who don't know might ask if they are curious, but they almost never pretend to know. Although I dated someone who told her parents what I did, and her mom corrected her, stating that "they" are actually called /gnəʊms/ (that is, "gnomes").

What would I like people to ask me about? What I hope to discover. What I've discovered so far. How the experiment works.

and absolutely zero mouse usage on windows based systems.

For what it's worth, Windows is actually really good for keyboard-only usage. I can work in Windows for a long time without touching the mouse.
posted by grouse at 6:13 AM on September 19, 2009 [11 favorites]

Best answer: XKCD
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:19 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Social research/sociology:

- Any unqualified reference to 'society', as in 'Society has long believed...' or 'Society must take action...' will convince me that the writer has absolutely no idea what society is, or what they're trying to say about it. 'Polite society' or 'New York high society' or even 'Traditional Iranian society' I can live with, but it's just not a word that should be used without qualification.

Statistics (not my field, but a necessary evil for social research):

- A percentage rise is not the same as a percentage point rise. If rates of Martian Flu increase from 2% to 3%, they've risen by 50 per cent, but only by 1 percentage point. Even worse is when lazy subeditors scan such an article, notice the '50 per cent', and then write ridiculous headlines like "50 per cent will de of Martian Flu!".
posted by embrangled at 6:22 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

writing: assuming that the hard part of writing is the physcial act, as opposed to the time spent starting out of the window

writing: assuming that the hard part is getting ideas

photography in movies: snapping away without ever reframing or showing any sign of looking through the viewfinder. Often with a 1970s-80s era film camera. And the sound of a motordrive even though the camera doesn't have one.
posted by unSane at 6:26 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: People who try to 'win' complex philosophical arguments about free will and determinism by resorting to, "Oh yeah, well according to QUANTUM THEORY..." probably do not really understand quantum theory. Or philosophy. But especially not quantum theory.

[disclaimer: I do not understand quantum theory, either.]
posted by embrangled at 6:41 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Anything having to do with finance, written by a journalist for the NYT or occasionally the WSJ, or else anything having to do with finance written by a PhD from an unrelated field with a (political) axe to grind.

Any discussion of any theoretical aspect of finance that makes reference to the assumption that asset returns are normally distributed, despite abundant evidence that they are not, in fact, normally distributed.

Any discussion of the finance industry in which it is assumed that one must be a mathematical genius to do well at it (read: earn more money than the median salary).

Any discussion of the finance industry or finance in which it is assumed that all finance is beyond the quantitative comprehension of a well-educated 17 year old: most finance is based on high school algebra.

Any complaints made by statisticians, physicists, chemists, or other science and/or academic types about what a shitty program Excel is: you're missing the point and the software was not designed for you. Its shortcomings are well known by those who know what they are talking about.

/end rant
posted by dfriedman at 6:44 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

and absolutely zero mouse usage on windows based systems.

Echoing grouse above, most computer programmers I know far prefer using keyboard shortcuts to navigate Windows to having to use the mouse. It takes less time to hit a couple of keys than to move your hand over to the mouse, move the pointer to the menu, navigate the menu, and then select what you want.
posted by elfgirl at 6:47 AM on September 19, 2009

Department Store Work (for now): "Oh, I'll come by and purchase a [product I do not sell seeing I am in a different department, or someone else actually does it] sometime soon."
posted by JoeXIII007 at 6:48 AM on September 19, 2009

What are the canonical signs that someone doesn't know much about your field, or only picked up enough to make cocktail-party conversation?
For any of the sciences, in general, a pretty good sign that someone probably doesn't know much about it is the fact that they're employed as a science reporter.
posted by Flunkie at 6:53 AM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

kalimac, I wish I could favorite you a billion times. Anthropology =/= paleontology.

And, for all you Bones watchers out there, all anthropology =/= physical anthropology.

For me, currently: Intelligence =/= raw data =/= spying. Analysis--learn it, live it, love it. (For it is awesome and fun times.)
posted by elfgirl at 6:56 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If they talk about finding a cure for cancer, it's a dead giveaway. This does a really good job of explaining why.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:02 AM on September 19, 2009 [15 favorites]

I work in theater. "Oh, so you're an actor?"
No, I work backstage and in preproduction. "Oh, so did you start as an actor and just not make it or decide you were too shy for the spotlight?"
No, I started as an artist and then transitioned into Scenic Painting. "Oh, like Bob Ross, right?"
No, I freelance for shops that paint backdrops and sets and carve dimensional scenery. "Oh, like the props?"
No, I work in props too, but that's something different. "Oh, they're like the walls, right?"
No. Just no.

I've given up on using correct terminology to describe my work when I meet someone new. I usually try to work around misconceptions by stating "I'm a painter and craftsperson, mainly working in theater."

As for things we love to be asked, talk to us about how we go about making things larger than life! (We put our charcoal and brushes into the ends of long bamboo poles, and stand on top of our paintings while we work, referencing a scaled grid for accuracy) We also love to talk about how we MacGuyver creative solutions out of compeletely unexpected materials.

Glad you asked!
posted by alight at 7:12 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've long assumed that whole point of quantum theory is that you can't understand it. I once got drunk with two doctorate quantum physicists and they basically said that they don't know why any of it works. They knew much bigger words than me, so I've taken their word for it.

Photography's a biggie for this stuff. One thing that i've repeatedly encountered is people asking me to "just come along and take a few snaps" for free. Then they show me some beautifully lit, studio-style lifestyle stock picture thing, with an immaculately made-up, photoshopped and styled model, and say "just something like this."

"I took a lovely picture of my grandson on holiday! Want to see it and the other 500 pictures of him I've put up on my website?" - this happens. A lot. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I've never encountered remotely interesting. I always look though.

The just-enough-knowledge-to-sound-stupid stuff is usually gear related, which is important up to a point. That point being where you actually start taking photos. I can gear nerd out with someone for ages at a party if they look like they're lonely, but gear is (or should be) just a means to an end for someone who's passionate about the pictures that they create.

There's another school of these guys, who tend to be the ones who read Strobist but never actually take any pictures, who will act like they're above camera gear talk (My Powershot is all I need, man!) but gush over any piece of lighting gear that David Hobby (the Strobist writer) talks about. However, lighting [b]is[/b] fundamentally more interesting that the next identikit entry-level DSLR.

What I want people to actually ask me about:

Why I love photography. (Seriously, this has never happened...)
What kind of photography I do.
Why I do that kind of photography, and what I hope to achieve with it. (Photography as a means to an end!)
Why that particular niche is important.
What kind of projects they've seen, and why they loved them.
Their favourite photographers, and why they love them.
How shitty the photography business is.
The hilarities of the word "pro."
posted by Magnakai at 7:16 AM on September 19, 2009 [7 favorites]

That was long. I'm obviously far more bitter than I thought.
posted by Magnakai at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: You don't even need specific disciplines, titles alone suffice : (1) I'm a postdoc at the university. Oh wow, you're doing your PhD. No I did that already. (2) I'm faculty at the university. Oh, what do you teach? I don't teach currently, just research. etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:35 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Oh man, so your job is to play video games all day?"

(At this point I usually just say "yeah!")
posted by danb at 7:39 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: I'm not an economist, but it bugs me when people assume that tax increases or decreases are inflexibly passed on and incorporated into the price. If the gasoline excise tax goes up by 25¢ per gallon, the consumer will probably pay most of it, but the price will not go up by 25¢ per gallon—the producer and the retailer will absorb some of that hit. Same goes for dropping a sales tax from 7% to 5%—retailers are going to pocket some of that difference.

As has been mentioned above, most people don't know the difference between tech support and computer science—it's all "computers" to them. (Being able to do some of both just confuses people further.)
posted by oaf at 7:45 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am a stagehand, not a techie.
posted by mollymayhem at 7:45 AM on September 19, 2009

Renewable Energy Policy:

People asking whether taking all that energy out of the wind will impact on the global weather systems. Has anyone down research on that, eh? Eh? I've had this one frequently.

I'm also fed up of engineers who think that anything that is connected to RE but isn't specifically related to making a piece of kit work is automatically in a generic set called RE policy, whether its to do with national policy, ecological impacts, regulation, socio-economic impacts, resource assessment or even improved household energy efficiency and that I should therefore be familiar with all of it and happy to do work in any of these areas.
posted by biffa at 7:48 AM on September 19, 2009

following jeffburdges: "Oh, you're a professor? It must be nice to have the summer off." = end of conversation.

And for those above- I'm teaching Quantum Mechanics this semester, and the short answer to those above who were wondering is that in some cases, it's not really clear why QM works, but it is clear that it does, so we go with it. To avoid dealing with the bizarre philosophical aspects, one can take a logical positivist approach; only questions with well-defined answers (i.e. things we can measure) are really meaningful. The rest is basically not itself meaningful, but rather a means to an end.

I'm sure the philosophers will now look at me as a case-study in people who don't really understand what they're talking about with my poor description of logical positivism. Do I at least get some credit for admitting it??
posted by JMOZ at 7:59 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Psychology stuff is just crazy. Unless you're a friend, these are just annoying. I have the degree. I don't have the job.

- Some form of "Are you trying to get into my head right now?" No, I'm not. And I don't want to. Unless you want to pay for a session.

- "What should I do about ....." Again, I don't care unless you're going to pay me. And I can't learn enough in 5 seconds anyway to be much help. Besides, a lot of it is leading you to what you should do, not flat out telling you what you should do.

- "So you can read my mind?" No, I'm not psychic. They're fakes.

- "It must be great to sit around and listen to people's problems all day." No, it isn't. First off there's the work of keeping all of these different problems separate. Then there's the fact that that's only a small portion of what psychologists do.

Teaching is just as bad. The wife is certified Early Childhood and I'm going to get my MAT (age level yet undecided).

- "Will you babysit my kids?" Most of the time, no. I like them during school, I don't really want to see them outside of that.

- "You must love kids." What age group do you mean? Did you hear the level that I teach? If it's young enough (like 1st grade or so) then that was a useless sentence and we're all stupider for having listened to it.

- "Must be great to have summers off." Yep, and to not get paid for that time either. I know teachers get paychecks during the summer, but it's for the work they did during the school year. Plus there's teacher work days over the summer.

- "Can you tutor my kid?" I'm a teacher. That doesn't mean I know everything.

- "Must be great to have all afternoon off." The kids get out about 3. Teachers leave when the next day is ready (at least, no one's saying you can't get ahead).

And subbing, which is what I'm doing until the MAT gets done.

- "Must be great not to have to deal with the kids the next day." Yep, and to have no idea about the classroom dynamic before I get in there.

- "Just babyistting, right?" No, I'm teaching. If they wanted a babysitter they could have gotten the guidance counselor or someone else already at the school to sit in the classroom and just show movies.

- "Don't you want a steady job?" It really can be a steady job. Teachers are out all the time (and by that I mean there is a teacher out all the time across the two districts I sub for, not that any specific teacher is out all the time).

- "Couldn't hack it as a real teacher?" First off, subbing can be a lot harder because you don't get a chance to get familiar with the class. Second, I started college as a psych student and figured out halfway through that I wanted to teach. At my school that would have meant essentially going from a junior to a freshman.
posted by theichibun at 8:00 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

elfgirl: For me, currently: Intelligence =/= raw data =/= spying. Analysis--learn it, live it, love it. (For it is awesome and fun times.)

This is a US/UK distinction, actually. US intelligence agencies tend to refer to the product of analysis as intelligence, UK agencies tend to refer to both raw data and the product of analysis as intelligence.
posted by Dysk at 8:01 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: Oh, another real cringe-inducer is "software program". Or "html program(ming|mer)".
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I am a sociologist. This is not the same as being a social worker.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:04 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, you're a lawyer? What should I do in this situation, in a completely unrelated field of law to what you practice, in a completely different jurisdiction?

And law's like 'nam. Real lawyers don't talk about it at parties.
posted by djgh at 8:04 AM on September 19, 2009 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: TedW linked to a previous question about silly things people hear back after trying to explain their jobs. This is not that question, the difference being that here I'm curious about how people trying to discuss or apply your field do it wrong. Bonus points for anyone who suggests better things to talk about instead.

By the way, I'm not marking best answers because almost all so far have been exactly what I wanted, and it looks silly to have that much grey.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:08 AM on September 19, 2009

As a political junkie, I've bounced back and forth between government and campaigns a few times, and I've discovered that a lot of people don't know the difference between what a campaign staffer does and what a legislative aide does. My grandma was absolutely convinced that I do fundraising. I explained to her that as a federal employee I am actually banned from fundraising, and she said, "Nooooo, they never CALL it fundraising, do they?" I'm not even sure what that's supposed to mean. Anyway, if you're trying to talk to me about work, I know a lot about more about bills than I do about primaries and polling data.

This question is sort of related, although not exactly the same.
posted by naoko at 8:11 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you mention that you study politics, and get a question about your political convictions or which party you vote for asked as the first one, you can be damned sure the asker neither did nor does study politics. If they ask you which party you're with, or when you're going to get elected (or worse yet, become prime minister/president) you ought to be allowed to punch them in the stomach. Hard.
posted by Dysk at 8:15 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

An archaeologist friend of mine studies ancient Greek things. (I must admit that I don't know more than that; we're not that close.) She gets annoyed when people assume that she's interested in whatever people find in the ground, from whatever civilization.

I'm a mathematician. So of course I'm annoyed both when people assume that all we do is "run the numbers" on things. But at the same time I am annoyed when slightly more sophisticated people think that pure mathematics has no numbers in it. At least the way I do it, there's a lot of experimenting and calculation first to figure out what the hell is going on -- and since I work in combinatorics, that involves actually counting things. This sort of extends DU's comment.

embrangled claims to not understand quantum theory. But that is the first step to understanding quantum theory, because it's just so damn counterintuitive that the first thing you need to do is just learn to trust the equations. Of course, the people who have crazy mystical theories about quantum mechanics usually don't know any math. (see also magnakai, JMOZ.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:21 AM on September 19, 2009

I'm a software architect, and work mostly on web applications and frameworks. You'd be surprised how hard it is to describe what I do to the non-computer-savy.

The downside is that they always think I can design their next website. The upshot is that I can't, and I have no problem with telling them this. ("Sorry, I don't do any client-side development.")

The worst part is when occasionally somebody actually does understand what I do, and is all like, "hey, I have this great idea for a website, but I don't know any programming" and they want me to work on their shit. Don't they know that I already have a job?
posted by Afroblanco at 8:22 AM on September 19, 2009

Assumptions that astronomers/astrophysicists are good at stargazing-ish things like constellations, or actually do stuff like that, as research or something

And don't ever ever ever confuse astronomy and astrology around an astrophysicist
posted by secretseasons at 8:23 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For physicists, usually I just get laughter and rolling eyes and "wow I was so bad at physics", because people assume physics is inherently more difficult than anything else on the planet (probably because of the amazingly crappy/underfunded secondary physics education in the US). I often talk to people who speak authoritatively about a subject they read about in , often with regard to theoretical particle physics and string theory (that's a popular amateur-scientists subject). But I don't usually hear people actually pretend to be experts.

When asked about fusion energy research, I often get people who get mixed up about what "cold fusion" is (which is fine, except that the cold fusion PR debacle in the '90s is still a painful memory for plasma physicists, even for those who were still kids around then). I guess if you wanted a fusion energy shibboleth, it would be to see if people understand that cold fusion is no longer the mainstream focus of the fusion energy program*, or if people understand what cold fusion is/isn't.

* There are still some dedicated researchers who think they can extract energy from deuterium fusion during electrolysis on a metal lattice at room temperature. I admire them for their dedication...but I think they're a little odd.

posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:30 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: The XKCD one is actually a great example - because he's not involved in a Literature program, the strip's creator apparently thinks he's passing as someone who is by using keywords he's vaguely familiar with. But it looks like absolute gibberish to anyone in the field. ("The deconstructon is inextricable from the text"? What.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:39 AM on September 19, 2009 [21 favorites]

Biology grad student:

If you hit on any of the obvious and easily countered arguments against evolution (eg. 'it's just a theory', 'why are there still monkeys around?', etc.) you probably don't know anything about biology.

It is not the case that every bio grad student was not able to get into med school. Most of us actually want to be doing research. This goes back to undergrad as well in that not every bio undergrad is planning to become a doctor.

There is such a thing as basic research and it is valid and important. Every study does not need an immediately practical purpose. That is, there is more to biology than disease research.

I likely cannot diagnose any medical condition you have and do not know everything about animal husbandry.

I work with fish and occasionally do stuff in the lab, however I cannot just take a sample of the food you feed your fish and 'analyze' it to find out what is in it.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 8:57 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been a fairly successful freelance / contract worker for the past dozen years or so.

The annoying question I get a lot when I tell people that is a pitying "Oh, so how long have you been unemployed?"
posted by ook at 8:58 AM on September 19, 2009

embrangled claims to not understand quantum theory. But that is the first step to understanding quantum theory, because it's just so damn counterintuitive that the first thing you need to do is just learn to trust the equations. Of course, the people who have crazy mystical theories about quantum mechanics usually don't know any math. (see also magnakai, JMOZ.)

My response was intended to be a little humorous... Essentially, I was told pretty much what you said - that they knew that it works and they were moving atoms with tractor beams made out of lasers and other mind-blowing stuff, but there's an enormous gap of knowledge between "traditional" physics (if there's a more appropriate word, I don't know it and I apologise) and quantum physics. While the equations work out and apply in real life, they have to take this on "faith", because they don't know why various underlying principles react the way that they do.

I found it enormously fascinating that what appears, to me at least, to be one of the most mind-boggling facets of scientific research can be associated with the idea of faith. I've always dreaded the day that some of the hard-core Creationists pick this up as a new promotional tool, but it doesn't seem to have happened yet.

Sorry for the derail btw, I have an ego to defend.
posted by Magnakai at 8:59 AM on September 19, 2009

magnakai: I didn't intend to insult you (or anybody else in this thread), and was not saying that you were one of the people with a crazy mystical theory. I meant that you had also commented on quantum mechanics. I can see how you'd misunderstand me, though; the way I worded things was a bit unfortunate.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: For ministry:

It's amazing how many people meet me and want to talk about the book of Revelation. And it's either "Man, we'll never figure that stuff out" or "I've got it all figured out and Jesus is rapturing everyone who's wearing a blue shirt and eating peanut butter next Thursday at 2:18 Eastern Time." If someone ever asks me "Hey, can you help me figure out the general meaning of Revelation in light of prior Jewish apocalypses?" I'd love it. But if they know enough to ask that, they probably don't need me. Please feel free to ask me about the literary interdependence of the four gospels as well.

Also: maybe other preachers feel differently, but, please don't modify your vocabulary because I'm in the room. I really don't care whether you cuss or not, and even if I refrain myself, it's a little annoying to be lumped in with a group whose other members are preschoolers and Victorian women.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2009 [21 favorites]


"Can you take a look at this rash?"

posted by The White Hat at 9:24 AM on September 19, 2009 [22 favorites]

elfgirl: ha! thanks :) Adding to the irony/annoyingness, I specialised in socio-cultural anthropology. So, no, I don't particularly care about dinosaurs, nor have I ever dug one up. (I've actually never done field work, as yet.) But I will happily talk your ear off about gender and ritual!

I'm currently working on a degree in archaeological conservation. Usually when I tell people this I either get the dinosaur thing, or a look of complete and utter terror. Which is actually kind of sweet, and I'll happily assure them that it's pretty obscure, and I can explain the gist of it all in a few seconds. I think I really horrified my mother though, when she asked me to clean a white bloom off of some wooden decorations she had. I guess she was expecting...well, something other than me sucking on a Q-tip and then rubbing the bloom off. (I was still jetlagged! And, um, saliva's actually a really good cleaner.)

Pater Alethias: I promise not to curb my sailor-like language if you just let me sit there wide-eyed and a little groupie-like as you go on about the book of St. Matthew. Or, er, anything religion- or Bible-related, really.
posted by kalimac at 9:26 AM on September 19, 2009

Since this thread is going to live, I might as well link to the answer I just wrote in MeTa, which looks particularly relevant to the OP's followup.
posted by advil at 9:34 AM on September 19, 2009

I'm a lawyer. Practicing law, like many disciplines, encompasses so many disparate career paths that it seems like a fiction to call it one profession. What a criminal defense attorney does, and what a wills and estates lawyer does, for example, bear very little resemblance to each other. So you have the phenomenon of lawyers being almost as ignorant of what other lawyers do, as laypeople might be.

When I meet someone who doesn't know much about law, here are the sort of things they talk about:

-- Whether I like to read John Grisham. (I don't.)

-- Whether it's difficult to represent someone you know is guilty. (It's no more difficult than it would be for a doctor to treat someone she knows is sick.)

-- What my take on this or that Supreme Court decision is. (Fascination with the Supreme Court is a sign that someone has very little involvement or experience with law practice.)

-- Whether I know any tort lawyers who have their own private jets. (Many laypeople seem fascinated by the trappings of high-flying, wealthy lawyers.)
posted by jayder at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

"Oh man, so your job is to play video games all day?"

(At this point I usually just say "yeah!")

posted by danb

Every single first conversation I have ever had about my job has started off with this. I wish that was hyperbole.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:50 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, here's a good one.

Laypeople, when talking about O.J. Simpson's acquittal in the killings of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, invariably view the Simpson case as an example of a shocking injustice.

Lawyers, when talking about the same case, tend to view it as a paradigmatic example of good criminal defense lawyering. The O.J. Simpson defense stands as an example of defense lawyering at its best, and it is terrifically inspiring to those of us who do criminal defense work. I was recently watching clips of the Simpson team dismantling prosecution witnesses, and they are truly spellbinding performances.
posted by jayder at 9:53 AM on September 19, 2009 [12 favorites]

Me: oil painter who paints outdoors

bystander: "I can't draw a straight line" <>
"My Aunt (sister, mother, brother, uncle, dog and cousin bob) is an artist!" <>
*I heard this when I was a graphic designer too. Why say this? people who are artists, whether it be as a commercial artist or a fine artist do not draw straight lines either (without rulers, computers or mahl sticks!) I guess it is supposed to be a form of a compliment--but take it from me, the artist is not buoyed from knowing you "can't" do what they are doing. You could if you wanted to and took the time to learn how to do it.
If I hear a great singer sing I don't automatically blurt out--"oh, *I* can't sing a note!" What the hell! I just accept the song and am happy to hear it. Crikey! It is not "about me"!

What I would like to be asked: why do modern painters chose to paint outdoors? The answer is a longish one, but it has to do with experiencing the world and observing it firsthand. Painters who paint outdoors are educating themselves about how light affects their surroundings and translating the experience into paint. Painting is a language to be learned. The best way to learn about painting is from life and by "direct observation."

P.S. I could write two pages of predictable/dumb things that are said to graphic designers. I will leave you with the most popular: "Q. what would happen if you made the logo bigger?"

(A. What will HAPPEN? Well, it will look like YOU did this project with Corel Draw... but pay me upfront and have it your way!
posted by naplesyellow at 9:57 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In discussions about the art world: "That [painting, sculpture, etc.] that just sold for x million dollars--is it really worth all that?" Yes, of course it is. It's a unique object with no use value: it is, by definition, worth exactly as much as someone paid for it. It may be terrible art and the collector may be a moron, but at this moment, it is in fact worth precisely x million dollars. This has nothing to do with any aesthetic value it may or may not possess--that's not something that is decided by the market (or "decided" at all, really).

Also, people who share their feelings about "modern art" when discussing what some artist is currently up to--that's a giveaway. This is picky, but "modern art" is generally used as a broad historical term for work from somewhere around Cezanne to somewhere around the 1960s--often in the context of issues of representation and abstraction. Work made since then is usually referred to as "contemporary art." Again, not a sin or anything, but a sign that the person is not really tuned in to the informed public dialogue about art.

Frustrating and misguided: conversations about whether an object "is" or "isn't" art.
Worthwhile and productive: conversations about whether a particular artistic gesture is interesting and why or why not.
posted by neroli at 10:00 AM on September 19, 2009 [14 favorites]

Radiological controls for nuclear plant maintenance: So you glow in the dark? Or, more common up here in the ol' hippy Pac Norwest, just looks of horror like I'm the guy who's destroying the planet.

I've learned from both of these threads that people don't like jokey responses when they tell you what they do. I think though, that's kind of a natural response to something you don't really know anything about, but it's your turn to talk again. In the future, I'll just be saying something more open-ended like "I don't know anybody that does that, what kinds of things do you do?" Or "wow, is that as glamorous as it sounds?"
posted by ctmf at 10:11 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Archaeologists seem to be well represented today, but I'll add another.

When talking about digs I've been on: "So, did you find anything?"

No archaeologist worth her meager paycheck would put a trowel in the ground without having done the appropriate background work that suggests something is there to be found. This doesn't even go into the fact that sometimes finding a pit full of sterile soil still counts as "something," and that sterile soil may provide the answer to a very important question. The better question is "So, what did you find?"
posted by Eumachia L F at 10:17 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cook (who lives with another cook):

"You guys must make the best food at home"

Why would we do that?

"Did you see Top Chef last night?"

posted by hafehd at 10:21 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work for a political organization. I can tell that people understand nothing about my field when I'm asked whether I (or my organization) support the Republicans or the Democrats. Those are not the only options.
posted by decathecting at 10:22 AM on September 19, 2009

Ok, so I didn't read this entire thread because I know my answer to the question at once. I'm a historian of Japan. And I focus on prostitution (mainly on the legal history of contracts). People ask me dumb questions about Japan and, uh, geishas (gee-shas) all the time. And you know what? I never get irritated. Or astounded by the lack of knowledge about Japan, after having seen the Japanese lack of knowledge about the U.S., I think we're about even.

Back to the question/rant. Maybe it's because my job is of practical use to no one, unless you want to find a Japanese prostitute or buy a human being in a country with a Continental legal code. But I do try to practice the cliche "no question is a stupid question." I'm just grateful someone takes an interest in what I do. So if people misunderstand what you do, take a chill pill and explain it to them. If they want a free service, laugh it off and change the subject.
posted by vincele at 10:23 AM on September 19, 2009 [15 favorites]

"Why do you need a map library when Google Maps exists?"
posted by avocet at 10:38 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

elfgirl: For me, currently: Intelligence =/= raw data =/= spying. Analysis--learn it, live it, love it. (For it is awesome and fun times.)

This is a US/UK distinction, actually. US intelligence agencies tend to refer to the product of analysis as intelligence, UK agencies tend to refer to both raw data and the product of analysis as intelligence.

Actually, in the US, I'd say it's a private sector/governmental distinction. In the US military, raw data would be considered intel, whether it'd undergone analysis or not. When we're talking about business intel, though, a distinction is generally made between data/information and (competitive) intelligence. It borders on an argument of semantics IMO, but the distinction is made quite loudly and often by CI professionals.

Plus, it makes a good basis for arguing with management that just collecting data on competitors isn't enough to provide them with good intel. Most of them don't understand that while the raw data tells you something, digging into it and pulling together seeming disparate threads can tell you a lot more. It can be...frustrating.
posted by elfgirl at 10:41 AM on September 19, 2009

I find a lot of the answers on this thread really frustrating. I've worked in a pretty huge number of different fields, and I've never once been seriously irritated by a (non-careerist) asking questions about what I do. I actually think it's a little snobby (kind of, sort of) to get so upset by a well-intentioned but partly-ignorant question. No two jobs, even in the same department, have exactly the same expectations. Let alone two different jobs.

Affectations are a different thing, though. For instance: when I worked as a writer, I never got upset w/ questions about what it was I did, or should be doing, or the scope or breadth of my work -- they were fair game. I mean, how is anybody expected to know what it is I do?

I did, however, stop taking interest in the conversation at about the time somebody would ask me to volunteer to read the treatment for the screenplay they wrote about some good times they had with their buddies the last crazy summer before college.
posted by mr. remy at 10:42 AM on September 19, 2009 [8 favorites]

Answering a technical materials telephone line for a major art materials manufacturer. Question patterns from the public:

1. Just consumed a bit of their art materials, and now want me to reassure them that they are going to be ok. Or, want sanction from me that it is ok to consume their art materials.

2. Don't want to follow simple recommended applications of art materials because they think they are going to discover something that has never been done before.

3. Have followed bad practices, deny the method after inquiry, then admit forty-five minutes into the conversation.

4. Want to know why painting instructions have not been printed on a four inch tube, when it realistically takes about ten years to fully master painting.
posted by effluvia at 10:57 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nthing naplesyellow and neroli.

My additions to Painting:

Standard annoying:
"What kind of paintings do you make?" I just spent three + years of concentrated study figuring that out. Almost no one who asks this question wants the full answer. I can either give a useless but accurate answer (oil on board), or explain what, in general, I'm trying to do.

Extra annoying:
"So do you do landscapes or portraits" These are the options most people seem to have in mind. I did, in fact, paint landscapes for a while, but if I mention this, most people just stop listening at that point.

Super annoying:
"So what style? Impressionism?"

Here's another thing that's not exactly answering your question, but you might find interesting -- I changed my name legally when I was 18, and in the decade since I've experienced a standard litany of questions. (There's also a preamble that most people go through before I tell them that I wasn't born with it. Depending on what they assume with those questions, I don't always tell them.)

The "everyone's asks this and that's Ok, you're just curious" level:
Was that expensive / difficult ?
How does that work?
What does it mean?

The "you should have thought about that a little more before asking it" level:
What's your real name?
Are you on the run from the law?
Think you'll change it again / add a middle name?

The "full-on douchebag" level:
I bet I can guess your real name!

(I stopped telling people other than very close friends my previous name a few years ago. Partly because of the "real" name question, partly because it's fun to have a secret, and partly because it's an excellent douchebag detector.)

So you just made it up?

Did you hate your parents?

The "almost no one asks the interesting questions" level:
How did you go about finding it?
What does / did it mean to you?
Why those words specifically?

I used to have the answers on my website, but people never were satisfied when I told them to check it if we weren't at a computer.
posted by nímwunnan at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm an urban planner. Everyone assumes that every goddamn thing wrong in town is my fault.
posted by gordie at 11:12 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

As a philosophy professor, I've gotten all kinds of weird things. But my all-time favorite response didn't actually happen to me, but to a friend in the same field:

"So what are some of your sayings?"
posted by kestrel251 at 11:32 AM on September 19, 2009 [21 favorites]

Best answer: Things I've used to weed out resumes in the first round of hiring for an IT position:

+ Misspells "Linux".
+ Lists "HTML" or "XML" in the "programming languages I know" section.
+ Has no computer-related hobbies, but does have a recent degree/certificate from a technical college.
+ Refers to Mac OS X as linux-based.
+ Capitalizes Perl as "PERL".

Those don't usually come up on conversation, though. But if Derren Brown asked me to fix his computer on the radio, I would jump at the chance.
posted by hades at 11:33 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

People ask me dumb questions about Japan and, uh, geishas (gee-shas) all the time. And you know what? I never get irritated.

But people don't ask you if you're a pimp?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:34 AM on September 19, 2009

I study how climate change impacts population dynamics of food webs.

Frequent questions I get, especially when drinks are involved:

"So what's the climate gonna be like in 2050?"
"Should I sell my beach property soon?"
"Are we all going to die?"
posted by special-k at 11:35 AM on September 19, 2009

Almost forgot my favorite:

"So ever since Al Gore made that movie and shit, you must get a lot of business huh?"
posted by special-k at 11:45 AM on September 19, 2009

So, there will always be work for tax lawyers, right?
posted by grobstein at 11:48 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: Another one on the shibboleth front (though not my field in any professional sense):

Anyone who is discussing Freudian theory or practice and uses the term "subconscious" has just announced that they don't really know what they're talking about. Freud never uses the word, and it is avoided in serious psychoanalytic literature. The Freudian term is "unconscious" (which implies something not directly accessible in any circumstances) rather than "subconscious" (an earlier term which implies something "below the surface" and potentially available to the conscious mind).
posted by neroli at 12:06 PM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

As a philosophy professor, I've gotten all kinds of weird things. But my all-time favorite response didn't actually happen to me, but to a friend in the same field:

"So what are some of your sayings?"

I wonder if your friend is the same one I read about elsewhere online.
posted by jayder at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I quit math & began working as a programmer, my mother was quite upset.
I didn't learn about it for several years, but she thought programming was "what you learned from the schools that advertised on matchbooks."

(I couldn't find an example on-line, but 'learn programming' was as common a theme on matchbooks as 'draw the pirate'. )
posted by hexatron at 1:19 PM on September 19, 2009

As a graphic designer, this statement stands out: "Yeah, I've been having problem with my computer, can you take a look at it?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:38 PM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: Most people, including sadly some biologists, just don't get the immense size of normal biological variation. So the assumption that there is one small set of physiological parameters that are normal or that everyone happens to match one normal value is a great give away of your ignorance. For example, the statements that all human females have a four week menstrual cycle and/or only cycles around 28 days are normal. Actually it's more like 18-40 days is common, it doesn't have to be regular or stay the same, and even lengths outside that range can be fine although are probably worth getting checked. There are as many other examples, often more subtle than this one.

This stuff is very pervasive and any time I see it I roll my eyes and immediately discount anything the originator is saying.
posted by shelleycat at 2:17 PM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking strictly to the question:

What are the canonical signs that someone doesn't know much about your field, or only picked up enough to make cocktail-party conversation?

(1) I don't recognize them as someone employed in my department, a nearby department in my field, a department in an allied field, or a spouse thereof.

(2) There is no (2). That's pretty much all you need for most any academic field. This is purely a matter of specialization and emphatically NOT any sort of superiority, but in nearly any academic field, not having (or being near finishing finishing) a graduate degree in the subject strongly implies cocktail-party-conversation knowledge, with an inevitable small number of exceptions.

This is actually particularly bad in my own field, political science, where the things that get taught in undergraduate courses that someone at a party might have taken have shockingly little in common with the discipline as it's practiced by scholars.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:23 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

The assumption that everyone who works in a museum is a curator is kind of frustrating. And when I say I'm not a curator, they look puzzled and ask why I'm not. It doesn't bother me too much to explain why I prefer other aspects of museum work, but I don't really like the implication that the curator is the only position worth pursuing. Because even after I tell them about collections management, registration, education and visitor programming, visitor studies, museum technology, marketing and publicity, development, conservators, preparators, exhibit designers, and even more they still say: "But are you sure you don't want to be a curator?"

What I would love to talk about is how the person perceives the role of the museum in their community and what kinds of programming or exhibits they would like to see. But I'm happy to answer any questions because after entering the field I realized how opaque the inner workings of the museum often are to the public, and I want people to know more about how museums work.
posted by Mouse Army at 2:39 PM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Non-writers often seem to think that the main talent involved in being a writer is getting the spelling and grammar right. I have heard someone go so far as to say "Steven King doesn't write, he word processes".

Non-composers often think that musical composition is mainly about knowing the notation for writing down the music, the music already there full formed in a composer's head before it was written out. Or, even worse, they think that "composer" is a fancy word for a singer/songwriter, and they want to know what instrument you play and what the name of your band is and if you ever go on tour.

Ask a composer what the second best kind of music is (if you ask for the first best you will get a ranty spiel about their pet genre, they are more likely to tell you something brief yet interesting about their second favorite kind of music). Ask a writer about their second or third favorite author.

Don't ask either about what they have done recently - they will freeze up and get insecure because they have not been as productive as they want recently. Otherwise, they would be at home getting something done instead of standing there talking to you.
posted by idiopath at 4:34 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm a missionary. Honestly, I try not to use that word too much because people tend to have pretty bad reactions to it (like the one you probably just had). But contrary to popular opinion, I don't spend my days handing out Chick tracts on street corners or telling people they're going to hell. I don't live in a hut, and I'm not Mormon.

A more accurate term for what I'm doing would be cross-cultural urban church planting. Some of my regular duties include teaching a community English class, preparing large meals and managing a church office. I'll happily study the bible with people but I'm mostly doing the "mommy" thing right now.

I've heard it all. On one end of the spectrum there's "OMG-you-crazy-proselytizer!" and at the other end there's "wow-you're-such-a-martyr". I'm neither; just a person who loves God and decided to do my church work in another country.
posted by wallaby at 4:55 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I said before that I wouldn't mark best answers, but that was before the question derailed and got called out on MetaTalk for it. So rather than post fifty links to all the people who did answer my question as asked, I came back and marked them best answer.

Unfortunately, this twists the meaning of best answer. I've excluded many interesting comments because they mentioned a FAQ, and these tended also to be the questions which listed better topics. For me, those answers are the most useful, but---that's the internet for you, eh?
posted by d. z. wang at 5:30 PM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: I just finished a very heavily Shakespeare-focused master's, and (God and a generous amount of money willing) am about to start on a PhD program that's going to have me digging elbows-deep in the grammatical structure of the language of Shakespeare's early to mid-period plays.

I'll answer just about any question from anyone politely, because I love talking about the subject of Shakespeare and Elizabethan/Jacobean drama and England of the period in general, and if I can share some of what I know with someone who's interested, I'll talk that person's ear off. My favorite subjects are what a particular line or speech means, or the history behind a given play, or background details of Shakespeare's acting company and its members. (For instance, Shakespeare started writing his large comic roles as less bombastic and more witty after about 1600 because the main comedic actor quit the company and was replaced.)

I'll think some unpleasant things, though, if someone mentions a particular hot button. For instance, when I'm talking to a layman*, usually about the third or fourth sentence I'll hear will start off with some variation of "Say, have you heard of this theory that--", and my first thought is "I swear to God, if the next words out of your mouth are "Shakespeare didn't write those plays", I will punch you in the dick." I never actually end up doing it, though, and I fear for my future in academia as a result.

*For which read "your average well-adjusted person on the street who isn't spending a decade of his life being an obsessive sad bastard about the subject".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:35 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: An example from literature, similar to your example, was a book I read a few years ago (wish I could remember which one) that was a mystery novel and the solution hinged on the ambiguity of "bat" (the mammal) versus "bat" (the piece of baseball equipment) in a sentence. Except that the sentence was in American Sign Language, in which "bat" and "bat" do not resemble each other at all. The author clearly just assumed that ASL was some kind of transliteration of English, and that homophones in English would be something analogous in ASL. Seemed like a similar example of a write not realizing his own ignorance in order to correct it.
posted by not that girl at 5:44 PM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I actually disagree with a lot of the generalizations some of the lawyers in this thread have made, but anyhow, I will offer one thought. A common belief - and an understandable one, given portrayals on TV - is that lawyers spend lots of time in court. Many lawyers will never see the inside of a courtroom, some will go only very occasionally, and a small fraction will be in court regularly.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:01 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think some of this angst over biology/law/medicine in this thread comes from people unknowingly (or knowingly) asking for free advice. As a lawyer, feel free to ask me pretty much anything - what I love about the law, what law school was like, why I chose the career path I chose - but don't ask me for free advice on your aunt's brother-in-law's cousin's drug possession case in Missouri. You wouldn't ask your hair stylist to cut your hair for free if you ran into him or her at a cocktail party, don't ask me to to my job for free, either. It just puts me and you in an awkward position.

I think a lot of the advice in this thread can be summed up in: Be genuinely curious about someone else's job. Ask about how they got into it, why they like it, what their day-to-day is like. Don't act like a know-it-all and don't ask them to work off-hours. I'm training some attorneys right now on cocktail party conversation, and my big point of advice has been "have an attitude of childlike curiosity." I think you look smarter if you ask "feeling" questions rather than "knowing" questions.

At least, that's my opinion.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:48 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a career counselor at a university.

I do like discussing why cover letters exist and how to write one that is actually useful and engaging, rather than the useless drivel. If I could save one person seeking to hire someone just 3 minutes of life by stopping one intrepid job seeker from writing an empty, buzz-wordy cover letter, I will have made earth just a scoooooch bit better.

I also like discussing 'work': how work in viewed in different communities (I was going to say 'societies' but I just read embrangled's comment), why some types of work are considered more valuable than others and how that changes depending on the country/population you're looking at, work and self-identity, how people choose work - if they do in fact get the privilege of choosing in the first place, etc. Good fun!

Nice question by the way.
posted by anitanita at 8:50 PM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

+ Lists "HTML" or "XML" in the "programming languages I know" section.

To be fair, XSLT is a Turing-complete programming language.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:07 PM on September 19, 2009

When people think history is already written, and that all historians do is read the already-written history and repeat what's in it.

but just like the Japanese historian above, I love to talk about my work. Mostly because I so rarely meet people who are interested.
posted by jb at 9:31 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I study Communication. People often assume that this means speech or interpersonal communication. I know nothing about these, as I study technology adoption.

Most of my work is in the Republic of Armenia - to which many reply 'My brother's college roommate was Armenian.' Occasionally I can reply 'Oh yeah, there's a large Armenian community in Fresno' or explain that most (non-LA) Armenians in America are 3rd generation and that they speak a different dialect from those in Armenia. But more often than not, I reply with 'That's nice.'
posted by k8t at 10:18 PM on September 19, 2009

"I hate chardonnay." ( I hate wine. Or, god every time I taste a wine from X it feels like I'm chewing on a 2x4. Help! Can mean either.)

"I love really dry red wine." (Join the club)

"Why don't you have any Super-Tuscans on your list?" (I have no idea what planet I'm on)

"So how often do people send wine back?" (Grrrraaaacccckkkkgglllggghhhh....)

As a sommelier, 60% of my job is just talking people down off the ledge I did not build. Frankly, sometimes I tell people I am a waiter at parties. Fun with classism! Seriously, though, I LOVE when people ask me what silex is, and actually want to know why wines that comes from those particular soils taste the way they do (um, basically, to be honest, we don't know). Or why bottles are the shape they are. Or love a wine and ask me to explain how they can tell the person in the wine shop what they like. Or get really excited when I explain what a simple term like "dry" actually means and how to stop using it WRONG and explain what they are really asking for which helps them help me/us.

Someone asked me tonight why Austrians use the term "Smaragd" and Germans use the Term "Spatlese". That's a little bit of heaven, that question.
posted by metasav at 12:36 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a creative in advertising (Art Director: no I'm not the one responsible for the words but that doesn't mean I haven't contributed to them, no I didn't draw, photograph, film or even do the typography on the massive campaign you saw.) my pet peeve is when you confuse advertising with marketing. They're related like ballet and breakdance but they are not the same thing. People ask: "What kind of ads do you do?" and fill in with "radio? TV? Posters?" the answer is all of the above since I do campaigns and this is not restricted to a single media. If you really want to know what kind of ads someone does, ask them for which clients they work. (Car ads? Beer ads? Shampoo ads?)

In smalltalk, non ad-folks will bring up the ads they just hate. I actually like that because then we're talking about ads, and I like talking about ads.
posted by dabitch at 1:13 AM on September 20, 2009

Clarification: a lot of my esteemed colleagues would rather not talk about the ads you, the punter, likes or dislikes, But I do because it tells me what punters like or dislike. You are after all the person we're talking to with the ads, so your insight might teach me something.
posted by dabitch at 1:30 AM on September 20, 2009

I'm a quality systems auditor. People keep asking if I can do their taxes. I feel like gouging their eyes out with a sharpened stick when they do this even after I have explained in detail what my job involves. Mostly I just avoid the problem by saying 'I'm a public servant'.
posted by dg at 1:50 AM on September 20, 2009

The person not being able to pronounce the name of the discipline he's supposedly expert in is a tell. Like the 'statitician' I once knew.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:36 AM on September 20, 2009

I'm a socio-cultural anthropologist whose research focus is in Africa (Ghana). I can tell you're not familiar with anthropology if:

You assume I dig (in the US and Canada, archeology is a "sub-discipline" of anthropology, but it's not the only one. You would be even more obvious to someone from England, where anthropology has never included archeology).

You use the word "tribe" or any of its derivatives (partially because "tribe" has negative connotations and we avoid it, but more because the meaning of "tribe" does not actually describe human groups very well).

You ask me any variation of "So why can't Africans get it together and stop X or fix Y?" (Because first, Africa is a varied place, and there is very little chance that X or Y applies to Africa as a whole, and second because anyone who knows anything about African politics, history, and economics will understand that X and Y are the product of things that are outside of most African's control in combination with things that are within their control.)

You assume that I have to use statistics to do my research ;)

Questions I want to be asked:

I want to be asked about things that you are really interested in, because I do try to take most questions seriously and answer them to the best of my ability. I want you to be aware that my commitment to my research participants is to make sure that I represent them accurately, so if you are going to ask me questions about Africa, be prepared for me to try to explain things in detail and to try to correct myths and stereotypes.
posted by carmen at 8:22 AM on September 20, 2009

to library work/publishing: oh, it must be great to just read books all day, add
bookstore: oh, it must be great to just read books all day, cause yeah, retail's great, esp. working weekends, and the store, it runs itself.

Owner of a business: Must be great to do whatever you want. Yep, I don't have to worry about making payroll, filing heinously stupid paperwork, the IRS, how the weather will affect holiday sales, competition from online retailers, etc.

Tech support: Can I call you at home and ask you to fix my computer, and ask you really detailed questions about why you're doing what you're doing, and then reinstall Limewire anyway? For free?
posted by theora55 at 9:30 AM on September 20, 2009

I'm a creative director at a small ad agency/design studio.

1. Yes, I watch MadMen. I like it, it's entertaining because nobody apparently does any work at Sterling Cooper. This is actually quite accurate for some large agencies I've worked with.
1a. Yes, I have the same title as Don Draper. He dresses cooler than I do, has a much more interesting life than I do, and gets laid a hell of a lot more than me. Other than that, there is no connection.
2. I will not design you a business card. I will design a logo for your company if you have between $5-$20k for the job.

And, the wife is a published Children's book illustrator:
1. No, you DON'T have a good idea for a kid's book.
posted by Mcable at 10:08 AM on September 20, 2009

"Asking a linguist how many languages she speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases she has."
posted by miagaille at 10:51 AM on September 20, 2009 [10 favorites]

I'm a technical writer. This is probably the least sexy job on Earth, so most people don't even have fun misconceptions about it. Once in a while someone thinks I write the blurb on the shampoo bottle. No, that's marketing, but I am pathetically grateful you tried. On the job, my primary contact is with engineers. Here's how I can tell whether they know what tech-writers do:

Engineer: Here's the draft procedure. Do your thing.
Me: So the mixers are on when they're adding the cleanser? Are they adding the water through the drop-line, or through the pump?
Engineer: The wordsmithing is up to you, we just need you to make the job aid to train the workers. You know, clean it up, make it pretty.
Me: OK, chief.
Engineer: [exeunt]
Me: Worker, could you show me how you do this?
Worker: Well, you gotta make sure the mixers are off, then you...
posted by Methylviolet at 1:27 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

When it comes to neuroscience, there are no straightforward answers. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this principle demonstrated. Simple, intuitive explanations are generally wrong, because nothing about the brain is simple or intuitive.

The most common red flag I encounter is when people definitively associate a given neurotransmitter with a specific role in the brain—or worse, with a specific feeling. Calling dopamine the source of pleasure is like calling gasoline the source of traffic jams. It may be true in a very limited sense, but it also completely misses the point.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:28 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have at various times worked in physics, literature, philosophy, web design, an international NGO, and political science. I hated it when people respectively assumed 1) that I worked with physical things -- no, you dummy, I did theoretical physics, which was mostly math! 2) I read novels all day -- no, you dummy, literary studies rarely means reading fiction or poetry -- it's mostly theory! 3) I thought about deep issues all the time -- no, you dummy, analytic philosophy is mostly technical debates about logic! 4) I designed web pages -- no, you dummy, I never touched the front end stuff! 5) I spent all my days flying to exotic countries helping starving children -- no, you dummy, I mostly worked with governments in an office doing paperwork! 6) I work with politics or politicians or foreign countries or topical issues -- no, you dummy, it's mostly regressions on datasets other people have put together! I hate it when people take the word that names what you do and assume you do what the everyday meaning of that word implies.

More seriously, it's a real problem hanging out with fellow academics in other disciplines, since everyone is so hyper-aware of the danger of misunderstanding what folks in a different specialty do that they are reluctant to ask any questions that actually venture into the intellectual heart of someone else's interest. So all too often, you just get conversations about committees and students and conference hijinks. Much better can be talking to someone smart outside of academia who isn't afraid to blunder into your field, ask a few "dumb" questions (which, yes, you have heard a hundred times before), and then after a few minutes of back-and-forth clarification, you can really get somewhere. And apart from the intrinsic fun of the conversation, their "why" questions are often really useful.
posted by chortly at 3:16 PM on September 20, 2009

Some of my favorite misunderstandings:

When I tell you I ghostwrite, it does not mean I am interested in the paranormal.

As a copywriter I cannot help you copyright your new invention--though if you want to pay me, I might have some ideas about how you can position it.

Public relations is not the same thing as customer support.

And seriously, if I had a dollar for every time some smiling soul responded to "freelance" with "Must be nice to not have to work," I'd be a rich woman by now.
posted by thivaia at 4:25 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Government grants management, biomedical research:

"Hey so my homeopathic guy is really on to something that I swear is making me look and feel 10 years younger! You guys really need to give him a grant."
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 4:35 PM on September 20, 2009

Best answer: I was reading a Christian criticism of evolution by Ravi Zacharias, and the following summary makes it clear that the man fundamentally does not understand anything science:
[Zacharias] also questions the claim that evolution is compatible with the second law of thermodynamics, believing the two to be irreconcilable and inconsistent. This stems from the belief that the second law of thermodynamics dictates that all closed systems in the universe will, if left to their own devices, tend to disorder. This notion, says Zacharias, does not conform to the key tenets of evolution, which postulate a marked increase in the order of biological life.
Basically, he's confusing a layperson's description of the 2nd law with what the 2nd law actually says. When thermodynamicists talk about disorder, they don't mean disorder like my room is in disorder right now, they mean that the molecules' motion is characterized by greater randomness.

This essentially comes down to a misunderstanding of the scale to which the 2nd law applies. The 2nd law doesn't say a damn thing about organisms, or evolution, it talks about entropy at molecular level (or entropy of a small parcel of mass in a continuum approach). I think this is the exact same misunderstanding that a lot of people have about quantum mechanics.
posted by !Jim at 6:41 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I work in museums, developing and running the public educational program(s). Mouse Army definitely nailed the "curator" question. There are a lot of associated questions, like "It must be great to have access to all that great stuff/be surrounded by old things/ touch the objects" - in fact the number of days per year I'm around the stuff is very tiny. I see it only a little more often than the public sees it, and that's usually when we're doing some kind of collections tour as an educational experience for the staff or visiting groups.

The most exhausting question: I express a desire to do a certain kind of program that we have been unsuccessful in funding. The outsider then says "Why don't you write a grant for that?" Ugh. Good intentions, long explanation.

Another - "How's visitation?" Museum staff do ask one another that. However, we don't do it with the same assumptions that outlanders do. Visitation, for most museums, creates only one among many measures of success, and forms a very small part of total revenue, in many museums amounting to no more than 10% of operating funds. So, unlike a retail store or theatre or restaurant where people in the door = good financial health, the picture for museums (and most nonprofit educational institutions) is a lot more complicated. Learning the number of butts in the seats does not, by itself, tell you how you're doing.

"Why don't you host more birthday parties/ pirate events/ ghost tours/ haunted houses/ sleepovers/etc" - they'd be a draw, yes. They'd even be fun. But in a museum you have to weigh every program idea, no matter how lucrative, against the museum's mission and its credibility. There are more criteria for programming than just whether people would want to do it.
posted by Miko at 6:57 PM on September 20, 2009

The outsider then says "Why don't you write a grant for that?"

On rereading that, I realized it's very similar to the way I used to think about check-writing when I was a little kid. I'd ask my mom if we could buy something; she'd say she had no money; I'd say "Then just write a check!"
posted by Miko at 6:59 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is actually particularly bad in my own field, political science, where the things that get taught in undergraduate courses that someone at a party might have taken have shockingly little in common with the discipline as it's practiced by scholars.

Yes, and to a certain degree graduate school is an unlearning of the simple versions that are taught undergraduates, as with economics and anthropology.
posted by lathrop at 7:16 PM on September 20, 2009

Journalism: "Ah, soon the sources will go direct" as if all reporters really do is take dictation. Or "It's just a printout of yesterday's news, isn't it?" as if no story was ever broken in print.

In fact, just about all the-glorious-era-of-internet-news-is-a-coming-print-is-going-to-die boosterism belies a near-total lack of understanding of how print journalism works. Thank God I'm never likely to meet Jeff sodding Jarvis or Dave Winer at a cocktail party, though.

In normal humanity, the thing people most often get wrong is how deadlines work: for the paper to appear on your front step in the morning, the journalists must finish with it the previous evening. And on a Sunday paper, nobody works on a Sunday (but Saturday is the busiest day). That's why you can't place an advert in today's paper, caller (true story).
posted by fightorflight at 8:01 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Not job related, but degree related - I studied Linguistics, with an emphasis on semiotics/semantics/social discourse, but all anyone ever asked me was how many languages I speak (one and a half).
posted by mippy at 4:46 AM on September 21, 2009

Composer here. I'll add my annoyances to idiopath's comments. I don't get annoyed when people ask me what instruments I play as I used to play a lot and if I got annoyed with this, I'd be a very angry person as nearly everyone I meet asks me that question. No, that's not the one that annoys me. I also teach composition and what annoys me is when people ask me: "Can it be taught?" If the question was phrased: "How do you teach composition?" that would be fine, but it rarely ever is. I do my best not to get defensive and I have a few arguments up my sleeve, but it really annoys me that I have to justify half my job to complete strangers right off the bat.
posted by ob at 7:20 AM on September 21, 2009

ob: "I don't get annoyed when people ask me what instruments I play"

The issue is not that I don't play or that I don't like to be asked what I play, but rather the fact that the instrument I play is about as relevant to being a composer as the brand of glasses you wear is to being an editor. My current answer is "computer keyboard and mouse".

Yeah people treating what you do as a gift from god rather than a learned skill is as much a curse as a blessing.
posted by idiopath at 7:35 AM on September 21, 2009

Methylviolet, you mean you don't work with those engineers who think they want to be - or already are - tech writers themselves? The ones who come to you when they review your draft manual and ask, "Why didn't you use what I wrote?" You know - the stuff like "Once you utilize the Program for the very first time, it will thereafter typically initialize the Engagement Sequence for subsequent Operations."

Then there's the stuff the lawyers write. Sadly, I don't usually get to improve that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:08 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

i get really annoyed when i tell someone that i am a poet, and they reply with the phrase 'i'm a poet, and i didn't even know it.'
posted by lester at 8:10 AM on September 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

The issue is not that I don't play or that I don't like to be asked what I play, but rather the fact that the instrument I play is about as relevant to being a composer as the brand of glasses you wear is to being an editor. My current answer is "computer keyboard and mouse".

I completely agree, it's just that it doesn't annoy me as much as the new annoyance. It's been replaced.

Yeah people treating what you do as a gift from god rather than a learned skill is as much a curse as a blessing.

Amen. Sometimes I get asked if I can hear all the instruments in my head. I tell them yes, and that's part of the training. They never hear the second part of the statement.
posted by ob at 8:29 AM on September 21, 2009

I'm a young adult author.

" mean, like babysitters club?"
posted by changeling at 11:32 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Working at an investment bank does not mean I am a banker.

A bank that sets aside $10bn for bonuses and has 10000 people is not going to pay each employee in the firm $1mm. Of those 10000 people, 400-500 are Partners who will take 80% of the pool or $8bn. Of the other 9500 people, about 2000-3000 in revenue generating positions ("front office": bankers, traders, equity researchers, fund managers, private wealth managers, alternative investors, real estate investors, brokers, etc.) will take 18% of the remainder. The last 2% will go to the 6000 "back/middle office" employees working in control, risk management, legal, reporting, accounting, tax, audit, HR, operations, and IT.

When politicians talk about limiting bank pay, they are primarily talking about restricting the bonus pool for the Managing Directors and Partners who make the majority of trading decisions using the firm's capital. In a firm of 10000, about 1000 people have this "gambling" / decision making power.

Lastly, Matt Taibbi's has no work experience whatsoever in any part of the financial industry. It should also be noted that his article on Goldman Sachs was in Rolling Stone, a decades-old bastion of financial commentary and industry news. Reader beware.
posted by chalbe at 12:48 PM on September 21, 2009

Kirth, I can tell that you are not "someone who doesn't know much about technical writing, or only picked up enough to make cocktail-party conversation." Ooh, there's your answer d. z. wang -- people who (a) Can Capitalize like an Engineer (without being One themselves) and (b) Understand the strange pull of the word "utilize," know Technical Writing.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:59 PM on September 21, 2009

I'm a Compositior, and I don't really have any people asking stupid questions, because no-one ever knows what it is! It's even showing up as a spelling mistake as I'm typing this! The frustrating thing is that everyone knows what a 3D animator is, and thinks they are amazing, but if you could see how most of the animation looks before it's composited, you'd be all "wow that looks really fake". sigh... they get all the glory, and we get all the weird moments at parties, trying to explain what we do.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:47 PM on September 21, 2009


Once heard someone saying they didn't like a piece because they "didn't like the notes." Uh, which ones?

Also, when asked what kind of music someone likes and they respond, "everything," it usually means they haven't done much critical thinking about the subject. (Unless they're John Cage.)
posted by speicus at 11:17 PM on September 21, 2009

I work in hazmat regulatory evaluation; which means that (unlike all the mathematicians above), I actually do "run the numbers" but the majority of my work-time is figuring out what the numbers are. I don't really expect my field to be worthy of cocktail-party conversation, but it still surprises me how many people assume that policywork and fieldwork (no, I don't wear the plastic suit) are part of the same job.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:38 AM on September 22, 2009

I study Protestant Systematic Theology. Two things irritate me chiefly:

1) When a person discovers that I spend a great deal of time researching Calvinism and other such lack-of-free-will positions, invariably they will say something like, "You know, like, does God know I'm about to move my coffee cup? You know?" Ugh. Get a life.

2) When a person believes his or her conclusions about "spirituality"--likely discerned in a pot-induced haze--are equally profound to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Barth. Mathematicians don't have to listen to crackpot theories that are utterly ignorant of the greater conversations they purport to "join." Why is it that just because Jesus was nice I have to listen to your theories on how "I think its just about being a good person, man."
posted by jefficator at 10:12 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

2) When a person believes his or her conclusions about "spirituality"--likely discerned in a pot-induced haze--are equally profound to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Barth. Mathematicians don't have to listen to crackpot theories that are utterly ignorant of the greater conversations they purport to "join." Why is it that just because Jesus was nice I have to listen to your theories on how "I think its just about being a good person, man."

Actually, mathematicians are constantly swamped with grand, falsely profound "theories" about one thing or another, usually in the form of dense, jargon-filled papers. They may not frequently deal with this at cocktail parties. But the math profs at any school with a name reputation get tons of junk mail from isolated crackpots who believe they've solved some real or imagined major open problem. I don't know how much of this stuff mathematicians actually read, but it's worth noting that major open problems are (very occasionally) solved by people with no institutional affiliation.
posted by grobstein at 11:34 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Then there's the stuff the lawyers write. Sadly, I don't usually get to improve that.

I do! I'm a web editor for a legal organisation. Unfortunately I am not a swiss army knife for all thing web-related. If people ask me to 'build them a website' they get a simple 'no'. If they instead asked about the (often conflicting) skillsets required to create a beautiful, accessible, functional, well-ordered site and populate it with pithy, relevant and useful content I would happily gas for hours.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:21 PM on September 22, 2009

I cook for a living.

If I tell people that, they seem confused. If I tell them that I'm a "chef", suddenly they open up. I don't know why, but for some reason to me this has always seemed totally classist.
Things that will instantly make me think you don't know anything about cooking:
If you even mention learning something by watching Emeril Live. Seriously.
Using a verb followed by "off" to indicate cooking (i.e. "sear off", "blanch off", etc.).
Tell me that my profession is an "art" or that chefs are "artists".

Don't ask me:
For recipes. Or how to make a random dish.

What kind of knife I use, or if it's really sharp (you've probably never heard of the make, and seriously . . . it's my primary tool, what do you think?).

What my "specialty" is. I still don't know what people mean by this. Some seem to mean what single dish is my best, and some want to know if I concentrate on any one cuisine.

Anything about Gordon Ramsay. Ditto Emeril, Mario Batali, Alton Brown or Rachel Ray. I will gladly enumerate the virtues of Nigella Lawson however.

I have cooked primarily Japanese in my career.
"Oh, so you're a sushi chef?"

How you can make sushi at home.

If my restaurant is good.

Most importantly please don't assume that because of the way our profession was portrayed by a certain "tell all" author (who happens to be a really cool guy) that we're all doped up, drunk ego maniacs screaming at each other, hurling plates at waiters and throwing people out of the restaurant--when we're not busy f***ing the hostess.

Do ask me:
What my favorite food is.

What I like to cook at home.

If I think that restaurant critics are full of s***.

If I think food bloggers are full of s***.
(Note, these are both short conversation topics)

What we talk about on the line.

Where to get really good fish.

What wine goes with what (ditto on sake).

If you can cook for me (yes, yes you can, anyone at all is welcome to cook on my days off, especially if they're not me).
posted by kaiseki at 2:13 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Actually, mathematicians are constantly swamped with grand, falsely profound "theories" about one thing or another, usually in the form of dense, jargon-filled papers.

An episode of This American Life, titled A Little Bit of Knowledge details this very phenomenon hilariously in Act 3. An electrician thinks he has disproved Einstein and Newton. He writes off to professors and gets ignored. The interviewer sits down with one of the professors to look over the theory, and the professor talks about how common it is for laypeople of various kinds to write in with crackpot theories about math or science that they believe the trained scholars have gotten wrong.
posted by Miko at 5:39 AM on October 23, 2009

Adventure travel specialist chiming in.

No, you can't come with me on my next trip. You won't be able to keep up with me.

No, I won't pack you in my suitcase. I travel lightly. You won't fit.

No, I don't have "a" favorite place in the world that I've been to. I have "many".

No, you can't have my job. It took me a long time to get where I am. Get the fuck away.

No, you can't work for me. Just because you went to London "one time at band camp" doesn't mean you qualify for what I do.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:31 AM on February 4, 2010

I'm a set and lighting designer for theatre.
No, I do not do movies.
No, I do not WANT to do movies.
Yes, I am pretty sure about that.

"Scenic design" is not: urban planning, landscape architecture, garden planning, or anything else of that ilk.
"Set design" has nothing to do with mathematical sets.
I also do not design lights or lighting systems for homes or businesses, though that one is more understandable.

I would love to talk to you about color theory, forced perspective, brands of paint, the arcane details of various kinds of lighting instruments (you will be surprised by the wattage involved), and the history of the Drottningholm theatre.
I would not like to talk to you about actors. I don't know any famous actors. As a set/lighting designer, I barely deal with actors. I might speak to them occasionally, but we don't have that much to say to each other most of the time. Try the costumers; they deal with actors all the time.
posted by Adridne at 9:51 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Our librarian friends get annoyed when I tell them I'm surprised one can make a living shelving books.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 10:22 AM on February 4, 2010

To a scientist:

Assuming that "negative results are as important as positive results" and you can publish them. Not exactly. I know, I know, they told you in your biology lab that you have to write down your negative results in your lab book, because they are as important as your positive results. But most of the time, it means you messed up; only occasionally does it mean that you missed something enticing.

While it is true that I can publish results that contradict my original hypothesis, the data still have to tell a story, and one that will contribute to the field. What "negative results" colloquially means is, "I'm getting crap data that contradicts itself. I have to figure out what is going wrong with my techniques." Not publishable.
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:32 PM on February 4, 2010

What would I love to be asked? "Tell me how basic research has contributed to practical applications?" and, "Where would medicine be if we never, ever funded any basic research?" Take that, Sarah Palin!
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:35 PM on February 4, 2010

Best answer: Like most intellectual property attorneys, I encounter confidently and cheerfully misinformed notions about intellectual property law every day--Even from other lawyers. Perhaps because IP affects the fun and important things that are all around us, there seems to be no shortage of interest or opinions. But understanding it is another story. I know someone doesn't understand IP when they use "patent" "trademark" and "copyright" interchangeably. (e.g. "Im going to copyright my invention"/"trademark this recipe"/"patent that song.") Patents, trademarks, and copyrights are three very distinct concepts which apply for the most part to different subject matter and which trigger vastly different rules.

My favorite IP questions tap IP's underlying sociological or political intentions: Which is more communitarian [or more capitalist, etc.] patents, trademarks, or copyrights? I also love talking about a trademark law concept called aesthetic functionality--the idea that a product's non-functional design feature (e.g. the color black for a outboard boat motor) can become functional if consumers decide that an arbitrary design feature fulfills a function (e.g. making their outboard motors look smaller.)
posted by applemeat at 3:06 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of people still confuse economist with "finance yuppie richie rich with an MBA."
posted by ifjuly at 4:45 PM on February 4, 2010

Anthropology. I don't do it for money yet, but when I tell people that's what I'm studying, 90% of the time, someone says, "Oh, like Indiana Jones?"

No. Not like Indiana Jones.

More like, "I'm interested in changes in foodways related to urban environments, poverty, and childbearing."

The other 10% tell me that I dig up dinosaur bones. It's not an argument that I engage in anymore, because amazingly, I've never won it.
posted by bilabial at 3:04 PM on February 5, 2010

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