Monday, 19 March 2012

Don't Laugh

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch in a campus-area dining spot, and was sitting near a group of undergrads who were having lunch together. During lunch, one of the students got a phone call that seemed to be related to a job opportunity or internship; the phone conversation mostly consisted of the the student's answering questions about courses, other work experience, and career goals. The student's tone of voice was serious and the topics were of a professional nature.

I don't know why the undergraduate (UG) didn't just run outside as soon it was clear that this was an important call, but UG did not leave. UG remained sitting with friends, who were silent for a while, listening to their friend answer questions, but then they started trying to make their friend laugh. Even if UG hadn't run outside with the phone when the call first came, why did UG stay even when the friends started making embarrassing sounds in the background and making gestures and comments to make UG laugh, with some success? Maybe it wasn't as important a phone call as it seemed to me, an ignorant eavesdropper, but I was puzzled as to why UG stayed, clearly having trouble remaining serious and focused on the phone call.

It reminded me of a time when I was talking on the phone with a potential postdoc (PPD). We were in different countries, so it had not been possible for us to meet in person, and this was our first conversation other than e-mails. The conversation occurred at a pre-arranged date and time, and was specified as an interview. It started fine, but then it was clear that someone in the PPD's vicinity was trying to make them laugh. I could hear some muffled sounds in the background, and then the PPD would try not to laugh. It made the conversation difficult because I kept hearing the PPD's stifled laughs, completely disconnected from our conversation, and sometimes I had to repeat a question because the PPD was distracted. The stifled-laughing/muffled-background sound wasn't a brief, one-time interruption; it was protracted and it was really annoying

I suppose I could have said something, ranging from "Could you please stop that? It is annoying," to "Do you need a minute to find a quieter place for us to continue this interview?", but decided it wasn't worth it. (Question for readers: Would you have said anything?). I asked myself, "Is this a deal-breaker?" and decided it was not. Even so, it was puzzling to me that the PPD thought this was appropriate behavior during an interview.

One of these incidents involved an undergraduate, one a graduating PhD student; one is male, one is female; one is from the US; one is not. And yet the two incidents seemed otherwise very similar.

Something else that I wondered about these two incidents, aside from not understanding why anyone would risk losing a career opportunity for such a stupid reason: What do the interviewees think about their friends who interfered with their interviews? I think ultimately it is the responsibility of the interviewee to avoid or stop these background jerks, but since they didn't in these two cases, were they at least angry with their friends, assuming that these interviews were at all important to the interviewees?

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