What do you talk about with your SO?
April 30, 2017 12:47 PM   Subscribe

As it says up top, what do you talk about with your SO? My spouse and I are in very different professions and I'm always surprised when his colleagues explain their work to me, as I hear all about it from my spouse. This leads me to wonder whether it's common for couples not to share their work life with their SO, especially if they're in a different field. I also am curious if this is more common in academic-non-academic partnerships.

If it makes a difference, spouse is an academic and I'm in healthcare. There's not really anything that's off-limits for us, in our individual and/or shared lives, and I suppose we do talk a lot together. We sit down for dinner most nights and can easily pass a couple of hours talking.

I of course can't have technical discussions about my spouse's work as his colleagues can with each other, but I do have a good understanding of their field, major players, hiring, research, politics, etc. I'm not necessarily bothered by the explaining, but it does lead me to wonder: what do other couples talk about? Is there anything that's off-limits for you? How much do you actually talk to each other? Is it common for couples to not share their work life with their SO if they're in a different field? Would you be able to, for instance, know the big conferences and controversies happening in your SO's field? Is this more common in academia?

I don't wish to change anything about our relationship as we're quite happy chatting away and it seems to work well for us, but curious to know if we are an anomaly!
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My wife is a nurse and I'm an academic and we share a lot about our jobs with each other. I'll even go into technical details with her now and then, for instance if I'm preparing a talk. And she uses all her jargon and acronyms etc. when talking to me. I'd say we're both very curious people.

I'd also say that we tend to socialize as a pair, too. We do things apart of course, but our standing social appointments are as a couple. I've often wondered similarly about couples who spend their free time separate, with different groups of friends. I guess there's just a lot of variety in what relationships can look like.
posted by dbx at 1:04 PM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

I work as a Consultant for a large, Borg-like firm, and also write mystery novels on the side, and my wife is an Interior Decorator. The Venn diagram for those two probably doesn't have a lot of crossover, but that doesn't stop us from talking about anything and everything under the sun.
I rarely talk about my day job, but I do share what I'm working on from a writing perspective, and she's always sharing what she's working on, via photos, so I guess the common ground is that we're both creating rather than consuming, and that's always fun to talk about.

The key here is that you're talking, and you're having fun, and you're connecting and you're bonding.
If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it.

posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies! I won't threadsit, but wanted to reiterate that I don't want to change anything about our current dynamic. It's just surprising to us that after so many years people still take pains to explain very basic things to me. It may happen more with men than women, but we always chuckle when it happens. (We do also wonder if I were in a more esteemed position (doctor or lawyer, say), they would respond to me differently).

I am also able to have somewhat technical and productive discussions with my spouse about his research, which also surprises his colleagues! (I of course know much more about his own sub-field than others...)
posted by stillmoving at 1:20 PM on April 30, 2017

My husband is a scientist and professor at a major university, and I'm a technical editor. For many years we worked for the same organization, although in different research areas. At one point, long ago, we even worked on the same project (he got me hired because they needed someone so badly, which is how I got into the field in the first place). That said, I have a humanities background formally and acquired most of my scientific background on my own. At some point when we're with a group of his colleagues, I leave them to it because a. I tend to tune out, and b. I don't want them to feel the need to refrain from talking shop around me so they don't leave me out of the conversation (which is considerate, but unnecessary, and counterproductive for all involved). And of course I get to hear all the insider stuff to which faculty spouses are generally privy.

I kind of miss the closeness of working on the same project, but that's kind of rare. As for what I do, we often talk about scientific writing conventions in his and other fields, getting students to write well, issues for non-native writers, etc., and of course he's there to be amused when I vent my frustrations generally. A lot of our interests have converged over the years as we've each taken a kind of layperson's interest in the other's areas--particularly on his side with regard to literature, history, and classical music, and on mine with computer programming.
posted by tully_monster at 1:29 PM on April 30, 2017

My husband and I are in different fields (I am a benefits attorney/consultant, he a CPA/business analyst) but we both have in common that are fields are kind of...invisible to the general public. He understands the conceptual explanation of what I do much better than I understand what he does, but we still constantly share our work day, including the necessary(?) details of the work that makes the stories significant, usually with a brief recap. So, for me, it might be "okay, you know this $2M hospital client we have, and you know the [insert one or more details of the ACA employer mandate], well, Bill and the other lawyer called me to propose X,Y,Z and can you believe it!?" And we have talked about the content of my work enough for him to get it and be outraged/psyched/eye roll, etc. along with me.
posted by Pax at 1:36 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are they mansplaining with the false assumption that you couldn't possibly know the ins and outs of their field? And are they partnered?

I'm relieved to hear your partner is supportive and responsive to conversations about your career. Prior to working with acedmics, I dated two. That is not always the case.
posted by Juniper Toast at 1:39 PM on April 30, 2017 [17 favorites]

I'm a debate coach; Mr. Meat is a doctor and statistician.

Things we do NOT talk about: protected health care or educational information, anything gross at the hospital.

Things we DO talk about: medical studies, interesting quirks that people outside the health care field wouldn't know about, insurance (my prior job), the house, the animals, my debate kids, performances I've seen at tournaments, extended family, the garden, food, a rain barrel, the compost bin, how cute the dog is, more obscure news, experiments with bread baking.

Something I've found at social gatherings with the residents: they have a VERY HARD time talking to non-medical people because their entire life is wrapped up in the hospital. By and large they don't explain things to me, but plenty of them do ignore me.

Something that was interesting while Mr. Meat was in medical school: all of his classmates and their partners were in medical school or graduate school; I was the only one in the group with a "real" job in the "real" world. They all thought I was fascinating because of that, but again, because their entire world was school, it was harder to have conversations with them.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 1:45 PM on April 30, 2017

I think you might be running into bloviating explainy academic men. I think that's more likely than your spousal conversations being atypical.
posted by kapers at 1:54 PM on April 30, 2017 [53 favorites]

Could it be that they simply don't have a huge connection to you yet? If I was talking with one of my colleague's partners, I would relate to them like I do any "lay person" outside of my field (e.g., no acronyms) until they dropped some clue (e.g., used an acronym themselves) that I could talk shop with them.
posted by salvia at 1:58 PM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Are they mansplaining with the false assumption that you couldn't possibly know the ins and outs of their field? And are they partnered?

Yeah, this or something similar.

Tbh, if your question was "Why do my partner's colleagues explain their work to me?" it would probably never occur to me that they might be assuming you two don't discuss work together, to the point that you need someone else to explain it to you. I'm guessing whatever it is, it's not that.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:59 PM on April 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

Most people would not assume that you know something because your spouse knows it, not because they assume you don't talk, but because that's just not a connection people usually make. It takes several logical jumps to realize, "I told Person A this thing," "They are married to Person B," "Person A and Person B probably talk a lot," "Person B probably also knows that thing." People don't get that involved or think that much about other people's relationships that much.

Also, nthing that it sounds like mansplaining. They may be surprised because they don't expect women to know these things, regardless of who they're married to.
posted by brook horse at 2:05 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

> Would you be able to, for instance, know the big conferences and controversies happening in your SO's field

Nope. I learn more about his field from Metafilter than I do from dinner conversations. I'm fine with that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:11 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

It could for sure be mansplaining, which is real and obnoxious as hell and super fucking prevalent among academic dudes.

It could also be the academic habit of dividing the world into "researchers" and "laypeople," and just assuming that laypeople don't know anything about your field.

It could also, to some extent, be a sincere desire to include you and make sure you don't feel left out when people around you are talking shop?

(FWIW, I talked to my partner a lot about my own personal research when I was in academia, but I didn't talk a ton about controversies that I wasn't actively weighing in on, conferences I wasn't presenting at, etc. Her position was always like "Yeah, it's cool hearing what you spend your day doing, and sometimes it's fun hearing funny stories about mishaps other people ran into in the field, but the minute theoretical stuff is honestly pretty boring to me." She's also got nerdy and technical interests that I don't really get into the details of.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:18 PM on April 30, 2017

My partner is an academic and I'm in law. We do talk about our work. We're familiar with each other's coworkers, workplace politics, and (in broad strokes) what the other does all day and any specific projects we're working on at the moment. We talk a lot, and we're interested in each other's lives, and work is a big part of our lives, so it would be weird if we didn't talk about it. Now that I'm thinking about it, we tend to talk more about personal issues at work (funny anecdotes, interpersonal challenges, frustrations, goals) than technical details of say, what we happen to be researching at the moment, but the latter does come up too.

Charitable explanation for the behavior of your spouse's colleagues: they are trying to be polite by not assuming knowledge you might not have, vs. spouting a bunch (what could be) gobbledygook at you. It can be annoying to be in a group of people who are talking shop, so that could be their (possibly hamhanded and/or sexist) effort to make sure you're included and able to participate. I've been in situations where people talked to me as if oh OF COURSE I would know [thing]. But I did not in fact know [thing], so that conversation just made be feel embarrassed and dumb.
posted by leeloo minai at 2:20 PM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've been in situations where people talked to me as if oh OF COURSE I would know [thing]. But I did not in fact know [thing], so that conversation just made be feel embarrassed and dumb.

Yeah so speaking of this, another thing I noticed in grad school is that some people get really shitty when they're embarrassed in this way — probably because it brings up old, old trauma about being humiliated by bad teachers, or shamed by older kids for not knowing Adult Stuff, or whatever. I started going pretty far out of my way to avoid setting that off, because even if 95% of the people in the world were totally happy to say "Sorry, I didn't understand that, back up?" the remaining 5% could be real dicks about trying to Put Me In My Place for embarrassing them.

So that meant overexplaining rather than underexplaining, because the worst-case consequence of overexplaining was quietly annoying someone and the worst-case consequence of underexplaining was having someone launch into a loud tirade about You Fucking Big-Shot Elitists. It probably wasn't a great strategy, but it's what I did.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:27 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

My partner is an academic and I'm a student in healthcare. Like you, we talk a lot about our work, and while I had no prior knowledge of her field I now know some of the basics and can talk to her about her research. There are some limits on professional conversation for us, but mostly in the other direction. I encounter more confidential information than she does, and gross/upsetting hospital experiences are also off limits. We still talk a lot about my work, though--she has opinions about health stuff she would never have thought about before I went back to school now, for example. I haven't experienced the being explained to--it's rare that I spend time with her colleagues, but when I do conversations tend to be not about work.
posted by snorkmaiden at 2:36 PM on April 30, 2017

My SO is an accountant and I work in quasi-academia. We do talk about the technical stuff we do at work, but more often we talk about how we're getting along with our coworkers, how certain projects excite (or terrify) us, etc. Things that don't require us to have a deep understanding of the day-to-day work the other performs.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:43 PM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was married for almost 20 years and my then-spouse never could understand what I did. Nor did he want to.
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:01 PM on April 30, 2017

I don't talk a lot about the technical parts. I mean, it's no secret, but I'm not really into telling a three-minute story that requires many times that of recursive "that's significant because" 101-level background. In retrospect, if I had been more into talking about it from the beginning it wouldn't be so hard now, but there we are. It probably started when a lot of what I did was (more highly) classified, so easier to just not talk about it than to start telling a story and then realize it doesn't make complete sense without some background information I can't talk about. Now it's just a hard habit to break. We do talk about non-technical things. Having trouble with an employee showing up for work on time, plans to reboot the training program differently, etc.
posted by ctmf at 3:03 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

So that meant overexplaining rather than underexplaining, because the worst-case consequence of overexplaining was quietly annoying someone and the worst-case consequence of underexplaining was having someone launch into a loud tirade about You Fucking Big-Shot Elitists. It probably wasn't a great strategy, but it's what I did.

I think if you can do it in a non-patronizing way, erring on the side of over-explaining is a kindness. If the explainee does know what you're talking about, it's easy enough for them to jump in with a comment/question indicating as much ("Oh sure, Papillifera bidens, the Italian door snail. So neat how they were introduced to different parts of England from two different origins at different times!"). It's much more intimidating for an explainee to have to speak up and admit they don't know/understand something, especially if they're an outsider or new to the group.
posted by leeloo minai at 3:22 PM on April 30, 2017

I worked in math and programming related jobs. To the extent that I talked to my wife about work, to was mostly on the level of what the project was about, not the details of how it would be done. Also about personalities.

She worked in various library and clerk-type jobs. That's more accessible, and she got down to a more nuts and bolts level.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:59 PM on April 30, 2017

I am someone who rarely talks about work outside of work.* When I do, it's about relationships or bureaucracy. My previous job and current job both require having a very, very, very deep knowledge of federal and state special education rules (which I can qoute verbatim) or autism (From a single question I can do an hour on any one question you might have about either topic. For an autism question, I can make it interesting to anyone ;-) and do.

When I was with two different SO's who were special education teachers I dreaded when they started talking about work. Because it would inevitably come around to a problem they were having. And for me, that meant, "going back to work" because my day job was answering and helping to solve questions from special education teachers. And now I had to do that at home, too. But with a different emotional component if they didn't agree with or understand my answer.

With both special education SO's I sometimes had to say, after 20 minutes of discussion, "Call or email me at work about this and we can go deeper. I don't want to continue talking about it because it makes me feel like I am working." My never-mentioned subtext was that it put me in a "teacher > student mode" and I don't want to do that at home with an SO because that was often my needed work mode.

My last SO was the director of a small non-profit organization (children's interactive science center.) She was cool with my talking only about relationships at work and often gave me good advice. She rarely asked me questions about disabilities or the specifics of my job. She primarily talked about her relationships at work and I was able to help her by being a good listener and sharing experiences from bureaucracy. It was good experience for me because I got better at not jumping in to solve the problem, but to listen.

I think SO's need to find what works for them and also to speak up if it is not working. With both special education SO's I sometimes had to say, after a bit of discussion, "Call or email me at work about this and we can go deeper. I don't want to continue talking about it because it makes me feel like I am working." My worry was that talking for an extended time to them about special education problems put me in a "teacher > student mode" and I don't want to do that at home.

* I am semi-famous among 30 years of cow-orkers for organizing after-work drink and food gatherings with the, "Five Minute Rule." Which is that if you talk about work, after work, for more than five minutes you have to buy a round of drinks. Which pissed some people off until everyone followed the rule and they learned it is much more fun after to work to hear about people's passions and vacations and kids and dogs and the last good movie they saw and what book they are currently reading.
posted by ITravelMontana at 4:16 PM on April 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

After 38 years, jabbering away, I've come to feel that much of the richness of our relationship comes from one of us listening to the other talk about a singular passion of the other. I know so much about about the Earl of Oxford (sorry) William Shakespeare than I ever thought I would, and I'm so glad I do. And Mr. K can speak semi-intelligibly (the best I can do myself, actually, but I do love to think about it) on the subject of computers and how they influence and interact with the human mind. The things we share are bonding, but the differences we talk about are the jewels.
posted by kestralwing at 5:01 PM on April 30, 2017

This likely happens because his colleagues don't know what else to talk to you about.
posted by Jacob G at 5:05 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

My partner and I are both software engineers, but he's at a smaller, privately-held company, whereas I am at a much larger company.

We almost never talk about technical details due to confidentiality, and recognition that details are boring, even though we have the same credentials and could probably do each other's work. We do talk about morale, teams, and non-work-related work things ("I moved desks and now I sit under a plant").

I believe this extends to most of our social circle, i.e. it's a dinner party, 11/12 guests are in software, none of us really go into the technical parts of work.
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:11 PM on April 30, 2017

My husband is a software developer and I am a stay at home mom right now, but previously I worked in museum administration. I would say that we don't talk in great detail about work - I know the basics of what projects he's working on, I know some of the interpersonal stuff, I might listen to him talk about something that is bothering him or something funny that happened at work (and vice versa when I was working). But I don't think either of us would be able to name, say, the CEO of the other's organization. The only reason I know about the big players or controversies in his field is because tech is pretty pervasive in our culture. And when I've spoken to his colleagues I've approached those conversations as an interested layperson.

I enjoy learning about his work (as he does mine) but we just never get that deep into conversations about it, I don't know why. It could be because our fields are quite far apart.

Things we do talk about: our kid, light gossip about our friends and family members, projects we want to do around the house we bought last year, our hobby projects, books/films/podcasts we recently consumed separately or together, how we feel about ourselves and where we are in our life, plans for the future, a lot of household logistics/calendaring, funny things that happened or weird encounters we had with people, politics, our cat, the mysteries of the universe.
posted by cpatterson at 6:37 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a librarian and my husband is in the trades. We talk mostly about coworker relationships and the big picture aspects of what we do. We talk about work stuff almost every day.

But today he asked me for help with ebook format conversion and in the ensuing discussion he said he doesn't know what metadata is... and metadata is, like, what I do all day every day. And when he asks me to hand him a particular kind of tool I'm like, is that the thing with the pointy bit or the flat bit or the octagonal stuff.

So, even though we talk all the time, we only have a vague idea of the actual work the other does. I think spousal knowledge of one's work depends on a lot of things, not just whether or not you talk. Interest, aptitude, how much training is needed to do the work, and inclination to get into details also play a role.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:26 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I never use the term mansplaining because I don't find it useful, personally, but I think in this particular circumstance it does describe a thing that men1 love to do, which is: find a person who doesn't know about something (or so they think) and look very interesting and cool by explaining it to them.

My boyfriend was a graduate student in humanities until recently and I'm a computer scientist. We talk about his work all the time; I was also trained in the humanities at one point so I'm familiar with most of the things he talks about and I'm curious about what he's doing. On the other hand, he is deeply bored by technical subjects, so despite his insistence that I can talk to him about my work, we mostly keep it to interpersonal issues for me. He's currently working a pretty bland office job so work things don't come up too often; if he were an academic I'm sure we would talk about his work all the time.

Now that I'm a computer scientist, I do get a lot of weird condescension from (honestly, just male) academics who think I'm subliterate; I'm not always sure if it's because I'm not a humanities scholar, or because I'm a woman, or because they think I'm a woman and therefore a normie, or what. On the other hand, when science academics find out I studied the humanities, no degree of technical erudition can wash the spot from my name. So it's a lot of fun.

1 Women love to do this just as much as men, but our experience with being rewarded for being interesting or cool is more complex. For men it is straightforward and so I suppose they just go for out without deference because they rarely have anything to lose.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:08 PM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

My ex wife had one question for me. Actually the same question every day. I was a floor trader and now trade from upstairs. Her one and only question was, "How much did you make today?" Boiled down to its essence, that question is probably the main reason we are no longer married.
posted by AugustWest at 9:06 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I donno, my husband and I talk in broad strokes about work challenges and successes, but not daily minutiae.

If his colleagues gave me a 30-second background on a specific topic before diving in, that would ensure I could properly follow the conversation, so I would appreciate it. If they gave me a 30-second background on the broad industry and assumed I knew nothing about it, I would not appreciate it.
posted by samthemander at 10:44 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

My girlfriend sometimes tells me about the personalities or the broad projects at her office, but rarely goes into details. I almost never talk to her about my work.

This is driven in part by the way we both (I more than her) think of work as a thing one does to fund the rest of one's life. For people who have (or whose industries have) more of a passion narrative, this may be very different. I know people who are happy to talk about work outside the office, who identify themselves by their profession and did it as a hobby before they made a career of it. Whereas I would say I got into this line of work because I appear to have a relative advantage and am at this company because my coworkers are uniformly helpful, kind, and competent.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:35 PM on April 30, 2017

What we don't talk about:

The excessively detailed parts of our jobs, except as it relates to anecdotes. Like, I could not go to my partner's work and actually use the software, but I do know all of the workplace politics and when deliveries are scheduled for and who the copier repair person is. I don't share the technical parts either but I'm sure my partner could manage quite well in my office.

The details of our personal sexual fantasies. I assume my partner thinks about something when alone...I don't ask. Nor would I share. That is off-limits. Except maybe when we're actually having sexytimes. Then maybe I would share.

We do not share what is discussed in individual therapy, beyond a general "we talked about my relationship with my parents" or something like that.

Otherwise? We talk about everything. Really, really everything. We share a blow-by-blow of our workdays in the evening and the tiniest minutiae of our political and religious thoughts over dinner. Over breakfast, it's "I had the craziest dream!" We talk about everything. It's not like, you know, a mandatory expectation--you can have secrets if you need to--but I don't need to so I don't and I'm pretty sure my partner feels the same way.

(Ugh, I just realized this might be what people mean when they say "my husband is my best friend" which is so annoying. Maybe I am one of those annoying people. If so, well, I regret nothing.)
posted by epanalepsis at 7:58 AM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

The way I figured out to avoid this happening when I (programmer nerd) talk about the nuts-and-bolts of what I did on a given day to my (non-programmer, less-nerdy) wife: when either of you find yourself heading down a rabbit hole that you realize is going to take a few minutes of back-explanation to really convey, build a shared expectation that you can ask "Do you actually care about this?" and not have either person treat it as a passive-aggressive dig. My friends think I'm insane for prefacing an explanation with this, but it's enormously helpful for me to know that there's a decent chance that my wife will say "Nope, I don't actually care enough about search-tree optimization for you to give me a 10-minute lecture with a whiteboard, you can just leave it at 'I did some tricky work on this arcane thing'" without either of us having bruised egos.

Most of what we do at work is really boring to people without domain knowledge! And that's OK! You can talk about the other, less-boring parts with your SO.
posted by Mayor West at 9:05 AM on May 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

I work in nonprofit operations, husband works in corporate property insurance. We chat about our workmates, office dynamics, funny stories, daily stressors, challenging situations and their possible solutions (interpersonal, professional, intellectual), and will take the time to explain how Thing That Matters In My Job works to each other so that when it comes up we'll have the necessary shorthand down and can jump into the interesting bits. I never explained this stuff to my ex-husband because I knew he wouldn't care to try to understand or would try to tell me how to handle things rather than listen to my thought process when resolving issues - it was just, "How was your day?" "Fine. How was yours? Fine." As a previous commenter noted, this played into the "ex" part - knowing how we problem-solve at work helps us to better understand one another, and understanding one another helps us problem-solve together.
posted by pammeke at 1:51 PM on May 1, 2017

Haha, that's how I know too, Mayor West. If I'm tempted to grab a dry-erase marker or pen and paper, I'm probably going to skip that one. And I'm a pretty explain-with-diagrams kind of person.

(One game I like to play sometimes is "pocket notebook archaeology" looking at all the hasty unlabeled squiggles, boxes, and arrows I've drawn on pages and try to remember what I was trying to explain to someone ages ago.)
posted by ctmf at 4:49 PM on May 1, 2017

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