Wednesday, December 12, 2007

'Misfit' is a relative term

Some commenters here complain about how "Social misfits are really rife in philosophy." It can certainly be discomforting when the people around you do not share your social norms and expectations. But isn't it a bit quick to just assume that it's their fault (and so call them 'jerks', 'boors' and so forth)? Lack of fit is a symmetrical relation, after all. Consider the following complaint:
How many times as a female professor have I gone out to dinner parties with visiting speakers where there were several philosopher’s wives present (my other colleagues mostly being males), where the entire dinner table conversation was devoted to philosophical issues that excluded them? As a woman, I or perhaps simply as someone socialized to be more polite and empathetic, I face the choice then: should I try to join in with “the guys” and prove my mettle, thus ignoring half the people present at the table, or should I attempt to be more congenial and polite and talk to the women?

Now, from my perspective, the whole point of a bunch of philosophers going out to dinner with a visiting speaker is to discuss philosophy. That's what they're there for. To complain that "the entire dinner table conversation was devoted to philosophical issues" seems as bizarre to me as complaining that the entire seminar was dedicated to philosophy when some of the students might rather have discussed the local sports team. The problem does not necessarily lie with the topic of conversation; it could just be that the sports fans are in the wrong place.

More generally, it's nice to accommodate people and make them feel comfortable. But given that the lack of fit between 'nerds' and 'normals' is symmetrical, it's not clear why the norms of the latter group should always take precedence. I mean, there's no surer way to make me uncomfortable than to put me in a situation where one is expected to engage in small talk. That's just a fact about me and how I relate to others. Many people (outside of academia) seem to be just the opposite: uncomfortable with serious discussion, comfortable with small talk. That's a fact about them and how they relate to others. Each of these two personality types may find it difficult to relate to the other. Objectively speaking, that's the end of the story. But in practice the extroverts are socially dominant, so they lay fault on the nerds and introverts for failing to conform to their preferred (arbitrary) norms. What they don't seem to realize is that they are equally failing to conform to our preferred norms.


  1. that thread actualy made me feel quite sad, in that at face value one of hte posters who bought into the idea that women were not good at social situations as men and then delighted in the fact that there was some subset of men she could feel better than.

    Its like a slave buying into slavery and the fact that there are at least some slaves that they have a right to kick around.

    However at that blog it is not socially appropriate to point it out things that might cause that sort of conflict. And ofcourse at the same time I would not want to defend either rudeness as a form of domination or intentional offense.


  2. being a slave to arbitrary rules bothers me too as does the fact that I expect very similar arbitrary rules underlie much of the very sexism that they want to fight in a day to day basis.


  3. I agree with you here. I actually was going to write a reply there with an objection but then decided not to. The only thing that really seemed to me excessive was callypso's anecdote that when she published her book her philosophy colleagues didn't mention or congratulate her for it; that strikes me as awfully rude, but maybe it's just the particular philosophers she works with.

    One thing I disagree with is their placing the complaint in the context of this boorish behavior being something that would keep women out of philosophy. The boorish behavior is - it appears - taking eccentricity to hurtful levels, and as such it may be a bad thing, but I don't think it's keeping women out of philosophy. At the undergraduate level women interested in philosophy usually don't know of this boorishness as they become manifest in social situations among philosophers. (I would imagine that at the graduate and higher level someone who were really serious about philosophy would not give it up because of strange/awkward behavior on the part of their peers - assuming such behavior is not intentionally hurtful. But it's hard to say).

    A broader concern I have is that the point they make implies there's something about men that, when a philosopher, tends to be a misfit, and women that, when philosopher, tends to be a conformer. I'm not so sure about that! I identify more with the misfit type (but not with the rude aspects, I hope) than the conformer type, so this supposed distinction really rubs me the wrong way.

  4. A related thing that irks me is the notion of 'social skills': that socialising is about personal capabilities instead of being a fundamentally collaborative exercise. So people who might simply be out of place at a cocktail party are said to 'lack' some kind of 'skill', whereas people who'd be equally lost in a philosophy seminar (anecdotally) seem seldom to judge themselves to lack 'chat with philosophers' skills.

  5. Richard, you say: from my perspective, the whole point of a bunch of philosophers going out to dinner with a visiting speaker is to discuss philosophy.

    That may be the case, but consider the question of why spouses would be invited if that is the case. I think that the point in the thread was not just the topic of conversation, but how it was pursued--one individual dominating, the conversation being more about showing prowess than interest in ideas and people. I would think if spouses are invited, more than just a philosophical seminar is in view.

    Suppose the social invite includes non-philosophers. It seems hardly appropriate to entirely exclude them--why not find ways to include them in some regards? While philosophy can get technical fast, isn't part of being an academic the ability to communicate ideas to non-philosophers? Further, one would assume that the spouses of the philosophers are minimally capable of having conversations on these topics if they are married to philosophers. *Sometimes* the assumption is that women won't have that interest and so attempts aren't even made...

    I'll wrap this admittedly non-precise plea for social graces by putting things in the converse. My partner is a doctor and there are instances where I have to attend social events with other doctors. Now, while I am not a neurologist, having spent nearly five years around one (and her colleagues), I have picked up a few concepts and can at least follow some of the conversations. And the best events that I've been at are where a doctor will show interest in me qua person (not professional) and we'll find topics to discuss that we both enjoy.

    Admittedly, the last time we found connection in our reading of David Chalmer (neuro is a field that's helpful in that regard). But the point is that social norms like small talk--which makes me uncomfortable, too--are in place as a way of "greasing the wheels", so to speak, in our human interactions.

    While not everyone will be able to equally participate in all conversations, there is something to be said for seeing people as having something to contribute to the environment of a meal. Women who are the "odd man out" get stuck in their allegiance to their passion for certain topics and their socialization to have empathy for others. That's just a lousy place to be in. It doesn't need to be an either/or proposition.

  6. Many people (outside of academia) seem to be just the opposite: uncomfortable with serious discussion, comfortable with small talk..

    I'm not entirely convinced that the discussions that happen in academia (philosophy included) are at all serious. Nor am I convinced that the discussions that happen outside of academia--the conversations the "normals" engage in--are not serious. Also, people outside of academia may not be comfortable with small talk. They may just engage in small talk as a result of being uncomfortable with non-intimates, as a way to "break the ice."

    Just some quick thoughts.

    -Jonathan H.

  7. My sense is that there are all sorts of things going on at after-the-talk dinners, from hooking up to establishing a community that includes partners. So my sense is that someone who thinks there is just one agenda, and who acts on that belief, is at least at a pretty big disadvantage. Is it worse than that? Well, if they can see only one agenda and act as though that is the most important or what every one is doing, probably their professors will indulge them, but there will be comments behind their back.

    Social encounters just about never have one agenda; people are pursuing all sorts of goals.

  8. But those goals are not something that a philosopher should value just because they exist.

    It could easily be the moral highground to not participate in whatever sort of machevallian battles that might be going on.

  9. about goals: I meant just to question the idea that the dinner party is like the seminar, though even in the seminar people bring lots of different agendas.

    I don't know about going to a dinner and ignoring all the other goals. Having spent about half my professional life at some of the best universities and the other half at not very good ones, I'd say the obliviousness to others' goals is much more prevalent at the latter. Unless you are truly exceptionally brilliant, you don't get to the top without a lot of social smarts. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

  10. pete,
    I agree social smarts are useful - in fact in my experience they are considerably more important than competence.

    But I think we are arguing more about what should matter than what does.

    In my experience professors in my department spent a lot of their time plotting how to destroy other professors or using any of the millions of ethically dubious ways to get ahead without talent. Those involved obviously benefited from the playing the game - but it did not seem praiseworthy.



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