Saturday, October 20, 2012

The authority grab and the precision junkie

I've been thinking more about work language lately, and less about personal life. Here's a thought.

As I advance in my career I spend more time at conferences, it seems. And there are definite patterns of language at conferences. I'm not in the academic world, but I have a feeling that if I was, I would see this all the time, since it is frequently academics who do these.

1. Why didn't you mention [my thing]?

So, a presenter gives a talk at a conference. The presenter does a good job or a bad one, but let's say a good one. Clear, concise, interesting, novel presentation on something of importance (suppose it was on, development in west africa or something). Question period. Someone puts up their hand and the question is:

"This presentation was very good, I thank you for it. But I am amazed that in the entire presentation there was absolutely no mention of [whatever]. How you can talk about [your topic] without talking about [whatever] is beyond me. It seems to me that [whatever] is completely crucial to this discussion, and needs to be incorporated into all discussions of these matters."

The speaker, if polite, usually acknowledges the importance of [whatever] and moves on to the next question.

I think of this as a kind of authority grab. The questioner is asserting the importance of [whatever], and [whatever] is usually the issue or research topic of the questioner.

2. What you said is not precisely true.

Some people you work with are what you might call precision junkies. If you say that something happened at the beginning of 2009, they will say "well, it happened in March 2009, which is not exactly the beginning". If you say that there was a man-sized hole, they'll say "well, it would have to be a small man."

The precision junkie might be doing an authority grab, or they might be contrarian, but most of the ones I have met are literally junkies. They can't help themselves. And you can't do much about them.

Neither of these people/tactics are dangerous, so I wouldn't worry about them. Just knowing they're there and knowing their names will help them irritate you a little bit less.

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