I had posted the following on Crooked Timber last week, but forgot to cross-post it here so it’s a bit late.
Between the topic of Michèle Lamont’s posts, the discussion that followed John Holbo’s note on manners and now John Quiggin’s query about seminar questions, it’s a good opportunity to describe an incident I experienced years ago. I was surprised economists didn’t get more of a mention in the thread following John H’s post earlier given what I’ve seen in their colloquia. I have close-to no experiences in philosophy exchanges (and yet I dare call myself a Timberite…), but I’ve attended quite a few talks among economists so I’m used to their style of Q&A. As some have noted, it often starts a few slides in – or in some famous cases the speaker doesn’t get to proceed past the title slide for most of the time allotted – and being rather aggressive seems standard. If that’s the local norm, they are likely used to it and it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. However, what if you put such an economist in a room full of sociologists? Is it okay for him to import his style or should he take a moment to familiarize himself with the local norms?
What struck me as rather curious was the way an economist behaved during a job talk I attended in a sociology department a few years ago. The economist engaged in the usual norms for his own department’s culture: interrupting at pretty much every slide. He didn’t take any cues from the rest of the group as to how people behave in the community he was visiting. That is, sociologists don’t tend to interrupt a speaker, certainly not a slide or two in, and certainly not for questions that are more than mere points of clarification. Add to that the fact that this was a job talk, which in some places may elicit even more aggressive behavior, but in the culture of this particular department meant that people would be at least as, if not more, courteous as usual. (Do not confuse courteous with lack of very serious and difficult questions, of course.) The audience was listening intently and the room was quiet for the most part except for the economist’s questions and the sighs of frustrations that started to emerge as the visitor continued to interrupt the speaker.
It’s fine if one doesn’t know the culture of another discipline. However, in such a situation, one might want to be a bit conscious of one’s environment and try to pick up some signals about how others are behaving. Did this economist think that he was the only one smart or engaged enough to have questions? After the third or fourth interruption, all of which came from him, it is a bit surprising that he did not pick up on the fact that his approach was not in line with local norms. Perhaps he did, but just didn’t care.
I was clearly not the only one bothered by the economist’s style. The uneasiness in the room was palpable. In the end, a senior sociologist stepped in. She turned to the economist and explicitly stated that this is simply not how we do things and asked that he hold his questions until the speaker had finished his talk. You could tell that everyone (presumably other than the economist) in the room was quite relieved to have had her do this.