Thursday, 13 October 2011


The other day, I had to gather my social skills (such as they are), brush my hair, and put on my most stylish socks to attend a socioprofessional event that required me to be super-nice to everyone I met there. As I was claiming my name tag from a table near the entrance, I asked the table-attendant what the "1" on my name tag signified; the other name tags that I could see did not have any numbers.

The answer to that particular question is not important to my story. But this is relevant: when I asked my question, a 70-something man standing nearby said "It means this", and he made an obscene gesture.

I thought to myself, "This is a test."

And I was determined to pass that test. I decided to practice being super-nice to him. I figured: if I can be nice to him, then I can be nice to almost anyone.

So, I noted his name and other information on his name tag, and asked him a polite question about himself. This is not what he was expecting (score one point for me), so he said "Did you see which finger I just held up?" (minus one point for him for being so desperate for attention that he had to mention this).

I ignored his question. I saw that the lapels of his jacket sported 5-6 pins indicating various organizations to which he belonged and various awards that he had won, so I made a polite comment about his apparent interests and accomplishments. (I think I should get another point for this, but I won't beg if I don't get one.)

He said "I hate awards, but I keep getting them." [insert unconvincing explanation for why he advertises (with his lapel pins) these awards that he despises but that he also totally deserves because he is awesome although of course he is too humble to say that and only says it because he keeps getting these awards, which he despises, from these organizations, which he despises etc.] (minus another point for him?)

I asked him another question about himself and his interests (I will not give myself points for these because they were rather routine), and then he said, "All you professors only care about yourselves and other professors."

To me, that's even ruder than the obscene gesture, but I was not willing to give up. I was determined to continue to withstand the onslaught of aggressively jerkish behavior. So I said "That's not true. Many of us care about our students."

His reply: "So what? Same thing. You only care about students because you want them to be professors one day so that is just like only caring about professors."

By this point, I was pretty sure that we were not having a rational conversation in which two mature and respectful adults listen to each other and make reasoned arguments to support differing opinions, so instead of responding directly to his point, I told him about some recent outreach programs and also some applied research that seemed relevant to his background (from what I could infer from his lapel pins).

I couldn't tell if he was bored or stunned. It is likely that he was disappointed that I didn't respond in a satisfying way to his obnoxious behavior. He probably thought I was freakishly polite, and perhaps heavily medicated.

In any case, although I am sure he was hating me just as much as I was hating him, I made the first move to exit this grim conversation. I silently proclaimed victory, bade him a pleasant farewell, and moved on to chat with another group of people.

This experience reminded me of other situations in which I have felt uncomfortable by someone's speech or behavior, and my strategy has been to take the high road, ignore the offense or make a mild joke, and just get on with my work. I have found this to be much more effective in the long run than responding in-kind or even walking away.

This is not the most appropriate strategy in all cases -- sometimes we need to yell and fight back or walk away -- but when there's no point in yelling, I find it personally satisfying to be as calm and mature as possible. Thinking of it as a 'test' of some sort is one way that I can get through an unpleasant situation.

I think that it is even possible to derive a strange sort of enjoyment from what is otherwise a ghastly situation if you set yourself a challenge and feel that you succeeded with it.

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