Clueless? Rude? Neither? Both?

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.

2 Responses to “Clueless? Rude? Neither? Both?”

  1. Mike3550 Says:

    I am constantly amazed at how oblivious people are to their surroundings and that their actions might not be appropriate. I’m not sure it is unique to academics, but since I spend most of my time with academics, I can say that it is definitely a trait shared by many.

    Our department chair actually gives a little preamble before job talks (I think that our job talks were not as polite as they are now) that basically says, “If there are questions of clarification — and clarification only — please feel free to ask. If not, please hold all questions to the end.” Even with this warning some questions get out of hand (usually because they move from a legitimate clarification question to a substantive question). There is pretty strong regulation of that among the senior faculty.

    At the same time, we’ve never had anyone from another department come for a talk unless it was a joint hire.

  2. eszter Says:

    Mike, it’s interesting that even within the department there would be so much variation in how people understand the norms. And indeed, the question of what counts as “clarification” is a tricky one. Many times people will suggest theirs is simply a clarification question, but more often than not, it’s quite substantive.