other night at some dinner function I was seated next to a stranger, who I soon
discovered was a professional auctioneer. He
asked what I did for a living, and I replied that I was an engineer.
We spent the next two hours talking about how he managed auctions.
Never once did he ask what I did as an engineer.
this absence of interest in learning more about what engineers do on their jobs
is completely typical Through
the years of my career I have been to countless social events in my local
community. On those occasions I
have met strangers, acquaintances, and old friends, and the cumulative hours of
conversation could be measured perhaps in years. But in all those conversations I cannot recall a single time
when someone has asked me about what I do on my job. Not once! Friends
and acquaintances know Iím an engineer, and never ask about my work.
Strangers ask my occupation, and discovering that I am an engineer,
invariably ask nothing further.
indifference even seems to invade the family itself. I recall a ceremony some years ago when I passed out awards
at a company dinner. To lighten the
occasion I had the idea of asking the spouse of each winner for their own
description of what their mate did at work.
Not a single one of them had a clue.
Worse, I got the feeling that they really didnít care all that much.
I never did anything like that again Ė too big a risk to take.
I saw some husbands and wives glancing at each other in strange ways
began thinking about this conversational black hole, and I considered whether or
not I ask other people what they do at work. My answer was that sometimes I do, but that often I donít,
and that it is entirely dependent upon the particular occupation.
So let me give you the quiz I gave myself.
Imagine that youíre at a party, and that you strike up a conversation
with a stranger, who confesses to one of the following occupations: high school
teacher, lawyer, surgeon, artist, local store owner, insurance salesperson, real
estate agent, CEO of a large company, middle manager, accountant, or marine
biologist. This is a test -- which people do you ask further questions
about their work?
correct (i.e., my own) answers are that I ask further questions of the high
school teacher, the artist, the store owner, the real estate agent, the CEO, and
the biologist. For the rest
(lawyer, surgeon, insurance salesman, middle manager, and accountant) I change
the topic of conversation. Probably
each of these people thinks he or she has a fascinating job, but Iím just not
all that interested. I think there
are two factors to consider: is the work potentially interesting, and do I have
enough general knowledge about the subject to carry on a reasonable
conversation? I am afraid that for
the general public engineering fails both of these tests.
days I have a lot better exposure to what other people do on their jobs than I
did in past years. When Iím
trapped on trains and at airports, I hear people doing their work via cellphones.
They usually speak in very loud and important voices, and it is almost
impossible to ignore them. These
conversations are seldom boring. They
are much worse than that. On an
interest scale they go negative way past boring into the region of
offensiveness. Often it is as if
the speaker has read in some business school book about how real business people
are supposed to sound, and is trying to impress the overhearing public about his
own acumen. I think how I would
hate to be on the other end of the conversation, and how little I would be
tempted at a party to ask further about this particular business.
we engineers really so boring? Is
our work so devoid of interest, or so obscure that no one wants to hear about
it? My frustration is that I really
believe engineering is intrinsically interesting, and that most engineers have
job-related stories worth hearing. Lots
of exciting things are always happening in technology -- doesnít anyone care
to hear about them?
maybe the rest of you get asked all the time about what you do at work.
Iíd hate to think Iím the only one who isnít asked, but perhaps
Iím just the Rodney Dangerfield of engineering.
What about you? Do strangers inquire about your work, or do we just have to
take turns telling each other about what weíre doing?