Friday, 31 May 2013

Uncomfortable small talk doesn't do anything for mutual understanding

Invigilators arrive in the exam venue 45 minutes early to set up and make sure we have everything we need. Setting up only takes 10 minutes, though, so most of that time is filled with small talk. Postgrad Invigilators chat about their PhD topics, the Professional Invigilators tell us about their former careers (they're now retired and just do things like invigilation a few times a year for kicks). I usually get faced with the following questions: "What part of the States are you from?", "What are you studying?", "What are you planning on doing after the PhD?" After that, I ask them about their research, we exchange remarks about the weather, and then it's time to let the students in. I find it really tiresome, having to repeat the same answers to 2 groups of people a day for 2 weeks straight.

Yesterday, a particularly curious guy asked me so many questions--about why I came to Leeds, where I'm from, whether I miss Seattle, what my husband does, where I went to undergrad, what I'm doing after the PhD, etc. At one point, he said "So you're going to be making more money than your husband?" I was so taken aback that I just awkwardly said, "yeah, I guess that's the plan..." But for the rest of the day I was thinking of things I should have said. Firstly, it's none of his business how much I earn or how much my husband earns. He's a total stranger and our household finances are none of his concern. Secondly, he's a sexist pig because nobody would ever say the same comment to a man--"So you're going to be making more money than your wife?" And thirdly, yes, I'll make more than him for some of our years together, but there are always different scenarios at different time periods throughout life. He's been the breadwinner so far, while I've been in school, and he'll still be earning more than me during the post-doc stage, at least. He's willing to support me when we have kids, so I can stay at home with them and/or go back to work part-time--maybe even, shock-horror, he could be a stay at home dad and I could go back to work full time. He's 7 years older than me, so when my career is well-established in my 50's, he can retire and I'll be the breadwinner. Whatever financial arrangements we do make throughout our life together, it's none of this stranger's business!

He also shared his background, bragging about his Masters experience at Oxford and trying to impress me with stories of the fantastic house system:
He says: "We get three course meals for £3!"
I say: "Oh..."
He: "Made by Michelin-star chefs!"
I: "Oh..."
He seemed confused as to why I wasn't more impressed, so I explained--"A couple of weeks ago I was just there for a conference, and to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Oxford. (stunned look on his face, so I went on) It felt cold and elitist, like the Ivy League in the States. I prefer the North--people here are friendlier and more down-to-earth."
He says: "So I take it you didn't go to an Ivy League, then?" Ugh.

Quite appropriately, I've been working on a section about interpersonal communication and the emphasis that PD puts on face-to-face conversations. They're supposed to lead to increased understanding, but I think my experience yesterday illustrates that outcomes are not always positive.


  1. Nice post, Molly. When I first went to Taiwan I was struck by some of the personal questions asked: how much do I earn? What is my blood group? (Seriously!) Your post reminds me of the time I met the Sherriff of Nottingham and he asked me: 'So which University did you go to - Oxford or Cambridge?'

    1. Thanks, Gary! That's brilliant about the blood group question, haha!