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What's The Question About Your Field That You Dread Being Asked?
April 14, 2013 7:19 AM   Subscribe

"Maybe it's a sore point: your field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer. Or it's a question that belies a deep misunderstanding: the best answer is to question the question."
posted by the man of twists and turns (259 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
can you fix my internet
posted by jepler at 7:33 AM on April 14, 2013 [24 favorites]


"How do I become a screenwriter?"
posted by unSane at 7:34 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


What does it mean for something to be alive?
posted by Blasdelb at 7:34 AM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


"What is linguistics?"
posted by capricorn at 7:36 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also,

Eeewww is that thing on your back a spider?
posted by Blasdelb at 7:37 AM on April 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


"Can we get the weight information into a computer?"
posted by localroger at 7:40 AM on April 14, 2013


I make AAA First Person Shooters: "Is there a connection between video game violence and real world violence", or some variation, and it's usually not really a question and more of an accusation.
posted by the theory of revolution at 7:41 AM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Who's your favorite President?"
"Do you watch the History Channel?"
posted by liketitanic at 7:42 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What college should I go to in order to get into the video games industry?"

Answer: Unless you're after a computer science degree, none of them. And even then, think twice about getting that CS degree.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:43 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Very good article, thanks!

And as a pure mathematician, the answer to this question is easy for me: "What does your research have to do with the real world?"
posted by Frobenius Twist at 7:45 AM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


In casual conversation? Definitely "What's your comic/book about?"

Mostly because I have to then make a split-second call as to whether they actually care or are just being polite. In the former case, I'll take a minute to explain the basic story with some key details. In the latter, I'll just say, "Cats" or "Time-traveling Samurai" or whatever.

The worst is when I'm halfway through the short-summary version of my answer and their eyes start to glaze over, and I realize I've miscalculated; then I have to decide whether to rush to the finish or just abruptly change the topic mid-sentence.

....Actually, the worst is when I realize they're just being polite, give the super-short answer accordingly...and then get interrupted by my husband, who scolds me for demurring and then proceeds to explain the book's premise great detail, causing me to sink through the floor in mortified horror.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:50 AM on April 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


"Was your performance luck or skill"
posted by JPD at 7:50 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What is it you do?"
posted by mazola at 7:52 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What do geographers do?"
posted by mollweide at 7:54 AM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Oh, you're a translator? Have you thought about working for the UN?"
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:56 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Cool article.

My least favorite question is "Why do they make computers so complicated?"
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:58 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well why don't you just put all those old movies onto DVDs and throw the film out?
posted by theatro at 7:59 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"My Aunt/Grandfather/Cousin/Other family member has xx type of cancer, what should we doooo" along with sad puppy dog eyes. Uh, dude, I just grow the cells in a dish I have no idea.
posted by shelleycat at 8:01 AM on April 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


"So, do scientists still believe people came from monkeys?"
posted by ChuraChura at 8:02 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Any time I hear a layman (incorrectly) use the word "theory" I tend to cringe.

The phrase "just a theory" makes me want to scream.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:04 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


I also get stuff about big pharma hiding cancer cures and other such conspiracy stuff, but the personal appeal thing happens much more often than I'd expected when I moved into cancer research and it always makes me shrivel up inside. I don't work with human subjects for a reason, plus I do early stage cell and biochemistry based stuff not drug development so I don't even know the words that clinicians use.
posted by shelleycat at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2013


"Can you create a logo for my business?" Or "help design my website," "edit my manuscript," "give me a massage," "fix my car," "hem my pants," "dye my hair," "install some cabinets," insert relevant skill here.

And the even worse follow-up: "Payment?? But aren't we friends?"
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:09 AM on April 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


"Have you ever seen a grown man naked?"
posted by delfin at 8:10 AM on April 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


"What part of software engineering is engineering?"

In response to the actual article: these were interesting questions and responses overall. I had no idea that Susan Blackmore was ever a parapsychologist, and Lawrence M. Krauss's response to "what happened before the big bang" was illuminating to me, someone who has wondered exactly that. Good stuff.
posted by dubitable at 8:11 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"When will the Gulf of Mexico be clean?"

No one really knows. There are lots of interests trying to say that the oil is gone already, or that the species and habitats will never recover. Both of these sides have strong financial and reputational interests. There are many shouting that they have the answer.

The literature is still very mixed. Oil seems to be persisting about as long as we expected, at least in the shallow waters and near shore, though more dispersed at depth than was predicted at first. We still don't know how oil dispersion works very well---it's not Stokesian, we knew that already, but it's really, really not Stokesian. Degradation at depth/sedimentation & encapsulation rates are still big questions. Photo-oxidation degradation processes are finally getting the attention they deserve as major oil breakdown pathways, but how important oxidated intermediates are to toxicity/habitat effects are unclear right now.

The sea habitats took big hits. Mammals were not previously thought to be strongly affected by spills. They can migrate out of the way, was the thinking. Dolphins keep turning up with petrogenic injuries two years later though. What's going on in the ocean floor bethnic and deep pelagic communities isn't very well understood either.

Parts are doing better than expected, but others are doing worse. There's a huge amount work to do to understand the processes of a deepwater oil/gas blowout and novel use of dispersant application at depth. The net benefit of dispersant use is still controversial, though it appears that the application at the well-head was far more effective than surface applications. Burning is also going to get a lot more used in the future---that was one of the clearest success stories of the clean-up operation.

The question is has many parts, and so it's easy to take the results of a single study and overstate one way or another, depending on what you want the conclusion to be. The truth is, we really don't have enough information yet to answer it properly.
posted by Anonymous 5$ Sockpuppet at 8:11 AM on April 14, 2013 [32 favorites]


Hmm, I was expecting a bit more exposition from the original author when I clicked on the link, based on the sort of articles that usually get linked to on metafilter. So what is this "The Edge" web site?
posted by eviemath at 8:12 AM on April 14, 2013


The REAL question I dread:

"If you get laid off, can you find another position that's comparable?"
posted by delfin at 8:14 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


"So you put all these wind turbines up, and they're all taking energy out of the wind, what happens to the world with so much less wind?"

It's not that its unanswerable (in fact its very answerable), its that they all say it like no-one else has thought of it, and that they all look like you are just bullshitting when you tell them why its not a problem.
posted by biffa at 8:15 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"When will this lead to a cure for my child?"
posted by benzenedream at 8:17 AM on April 14, 2013


"So, you work for the UN? Are you in on the cabal?"
posted by brokkr at 8:17 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


This one from the linked post is my favorite:
What happened before the big bang?

This is a frustrating question because first, it presumes that just because we know there was a big bang, we understand it back to t=0 or 'before'. This is like presuming evolutionary biology can explain the origin of life itself, which it cannot, since we need to know chemistry and the conditions of the early earth to address it. Similarly, we simply don't have a physical theory that works back to t=0 so we cannot answer the question. But more than that, all of our current ideas suggest, alas, that it isn't a good question!

Saying that always frustrates the listener, but science often tells us that naive questions aren't good questions because they make presumptions that are unwarranted. Because space and time are coupled to matter and energy in general relativity, it is eminently plausible that if space spontaneously popped into existence, so did time. Namely, time and space are both classical concepts that may have a limited domain of validity, and so the question what was 'before the big bang" may simply be a bad question because there was no 'before'! Time didn't exist.

That answer of course makes no one happy, but it may be true. As I often say, the business of the universe is not to make you happy.

Lawrence M. Krauss
Physicist/Cosmologist, ASU; Author, A Universe from Nothing
posted by evilmomlady at 8:18 AM on April 14, 2013 [28 favorites]


So, do you do that as a volunteer? Or do you get paid?
posted by Cookiebastard at 8:18 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"So, how are rehearsals going?"
posted by kyrademon at 8:18 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Mentions a few behaviors and traits of his or her brother's friend's son's classmate. Do you think he has autism?"
posted by missriss89 at 8:19 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


In casual conversation? Definitely "What's your comic/book about?"

Mostly because I have to then make a split-second call as to whether they actually care or are just being polite.


Actually that's what makes most of these Dreaded Questions frustrating.

By and large they're not bad questions. They're just conversational traps: they'd take a whole couple of minutes to answer adequately, and the normal rules of conversation say that it's horribly rude to hold the floor for a couple minutes straight unless you've been invited to.

(When people say "Oh god, the weirdest thing happened to me the other day" instead of launching into a story, that's why. They're fishing for an invitation. The story will take a few minutes to tell, it's Against The Rules to take a turn that long without an invitation, so they need to get someone else to ask for the story or else they're not allowed to tell it.)

On the other hand, the normal rules of conversation also say that it's rude to dodge a polite sincere question. And oh also it's rude to lie. But you have to pick one of the three: give a full (overlong) answer, give no answer, or give a one-sentence (dishonest) answer.

I've taken to essentially just asking people which of the three they want. It's the fishing-for-an-invitation strategy again. My field's an academic one, so I say "Did you really just invite me to start lecturing?" Say it with a smile and either they laugh and say "Oh hell no" and you cheerfully change the subject, or they look sort of sheepish and say "Actually yeah, please do" and you launch into it with a clean conscience.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:21 AM on April 14, 2013 [37 favorites]


"Do you know Ira Glass? I love him!"
"Do you know Jad Abumrad? I love him!"
"Do you know Peter Segal? I love him!"
"Do you know the Car Talk guys? I love them!"
posted by Alex Goldman at 8:23 AM on April 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


(Well, and then there are the questions that are hidden aggressive moves. "I demand that you begin working for free RIGHT NOW" or "I am ideologically opposed to everything you do and I hereby challenge you to a duel." Luckily I do research in a field where I don't get much of this.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:25 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Do this subnet mask for me, on paper.
posted by Splunge at 8:26 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


When running sound/lights for concerts:

"Do you know what all of the buttons and knobs do?"

Usually followed by, "Can I touch one?"
posted by Candleman at 8:26 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can we make the website more "circular" with less white space?
posted by milarepa at 8:28 AM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"So how do you get published?" Everybody thinks it's a short answer ("I wrote a book and mailed it to a publisher!") but it's not.

Then invariably, they follow up with, "My Aunt Gemma didn't have to do all that. She just put her book on Amazon herself! Have you tried that?" Le sigh.
posted by headspace at 8:30 AM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


For philosophy-
"So what's YOUR philosophy?"
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:31 AM on April 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


"What's the next big thing in tech?"

More fun than

"What laptop should I buy?"

More fun than

"What printer should I buy?"

More fun than

"I think my computer's got a virus. Could you look at it for me?"

More fun than

"Where's my copy?"
posted by Devonian at 8:33 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Trying to work out what delfin's occupation is…
posted by jepler at 8:36 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Wow, you drive trains?"

I dread this question because sometimes I wish I was that kind of engineer. Choo choo!
posted by muddgirl at 8:39 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Could you take a look at my dad's web site?"

I basically design architecture for giant intranets. Explaining that I wouldn't be much good working on someone's gardening blog is tricky -- people still think that "making web sites" is a visual practice, and that I can help them make something pretty.

"Well... will he be using LDAP? I know a lot about LDAP. Do you need a content inventory, or a detailed data model? Help with a governance plan? No? Ah. Pictures of flowers. Hmmm..."
posted by verb at 8:43 AM on April 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


"Are you famous?"
posted by Jode at 8:45 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why do we need cartographers when we have Google maps?
posted by desjardins at 8:47 AM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I generally dread two domains of questions, one about work and one about hobbies. On work, I dread the general questions about web sites and applications...they're inevitably driven by "I need a site but have no money" or "I have a great idea for an app, but have no money, and I'm about to suggest you build it and we split the pile of cash."

For the former, I just point out that there are lots of great turn-key solutions out there, and if you want to buy some of my surprisingly (to you) expensive time, starting from scratch might not be best. For the latter, I usually just say that the "easy" or "simple" stuff is usually the hardest to do well ("we'll just have people log in" or "we'll just take credit cards") if appropriate, or that ideas are by far the easy part, and if you or I have thought of it, generally speaking so have rooms full of brilliant people who decided it wasn't worthwhile.

On the hobby stuff, I dread being That Guy who talks your ear off about a subject you just politely inquired about to be nice, so for me it's not that I don't want to answer, it's that I'm acutely sensitive to glazed eyeballs and talk too much by nature. I love talking about the things I'm passionate about, but only to genuinely interested people. That's not a criticism of those who aren't, it's just hard (but necessary) work to police my answers to get the right amount of detail to the person asking.
posted by maxwelton at 8:48 AM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


What are you reading about now?
posted by awesomelyglorious at 8:50 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


How are we going to find enough skilled people to stay innovative in the midst of an OMGSTEMshortage when we all know that American students just can't do math and science?

It's really easy to get a science/engineering job if you're a girl, right?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 8:51 AM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, what, you couldn't get into med school or something?
posted by klarck at 8:52 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"I saw a thing in the sky 2 months ago! Based on my extremely improbable description, what was it?"

It glowed greenish orange. It flashed on and off, but nothing like an airplane! It was 250 feet off the ground. It flew from east to west, going at least 400 miles an hour, then it stopped on a dime and hovered over the that tree right there, and shot off to the north and disappeared.
posted by BrashTech at 8:53 AM on April 14, 2013


"I've got this really great idea for a website/app that I'm sure will make us rich. Do you want to do ALL the work on it?"

Actually I get and less free website questions, but I get "I want a website with 8 billion custom feature. My budget is $300. Can you do that?" followed by indignation when I throw out a more realistic number. Or even better "But don't you want to make moneeeeeeeey?" when I would turn down a request for freelance work because I was too busy at my day job and frankly valued my free time over adding more hours to the 50 or 60 I was already working.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:54 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have you all beat:

"But what about Tower 7?"
posted by Ghost Mode at 8:56 AM on April 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


"I saw a thing in the sky 2 months ago! Based on my extremely improbable description, what was it?"

Seconded. If it moved, I say a plane. If it didn't, I say Jupiter.

I'm disappointed by Krauss's answer (which doesn't surprise me), because I think what happened before the big bang is a completely legitimate and interesting question, and I'm just a plain astronomer and not one of these fancy cosmologists (like he is) who should be used to asking really ridiculous questions like that. That said, the response from the article author ("Why not just scale time logarithmically?") is actually insane and a far worse question to deal with than pre-big-bang cosmology.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:01 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Usability Engineering? How is that different from plain old requirements gathering?"
posted by sidereal at 9:02 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


For philosophy-
"So what's YOUR philosophy?"


This. Almost as bad as my dad calling me "The Philosopher" when I was in grad school.
posted by Knappster at 9:04 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


As I often say, the business of the MetaFilter is not to make you happy.
posted by shothotbot at 9:05 AM on April 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


Also Krauss's crapping on evolutionary biologists for not being able to explain the origin of life is really bad.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:07 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"That's a graph monitoring your database server's performance? Why is there so much red?"
posted by A dead Quaker at 9:08 AM on April 14, 2013


"Why did my child die? How can I go on with my life?"
posted by ColdChef at 9:11 AM on April 14, 2013 [59 favorites]


"Wow, you drive trains?"

I dread this question because sometimes I wish I was that kind of engineer. Choo choo!


My father (a mechanical engineer) says that after he got his Master's in engineering, he was visiting his grandfather (who used to drive steam locomotives). His grandfather quizzed him on the proper operation of a train, and when my dad had no idea, concluded that my father had wasted five years of his life getting his degrees.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 9:11 AM on April 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


When I was an Econ grad student it was definitely any question related to the stock market.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:16 AM on April 14, 2013


"What kind of music does your band play?"

Don't know why it bugs me, maybe I'm insecure about it being kinda standard rock/pop stuff. I like to say "adult contemporary".

Jens Ludwig's response was great, everyone should read it.
posted by scatter gather at 9:16 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Don't we know where everything is already?'
posted by klanawa at 9:16 AM on April 14, 2013


How do fuckin' magnets work?
posted by LogicalDash at 9:17 AM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh, and my new favorite question I hate is from my College Algebra students. First they ask what my dissertation was on. Then after I give a super simplified explanation of the Hardy space, they follow up with, "Wow, you must think we're really stupid, right?"
posted by Elementary Penguin at 9:18 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do fuckin' magnets work?

Never let Bill O'Reilly ask you a question about anything.
posted by localroger at 9:19 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Is that real or a clip on?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:23 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


So many of these questions are rhetorical--opinions in the guise of questions.
Intelligent answers should be tailored to the questioners' state of mind, and lead them in a non-confrontational way to a deeper understanding.
It is far better to educate than get upset.
Sometimes another question is an appropriate answer:

"Ancient people thought the sun goes around the earth because that's what it looks like, right?"
"What would it look like if the earth rotated?"
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:25 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Will you do my taxes?"
posted by meronym at 9:25 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Pfft, what do we need PR for? Just let the executives/engineers/software developers/whoever speak for themselves!"

This is usually countered by pointing out the lastest controversy such as "Remember that CEO that said women belong in the kitchen and was genuinely shocked that there was a hint of backlash?" or "Remember the guy who did a presentation at that conference and used naked women as his slides?" That's why.

"Pfft, don't you know marketing doesn't work? Maybe on those sheeple, but not on me."

This is usually countered by counting the number of brand logos currently adorning their bodies, pointing out they're drinking a $8 beverage that costs 50 cents to make, and they were just bragging about buying whatever the latest shiny bauble is.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:27 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


"What part of software engineering is engineering?"

Heck, my job title is software engineer and my masters is in software engineering and I ask myself that question every day.
posted by octothorpe at 9:29 AM on April 14, 2013 [15 favorites]


"But really, couldn't it have been aliens?"

Nope nope nope nope.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:33 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


"So you hunt bugs"?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:33 AM on April 14, 2013


"Wow, you drive trains?"

I dread this question because sometimes I wish I was that kind of engineer. Choo choo!
posted by muddgirl at 4:39 PM on April 14 [2 favorites +] [!]


I don't dread that question because, you know, I do drive trains.

The one I hate is any variation on "Why did you need to train for so long? I mean, it's got to be easy, right? It's not like you have to steer or anything."
posted by Decani at 9:36 AM on April 14, 2013 [18 favorites]


"Why do we send humans into space, when robots are these magical boxes that can do anything and have no downsides whatsoever?"

Answer: Who are you, and how did you get in my office?
posted by BeeDo at 9:36 AM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


Or more often, "But isn't everything just online? Aren't libraries dead?"
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:37 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


"do you have to take pills to keep it hard for that long?"
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:37 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Why can't students write correctly?"

I dread being asked variations of this question because a proper answer requires a great deal of unpacking what is meant by correctness, much of which will challenge the preconceptions of the asker.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:39 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Lol do people really use those lol?"

I sell vibrators and sex toys. They're not on the fucking shelves for decoration.
posted by Jilder at 9:40 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Can you just fix the English on this?"
posted by pracowity at 9:40 AM on April 14, 2013


"Have you made anything I might have seen?
posted by nathancaswell at 9:41 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"So, they actually pay you for that?"
posted by chavenet at 9:46 AM on April 14, 2013


"Will you DJ my wedding?"
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 9:46 AM on April 14, 2013


What's this painting worth?
posted by PussKillian at 9:47 AM on April 14, 2013


Why is the network slow?
posted by roboton666 at 9:47 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


A few friends and I had a talk about this a few years ago as we all pretty much approached our career midlives. Everyone had their own version of it but mind was:

"Is software engineering fulfilling?"

Not "does it pay well" (since it does) or "how are the job prospects" (consistently very good even after the bubble) but "at age 40, after 15 years of it, am I still going to like doing it? Will anything I do in that time or after actually last or be remembered or even have actually mattered in practice?

The reason this question sucks is that the asker is almost always unprepared for an honest answer because with very few exceptions, the answer is no. Mostly the specifics of what gets done don't matter too much and the individuals are better-or-worse cogs in the process, individually mattering not a whole lot and varying on a spectrum of competence and throughput but not meaning.

That's ok - as you get older you start to understand that the whole mindset of fulfilling, meaningful work is a fairy tale and applies to almost nothing anyone does (especially - as a friend in that conversation who works on clean water for the unbelievably poor - people who work for NGOs doing Very Important Work who mostly tell themselves otherwise the first few years until they realize the lifestyle scam) but its an uncomfortable question.
posted by rr at 9:48 AM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


I sell vibrators and sex toys. They're not on the fucking shelves for decoration.

That's right! They're on the fucking shelves because that's where you store the fucking things! Grammar is fun!
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 9:48 AM on April 14, 2013 [18 favorites]


Will this make my computer Secure(TM)?
posted by Hizonner at 9:52 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone realizes that no one really gives a shit about your answer, right? People are just asking to be polite and create a distraction from the inevitability of death.
posted by goHermGO at 9:53 AM on April 14, 2013 [33 favorites]


"Are these by author?"
posted by jonmc at 9:54 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"I have a question about my taxes..."
posted by double bubble at 9:57 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Can I have some Xanax?"

Or, more typically, "I need more Xanax."
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:00 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


"So, how do I keep from getting another virus on my computer ever again?"
posted by deadmessenger at 10:01 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Why don't you have an agent, you should get an agent for your art." This one particularly bothers me because I have never heard of this, an 'agent' who sells art for you when you have no real visibility in the art world.
"What are those things you draw?"
"I have a drawing you did in high school, is it worth anything now?"
"I've got a great idea for you, why don't you draw it, it's fucking great."
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:04 AM on April 14, 2013


There's a weird self-consciousness that people in the arts have about explaining their success. You will never meet a neurosurgeon who's reluctant to tell someone how one becomes a neurosurgeon or what a neurosurgeon does.

As a hedge fund guy, I love the investment questions and ideas that people who are successful in other spheres of endeavor toss at me at barbecues and soccer sidelines, etc. Takes me out of the conventional wisdom, and not infrequently I bring something back to the trading desk Monday morning.
posted by MattD at 10:04 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hah, my job is so boring that nobody asks anything about it. They mutter an "oh, cool" after I answer what it is that I do and then quickly look for something else to talk about.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:05 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What is Mathematics Education?"
also
"So you're really good with numbers?"
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:06 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speech therapist working mainly with stroke/TBI patients. "When am I going to be back to normal?"
posted by a hat out of hell at 10:06 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Have you heard of this idea that Shakespeare didn't really write all those plays?"
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 10:07 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone realizes that no one really gives a shit about your answer, right? People are just asking to be polite and create a distraction from the inevitability of death.

Yes, but that's the problem -- sometimes they DO! And just as I don't want to waste anyone's time by giving a lengthy answer to a polite question, I also don't want to blow off the occasional sincere inquiry from a genuinely interested person. Because it's rude, and because I don't want to be the subject of someone else's "christ, what an asshole" anecdotes.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:11 AM on April 14, 2013


"Is that a full time job?"
posted by sculpin at 10:12 AM on April 14, 2013


"Where is the internet located?"
posted by littlesq at 10:14 AM on April 14, 2013


"Why can't I find any information on x?"

Well, let's see--it could be that you're looking in the wrong place. It could be that you're looking the wrong way. It could, honestly, be a failing of our web design. It is, most often, that x is some crazy conspiracy theory about which no information exists, because x, itself, doesn't exist.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:15 AM on April 14, 2013


"Do you get paid in the summer?"
posted by alphanerd at 10:17 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's ok - as you get older you start to understand that the whole mindset of fulfilling, meaningful work is a fairy tale and applies to almost nothing anyone does

Wow. That is totally the oposite of my experience, but perhaps that's because I'm doing it wrong?

I'm not super highly paid because I work for a small family company and could never be arsed to go back and complete my degree. My employer knows he's getting a bargain and generally avoids creating Dilbert panels.

I usually tell people I design industrial control systems because if I say I work on scales, they think of doctor's and grocery scales. In fact scale work is a licensed trade, and it's mostly done by small companies that represent large manufacturers who do not deal with end users. It's also very pervasive; scales are used in nearly every industry, throughout processes and to document business transactions.

In 30 years I have built thousands of systems to do process control, collect data, or automate things like traffic across a truck scale. I do the whole thing, from software to wiring panels to field installation and testing in person, from the first blank piece of paper to the handshake and sign-off.

There are systems in use today which I designed more than 20 years ago. There is a deep satisfaction to wiring up your controller to a machine that would otherwise be condemned for scrap, and cranking it up and watchiing it come to life doing some important task.

There is an art to making user interfaces that are easy to use, systems that fail gracefully, and which are easy to troubleshoot. I happen to be very good at all of those things and I'm frequently complimented for the quality of my work; last month the plant manager of a catfish plant told me the label system I built for him 13 years ago is "the only thing in the damn plant that never breaks."

The company I work for was founded over 60 years ago and has employed me since 1984; they may not pay me what IBM could but neither do I worry much about whether I will have a job next year. I have seen all manner of industrial processes and helped to make them work better. I like to tell people that if you're sitting in a house or building it's pretty certain that everything you can see has passed accross at least one scale on its way to you. If you live in the United States I can say with almost as much confidence that something you can see has passed across a scale system that I designed.

That knowledge is worth quite a lot to me, actually.
posted by localroger at 10:20 AM on April 14, 2013 [47 favorites]


"I babysat a kid once about ten years ago, could you help me get a full time nanny job? It's not hard, right? I just need something easy to do until I get a real job."

(I've had this conversation more than once. Ugh.)
posted by sonika at 10:23 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Q: "Oh, you're a drawer! My 8 year old niece is a drawer too, she's very talented...[20 minutes later], "Can you draw a picture of my dog/child/grandmother from my vague description/this blurry photo/memory?"

A: Not unless your dog/child/grandmother looks like a button or icon one might find in a software application.
posted by jamaro at 10:23 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"My buddy says he can do this for [less money than it costs for me to get a diet soda and start thinking about the problem]. Can you do it for that?"

(And then folks get upset when you tell them they should definitely use their buddy, it's a great deal. "But I wanted you to work on it!")
posted by maxwelton at 10:24 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure to be sad or relieved that Electrician doesn't seem to have one of these questions. The involved concept question to answer (Explaining the difference between grounding and bonding) requires too much knowledge for the average layperson to come with.

delfin: ""Have you ever seen a grown man naked?""

What the heck do you do delfin?
posted by Mitheral at 10:26 AM on April 14, 2013



For philosophy-
"So what's YOUR philosophy?"


Or the instant 'So what's the meaning of life, then?" followed by the little "haha" that indicates the underlying desperation for a convincing answer.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:27 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


In 30 years I have built thousands of systems to do process control, collect data, or automate things like traffic across a truck scale. I do the whole thing, from software to wiring panels to field installation and testing in person, from the first blank piece of paper to the handshake and sign-off.

We're not that different. There are certain roles that are fulfilling (mine, at the moment) but they are few and far between. You are describing a .1%er position atop an ocean of cog roles. This kind of thing represents like 0.001% of the industry in terms of position. There are not thousands of fulfilled engineers at EMC or Tibco or whatever.

It's like a successful screenwriter saying that millions of people saw and remember his movies is evidence that screenwriting is a fulfilling (and viably successful) career.
posted by rr at 10:28 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Is that a merkin?"
posted by P.o.B. at 10:29 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Do you use that dildo for....you know....?

(Not a dildo: a condom demonstrator that's made of wood.)
posted by Stewriffic at 10:31 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


What do you do?

I work in VFX.

What exactly do you do?

Neither me nor the 40+ people in my department have ever found a good way to answer that. I try to be as vague as possible (help make movies!) and if people keep insisting I say I do alot of python programming.
posted by sidewinder at 10:33 AM on April 14, 2013


"What about the FEMA Camps/coffins?"
I detest the conspiracy mongers playing on and profiting from peoples ignorant fears.
posted by X4ster at 10:35 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Regarding my not-so-day job - which is a piquant combination of cinematic wonderment and incredibly mundane socially suspect grey collar drudgery

"Do you see ghosts?"

"Ever catch any theives?"

"Do you have a gun?"

"OOH have you ever seen Night at the Museum?"

"When do you sleep?"

Regarding my other work, it's usually

"OOH can you draw a picture of my kids?"

Because the answer is yes I can but hell no I won't.

or

"Can you make a video for my band?"

Since the payment for said video is usually the honor of having made a video for your AWESOME band, please refer to kidspictureanswer.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:39 AM on April 14, 2013


Stewriffic the company at your link also offers custom condoms and I was all incredulous thinking you'd send in a mold of your penis and then they'd make condoms from that mold. Turns out they mean custom condom packaging; the condoms are regular commercial products.
posted by Mitheral at 10:40 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK, that made me chuckle.
posted by Stewriffic at 10:44 AM on April 14, 2013


"how many books have you sold?"
posted by changeling at 10:48 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Closed anyone down lately?"
posted by goo at 10:49 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone realizes that no one really gives a shit about your answer, right?

I care a great deal. I love to know all the myriad ways that humans spend their time.

Besides, much like unplanned travel you tend to stumble across fascinating tidbits you would never think to ask.

On the other hand about half the question/answers here have gone afield from "[Y]our field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer."

"What do people ask regularly that you like to bitch about?" is a less interesting question.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:50 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why are kids so lazy/entitled/etc these days?
posted by Groundhog Week at 10:51 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"When is your movie coming out?"
posted by vibrotronica at 10:51 AM on April 14, 2013


"Aren't you a bit short for a storm trooper?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:53 AM on April 14, 2013 [17 favorites]


Could you please stop masturbating, your honor?
posted by dr_dank at 10:54 AM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


When I tell people I have an electric violin, like half of them instantly say: "Does it have a whammy bar?" I have no idea why I hate this question so much. For the record, it doesn't have a goddamn whammy bar, you can make that noise on a regular acoustic violin with clever bowing tricks.
I also dislike the related question, "Do you know why Stradavarius violins sound so good?" followed by repeating that story about how it's the mysterious varnish, yadda yadda yadda. Violinists already know that famous (and kinda bullshit) story about the most famous violins in the world; nobody's going to impress us with Strad factoids. It's like asking somebody who studies Impressionist painters: "Did you know Van Gogh cut off his own ear?"
posted by Nibbly Fang at 10:56 AM on April 14, 2013


"Isn't all that on computers now?"
posted by marxchivist at 10:57 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"can you make the web site look more like [native app that does fancy flippy things and displays only a tiny bit of read-only data at a time]?"
posted by davejay at 10:58 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the ignominious:
"Do you bribe government officials?"

From clients:
"Your work, will it impact this year's sales?"
posted by ruelle at 11:00 AM on April 14, 2013


"Boat shoes or clogs?"
posted by P.o.B. at 11:01 AM on April 14, 2013


That's right! They're on the fucking shelves because that's where you store the fucking things!

Also, you might be interested in some of our diddling things, which are over here on the diddling shelf. And in the next room we've got our spanking shelf...
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:02 AM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Can you tell me a joke right here at the table where it definitely won't work the way it does onstage?"
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:04 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


> "On the other hand about half the question/answers here have gone afield from '[Y]our field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer.'"

Well, sure, but I don't actually dread those questions.
posted by kyrademon at 11:06 AM on April 14, 2013


"Ooohhh....so does a conductor actually do anything, or are you just up there keeping time?"
posted by LooseFilter at 11:13 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"What does your research have to do with the real world?"

I'm a pure mathematician, too. I sort of privately hate this question, but I have a boilerplate answer that I use when asked (it is my Dreaded Question, also). It's a fairly obvious answer, and I imagine you've said something similar, probably even more times than I have, but:

"In order to answer this question, it's important to understand what's meant by 'the real world'. Rather than dig into metaphysical issues, it might be easier to clarify your question with a sort of Turing test: in other words, we don't care what 'the real world' means, we just need a list of pursuits with the property that, if you met someone engaged in those pursuits, you wouldn't be prompted to ask what those pursuits have to do with the real world."

The answers are very broad, but almost always reveal that either the person thinks that something is real only if it involves physical realities, even if they are almost as arcane and off-limits to empirical study (to say nothing of direct experience) as anything in math, or they think that something is real only if someone can get rich doing it, or, most typically, they haven't thought about their question carefully, which can be illustrated by naming all sorts of "surrogate activities" in which people engage for the sheer joy and lulz (sometimes getting paid), quite apart from actual practical survival-concerns.

"Do you ask this question of artists? Artists with day jobs? What about professional sports connects it to the real world more than pure mathematics? Are you aware that many of the social forces governing our lives in very practical ways are extremely abstract, and could be otherwise? It at least seems possible that the abstractions create realities, and in math, we inhabit realities created by abstractions, just like lawyers and engineers do. These seem arcane, but lawyers also inhabit realities that seem arcane and weird to me because they arise from abstractions with which I am mostly unfamiliar. I think that what you actually mean by your question is: why do you inhabit a part of the real world that is less familiar than, uh, more familiar ones? When phrased that way, we see that your question is completely dependent on with which parts of the world the asker is familiar. Which set of familiar governing abstractions in your life is your favourite? One of my favourites is math."

I don't give this slightly confrontational answer if the person posing the question is involved in the production of food or the construction of shelter, but that's about the extent of the limitations. If, as last time, my interlocutor is the RV salesperson next to me on a flight, I am totally comfortable with my answer.

[I give this answer to students routinely. They just kind of have to deal with me.]

I sometimes also comment that sometimes I think of math as actually being a sub-branch of psychology -- spatiostructuralintuitiontrospectionology -- where we try to make precise our own intuitions about stuff, but it depends on the type of person asking. If it's the "You got a PhD in math, so why aren't you working for Google/an investment bank?" version of the question, I defer to stereotype and walk away unexpectedly, as mathematicians are supposedly wont to do.
posted by kengraham at 11:15 AM on April 14, 2013 [28 favorites]


"What are the real numbers?"
posted by Elementary Penguin at 11:21 AM on April 14, 2013


"Where is the internet located?"

littlesq, you should totally point them in the direction of Tubes, which answers that question in fairly decisive fashion.

As for me, I have to agree that it's the dreaded "Isn't everything online already--what do we need libraries for?" because a) totally wrong and b) very complicated to unpack and c) moderately insulting.
posted by librarylis at 11:22 AM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


When I was a bookseller... "Where's your copy machine?"
posted by drezdn at 11:35 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Is that thing on?"

"Do your arms get tired?"

I'm a location sound mixer.

Answers: yes, it's on and yes, they do.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 11:38 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I started saying "Greek and Latin" or "history" instead of "Classics" because "Classics" attracts such questions as "What instruments do you play?" To be fair, I've always hated Classics with a capital C as a name for that field of study anyway; it's incredibly elitist, among other things.
posted by BibiRose at 11:39 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Does it have a whammy bar?"

See, this is the sort of interesting sidelight you get when you ask people about their professions.

What the hell is a whammy bar?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:40 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"You write apps?", "Why are you working here?"
posted by cmdnc0 at 11:41 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"You have to go to school to be a librarian?" (usually when I explain I don't have an MLS).
posted by Calzephyr at 11:41 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have to say that my favorite student out of the thousands I've taught (high school English, mostly) is the one who never stopped asking questions. I wish they were all like that. I've never met a question I didn't like (well, maybe in a few job interviews...).
posted by kozad at 11:41 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What kind of music do you write?"
posted by daisystomper at 11:41 AM on April 14, 2013


> "On the other hand about half the question/answers here have gone afield from '[Y]our field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer.'"
Well, sure, but I don't actually dread those questions.

I kinda dread the second type. Simple questions that would require me to summarize a vast amount of arcana to properly answer.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:43 AM on April 14, 2013


You know, I don't dread the questions anymore, I dread the statements, and the one I hate the most is "I miss card catalogs." I know. Everyone misses the card catalog. But none of you want to maintain one, do you?
posted by clavicle at 11:47 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


My old least favourite question used to be: "so how's the PhD going?" My new least favourite question is: "so what are you going to do when your contract finishes?"
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:50 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"So I own this {stock/bond/mutual fund/annuity/IRA}, and it went {up/down}, what should I do?"
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 11:51 AM on April 14, 2013


"Will you identify my fossil for me?"
"Sorry, it's actually not a fossil, just a rock that has weathered into a lumpy shape"
"(Sad sad puppy dog eyes)"
posted by girl scientist at 11:52 AM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"That doesn't pay very much, does it?"
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 11:54 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah, how could I forget: "I found a meteorite! Will you look at it for me?"

Luckily, I have a very patient geologist friend to send these people to.
posted by BrashTech at 11:58 AM on April 14, 2013



delfin: ""Have you ever seen a grown man naked?""

What the heck do you do delfin?
posted by Mitheral at 6:26 PM on April 14 [+] [!]


My guess is he's a very boyish-looking person who interviews airline pilots.
posted by Decani at 11:59 AM on April 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Mr. Bad Example: "Have you heard of this idea that Shakespeare didn't really write all those plays?"
A friend of mine was coming through Canadian customs recently. The border guard asked what she did for a living. She said she was an Assistant Professor of English. The border guard said, "Wow! Is that an actual job? Can you actually be a Professor of English?" She said, "yes." He asked, so what do you specialise in? She said, "Shakespeare." The border guard opened his mouth, and she fully expected the follow up question to be along the lines of the above. (Or, worse, "who's Shakespeare?")

His actual follow-up question was, "Oh! Then you're the perfect person to tell me. Why haven't I seen a decent production of Julius Caesar since the early '80s? Why did it get so hard to stage that play all of a sudden?"
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:59 AM on April 14, 2013 [50 favorites]


Are you ever sexually aroused while performing autopsies?
posted by Renoroc at 12:03 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What's a system administrator, anyway?"

I finally resorted to answering by analogy: A sysadmin is to computer systems as an auto mechanic is to cars - I don't build them, but I keep them running optimally.

People seem to like that answer, or at least it confuses them enough to stop asking questions.
posted by murphy slaw at 12:03 PM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?"
"Do you want the long answer or the short answer?"
"The short answer."
"Okay, there's no difference."
"Oh, what's the long answer?"
The I go on for about five or ten minutes about the potential differences in innate tone, bridge setup, strings etc. that differentiate violins and fiddles until they lose interest.
posted by jabah at 12:07 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's right! They're on the fucking shelves because that's where you store the fucking things!

Also, you might be interested in some of our diddling things, which are over here on the diddling shelf. And in the next room we've got our spanking shelf...


You are both more correct than you could possibly know.
posted by Jilder at 12:07 PM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not so much a question but, "Wow, I wish I got to play with graphics all day, it looks like fun!" usually said to me while I'm on the 11th edit of a thing that requires eight people to sign off, only four of which will answer my e-mails and phone calls, and which is due the next morning or we lose our chance at a million-dollar job.

When I was an editor, "Can't people just use spellcheck now?" was always a fun one. That and "Will you edit my novel?" mostly because not only did they not want to pay me, but they also actually wanted me to rewrite, submit, and market their novel, but put their name on it. I think about that whenever I feel sad about not being an editor anymore.
posted by emjaybee at 12:08 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?"

I've always been under the impression that the answer is "the Mason-Dixon Line".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:09 PM on April 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


Renoroc: Are you ever sexually aroused while performing autopsies?
"No. But I think you would absolutely love this film with Molly Parker in it. Let me give you the details ..."
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:10 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Where's my flying car?"
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:10 PM on April 14, 2013


I've always been under the impression that the answer is "the Mason-Dixon Line".

When I worked at a music database company, I remember being told that it had something to do with the direction of the bow.
posted by jonmc at 12:13 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


What the hell is a whammy bar?

Whammy bar.
posted by soundguy99 at 12:14 PM on April 14, 2013


"If we are descended from monkeys, then how come there are still monkeys?"

"If climate change is caused by people, then how come there were ice ages?"
posted by hydropsyche at 12:18 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Can you do it pro bono?"
posted by bswinburn at 12:31 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


It used to be, "Wow, that's beautiful, what kind of camera do you use?"

But I stopped getting angry about that one and now just say, "whichever one is right for the job."

Now it's, "Did you Photoshop that?"
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:40 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What do people ask regularly that you like to bitch about?" is a less interesting question.

Honestly, it's not that so much the fact that they're asking as the fact that most people really don't care about the context or the answers-- they're asking it rhetorically to prove their statement to themselves, even though the root of the questions does fit the original:

'[Y]our field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer.'"

I mean, the act of creating enormous monuments IS pretty incredible and wonderful, and the introduction of the internet HAS changed libraries and information sciences in kind of cool and exciting ways. We really don't have all the answers yet about how or why civilizations work (except, obviously, we're not the sandbox for aliens) or what libraries will look like in 15 years, but yeah, hard to answer.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:41 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"can you fix my printer"
posted by Ad hominem at 12:42 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"How do I appear first in Google search results?"
posted by ardgedee at 12:45 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What do geographers do?"
posted by mollweide

Why do we need cartographers when we have Google maps?
posted by desjardins


Don't forget: So, like, you know all the capitals?
posted by troika at 12:50 PM on April 14, 2013


"Will you tell me all about the Whoopie combo?
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:51 PM on April 14, 2013


Tell Me No Lies: ""Does it have a whammy bar?"

See, this is the sort of interesting sidelight you get when you ask people about their professions.

What the hell is a whammy bar?
"

A whammy bar is a a mechanical system for pitch bending and vibrato. Very useful on a fretted guitar for producing smooth tone shifts. And for lazy guitarists wanting vibrato in a pinch. I'm curious as to which bowing technique Nibbly Fang uses to reproduce this, because I'm at a loss.
posted by pwnguin at 12:52 PM on April 14, 2013


"Why do you like My Little Pony?" Kind of tired explaining that I'm not a pedophile.
posted by SPrintF at 1:01 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Won't translators soon be obsolete, what with Google Translate and all?"
posted by littleorangesarenotapples at 1:06 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


So what IS biophysics?
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 1:07 PM on April 14, 2013


"So can you sing that Queen of the Night thing?"

(No. I am a mezzo.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:07 PM on April 14, 2013


"So what kind of job can my son/daughter get with a major in [liberal arts field], anyway?"

I mean, god knows it's a legitimate concern being expressed there, but trying to unpack and sort through all the embedded assumptions about the purpose of higher ed, and the misconceptions about the nature and purpose of a liberal arts education, can just get exhausting. Especially because in some cases what's *really* being said is "I think this whole thing is a huge waste of time and money. Prove me wrong."
posted by Kat Allison at 1:16 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Can you work this weekend?" Kind of obvious but true.
posted by fungible at 1:20 PM on April 14, 2013


"So you work on the bird flu/swine flu/anthrax/bioweapons?"
posted by Slackermagee at 1:24 PM on April 14, 2013


"How much for A shirt?"

(I work for a screen print /embroidery company)
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:27 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


randomkeystrike: ""How much for A shirt?"

Obvs they mean "T shirt".

posted by chavenet at 1:44 PM on April 14, 2013


"Why is my computer so slow?"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 1:44 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What do you do?" because a)i'm unemployed and b)i'm unskilled manual labour, although i've trained as many things and done them volunteer i've never got work in them. Well, i am unskilled manual labour. What'm i supposed to call it? Their eyes always look strange when i say it though...
posted by maiamaia at 1:45 PM on April 14, 2013


"Am I crazy?"
posted by meehawl at 1:49 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Their eyes always look strange when i say it though...

The haunting look of someone still holding onto old class prejudices/assumptions?
posted by Slackermagee at 1:50 PM on April 14, 2013


"What do you do?" because a)i'm unemployed

At least it's not the dread "Don't you get bored?"
posted by dng at 1:52 PM on April 14, 2013


"Does it have a whammy bar?"

"no, whammy bars throw the tuning off"
posted by pyramid termite at 1:53 PM on April 14, 2013


I'm retired, on disability. The question I dread is "What do you do for a living?"
posted by _paegan_ at 1:54 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, have you ever killed anyone? Invariably from children. This makes me sad.
posted by dangerousdan at 1:59 PM on April 14, 2013


"Did you become a teacher because of all that summer vacation?"
posted by Peach at 2:02 PM on April 14, 2013


Also, "Oh, you were a calligrapher? Can you letter some place tags for me?"
posted by Peach at 2:03 PM on April 14, 2013


This thread has left me with an insatiable desire to know what cartographers do. I feel so guilty.
posted by meese at 2:03 PM on April 14, 2013


Are you ever sexually aroused while performing autopsies?
posted by Renoroc at 2:03 PM on April 14 [+] [!]


I only just now got your username!
posted by triggerfinger at 2:04 PM on April 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


There's a weird self-consciousness that people in the arts have about explaining their success. You will never meet a neurosurgeon who's reluctant to tell someone how one becomes a neurosurgeon or what a neurosurgeon does.

Possibly because there's a lot more of a concrete nature to defining "success" for a neurosurgeon: you cut a guy's head open, repair a nerve/organ/whatever, and the weird thing that the person was doing, they stop doing. As a neurosurgeon, you also know definitively that "If I do A, then B will happen and that will lead to C".

With the arts, though, it's a bit more of a crapshoot - "if I do A, then my painting/song/poem will look/sound like B, and....maybe that will lead to C if someone likes it, or it will lead to D or E or Q or fnord depending on tastes of the public or budget or funding or supernatural whim." It's hard to explain how to be a successful artist when so much of what makes for "success" is due to sheer luck and to other people's whimsy.

--

For my own self -

as a stage manager:
"So what is that?"

As a literary manager:
"Can you read my script?"

For either theater thing:
"So, have you worked on Broadway?"

For my day job:
"What do you do?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:23 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What's the meaning of Stonehenge?"
posted by chela at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2013


"What's the meaning of Stonehenge?"

A reason to go to south Wiltshire?
posted by ambrosen at 2:34 PM on April 14, 2013


"How do you get them wind turbines of yours to stay at the same speed when the wind picks up?"
posted by scruss at 2:38 PM on April 14, 2013


In casual conversation? Definitely "What's your comic/book about?"

Give one line elevator pitch then immediately change the topic. I usually switch to shoes. People like talking about shoes.
posted by The Whelk at 2:41 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Physics? You mean ... like Ex-Lax?
posted by Twang at 2:45 PM on April 14, 2013


Seriously, two weeks? What about one week? Can you do it in one week?
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 2:49 PM on April 14, 2013


> "Physics? You mean ... like Ex-Lax?"

... Do you get a lot of questions from peculiarly laxative-savvy time-travelers from the 18th century who think "physic" still means "medicine"? Or am I missing something there?
posted by kyrademon at 2:51 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


You're a psychologist?

Are you analyzing me right now?
-OR-
Can you tell me what's wrong with my [parent/spouse/sibling/child]? HA HA!
-OR-
Can you figure out what my problem is? HA HA!
-OR-
Are you experimenting on us right now? HA HA!

Telling people that you are an experimental cognitive psychologist with a background in psycholinguistics will get you the blankest stares imaginable. I prefer to just answer "yes" to one of the questions above.
posted by Palquito at 3:00 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"When you decided to write for teenagers, how did you dumb down your books?"

"Would you mind reading my book and passing it on to your agent?"

"Did you hear about that sixteen year old who self-published her book and got a seven figure book deal?"

"Are you on youtube? I've heard that's where all the teenagers are nowadays."

"But you didn't really have to work that hard to get your book published, right?" (This, from my mother, of all people)

"Why's it take so long for your book to come out?"

Et cetera et cetera.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:03 PM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


The question I dread: "so, do you know $powerful_person_above_me_who_thinks_I_am_a_stupid_asshole?"
posted by bukvich at 3:06 PM on April 14, 2013


Their eyes always look strange when i say it though...

The haunting look of someone still holding onto old class prejudices/assumptions?


What makes you think they're not current class prejudices?
posted by biffa at 3:19 PM on April 14, 2013


“I worked really hard, can't I just have an A?”
posted by erniepan at 3:19 PM on April 14, 2013


"You guys look like you're from the university, are you geologists?

Nah, we're working on an archaeological dig up the road.

Really? I have some rocks in my car that I think are fossilized dinosaur poop in my car, wanna see them?"

Ok, I lied, that was probably my favorite question ever. I mean, who doesn't want to see fossilized dinosaur poop? And sorry, lady, I'm no expert, but honestly those are probably just rocks that look like poop.
posted by TungstenChef at 3:36 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


On mentioning that I'm an archaeologist, "So what's your favorite dinosaur?"

"...triceratops. But actually..."

My professor mentioned this in my first archaeology class ever joked about this and within less than a year, I realized it was not entirely a joke.

Slightly more seriously, answering specifics of what I'm actually trying to figure out without being incredibly boring or so general that it's inaccurate is ridiculously hard.
posted by raeka at 3:37 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really we should just open any conversation by asking people what their favorite dinosau is
posted by The Whelk at 3:46 PM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


raeka, I presume it's people confusing archaeologist and paleontologist, but I'm going to pretend that they're actually confusing you with an archæopteryx.
posted by ambrosen at 3:47 PM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


"What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?"

"A violin has never had beer spilled on it..."

As for me - I dread being asked if I think an artist's mural/mosaic/drumming circle is good enough to get the funding (I don't make the decisions!)
posted by sconbie at 3:52 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it sucks that more people can't tell the difference between an archæopteryx and a paleontopteryx.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 4:13 PM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


(Though anyway nowadays it's considered less sexist to refer to everyone as archaeopters or paleontopters regardless of their gender.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 4:15 PM on April 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


I dread this question because sometimes I wish I was that kind of engineer. Choo choo!
posted by muddgirl at 4:39 PM on April 14 [2 favorites +] [!]

I don't dread that question because, you know, I do drive trains.

The one I hate is any variation on "Why did you need to train for so long? I mean, it's got to be easy, right? It's not like you have to steer or anything."
posted by Decani at 9:36 AM on April 14 [12 favorites +] [!]


I don't drive trains but I work as a civil engineer for the the railroad, so invariably when I meet a regional VP and say I am an engineer, their immediate response is "Great! Our region could use talented engineers, we need to run those trains!" And then I explain that "no, I am a civil engineer, I work on the railroad infrastructure." And then comes the inevitable disappointed look, "oh... well, good luck with that." Sigh...
posted by Vindaloo at 4:32 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Do you hate men?"
posted by Mistress at 4:54 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Would you draw me?"

Narrative Priorities > In casual conversation? Definitely "What's your comic/book about?"

I answer that with "It's about a robot lady who's dragged outside of reality by her ex-boyfriend. She's got to pull herself together across four parallel realities before a hive-mind can take over the planet."

I spent half a day on those two sentences. They've been well worth it, both in casual conversation and when sitting behind a table at a convention trying to sell it to strangers. If people want to know more, I can ad-lib about the crazy formal elements, the use of color to tell the story, what I'm trying to say about the world with it, blah blah blah - but if those two sentences are all someone wants to know, I'll gladly stop then and there.

I strongly recommend spending a day working out something like this for your own story. It's useful in so many ways.
posted by egypturnash at 4:58 PM on April 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden, or do they write them down for you?"
posted by RogerB at 5:06 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


"So what, exactly, do you actually do?"
posted by elwoodwiles at 5:33 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Why can't they make a camera that takes a picture of what I see?"

Because your eyes are actually pretty shitty cameras, albeit with pretty good dynamic range. Without the post-processing of your brain, they ain't shit. And without a series of images in context, it's called "a glimpse", and we all know that ain't much, either.

TL;DR: you imagine a lot better than you see.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:43 PM on April 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


"What do you think of the war in Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Somalia/Yemen ....?"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:54 PM on April 14, 2013


I'm an attorney. The question I dread is any variation on "Can you help me get a job?" Especially when the answer is so often "No, and you should never have gone to law school in the first place. You are completely screwed and should give up and switch careers. Sorry about the six figure debt and three wasted years."
posted by jedicus at 6:13 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


People don't have many questions about the medical device industry, which gives me a refreshing amount of space to explain my job. But, I used to work at an outdoor history museum in Detroit, which bred the following:

"Do you live here?"

"Are these cars (Model Ts) real?"

"Are you Henry Ford?"

And the answers:

1. No.

2. Yes in the sense that you are riding in a tangible object and that these automobiles were produced by the Ford Motor Company prior to 1927 [or possibly in 2003 for Ford's 100 year anniversary but that's part of my spiel that comes later] and contain all authentic working parts. Basically, these are not the same thing you "drive" at Six Flags.

3. No, I'm Turkey Glue. Also, we do not do first-person interpretation in which I play an historical character, I'm just here to tell you the history of the building. But I'm flattered by the comparison I think.

(I wasn't that much of a jerk most of the time, but I gave variations of #2 and did use my name in reply to the Henry question.)
posted by Turkey Glue at 6:31 PM on April 14, 2013


I disagree with the complaint about "what happened before the big bang?" I think it's a wonderful question, and what's more, I think Krauss gives a wonderful answer for it there. Curiosity is a beautiful thing.

The only questions I dislike are ones that indicate the asker thinks they know the answer ahead of time; that is, questions that are "can I tell you" instead of "how does this work".

In other words, please don't tell me about your personal theory of everything, but feel free to ask about the current state of research in string theory. Just do me the favor of not assuming string theory is dead, especially when I've just told you what I do for a living.
posted by nat at 6:34 PM on April 14, 2013


"Oh, you're a lawyer? Could you help me with this speeding ticket I got other day? I only had one drink, and I was going 60 in a 40 zone and..."
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:50 PM on April 14, 2013


Are you ever sexually aroused while performing autopsies?

What the fucking fuck? Who are these people that would ask this?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:53 PM on April 14, 2013


Right?! I thought everyone got turned on by that, no need to ask.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:59 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Are you ever sexually aroused while performing autopsies?
What the fucking fuck? Who are these people that would ask this?


English does have a word for people who are sexually aroused by death, so it's probably less rare than you think. Or hope.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:09 PM on April 14, 2013


English does have a word for people who are sexually aroused by death, so it's probably less rare than you think. Or hope.

Yes, I'm aware.

My disbelief comes from how horrendously impolite it is to ask people what their sexual preferences are in casual small talk, as well as asking them whether their sexual preferences fall within a fairly strong societal taboo, and implying that they are not only a possible sexual devient, but unprofessional to boot.

I SAID 'GOOD DAY', SIR.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:15 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now I'm trying to come up with a social context in which it's perfectly okay to ask someone if they're into necrophilia. I'm not there yet, but alcohol is definitely involved.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:20 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would just smile and say 'Of course. Why do you think I chose this profession?'.
posted by unSane at 7:20 PM on April 14, 2013


Exactly, give them a deadpan look and say "Yep."
posted by P.o.B. at 7:23 PM on April 14, 2013


Why did your child die? How can you go on with your life?
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 7:42 PM on April 14, 2013


I should probably add to my first post above ("How do you become a screenwriter") that the answer is "Write screenplays" (the plural is important!), which elminates 99.5% of the people who ask the question.
posted by unSane at 7:57 PM on April 14, 2013


Oh, also: "Did you draw that?" (even the hubs says that from time to time!) O
posted by Calzephyr at 8:04 PM on April 14, 2013


"You're a bouncer? How many people did you beat up?"

More than I should have. Because if I did I wasn't doing my job. As a bouncer it's my job to stop fights. If a fight ever got out of hand, and they did, I fucked up. Of course it's not possible to cool down everyone who is drunk at a bar. And as a "bouncer" you are a target for every drunk in the world. I've had partners who were even bigger or meaner than me. One guy was Zack, he was an ex-Marine. The other guy was Q. Just Q. He was a cop on disability.

I remember Q bringing a guy into the back of the bar and pushing him into the wall so hard that he left an imprint like Wile E Coyote in the drywall.

He was not a good bouncer. He caused trouble.

We had a young football player named Drew in the bar as a bouncer once. I liked him. But not his style. When a big guy got out of hand I had him in a choke hold on the bar. Drew hit him in the head with a Heineken bottle. All I heard was clink. The bottle didn't break.

That started a war on the block. Long story short, I lost a sneaker. I got pounded in the head several times while dragging two guys out, one under each arm.

We all ended up at St. Vincent's hospital. And across from me were three guys that wanted to kill me. In the ER.

Why? The bottle fractured their friend's eye.

Never fight. Never fight. If you fight you lose.
posted by Splunge at 8:09 PM on April 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


"You work on metabolism? Can you give me diet advice?"

Yes! If you are a microbe
posted by en forme de poire at 8:43 PM on April 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


Most hated response to me saying what my job is: "Must be great to sit around and read books all day." Most hated question in response: "So what book should I read?"

Most hated question at my job: "So I have this assignment? which is due tomorrow? and I haven't done anything at all? and I've never been in a library before? can you help me?", tied equally with "So where's your X section?" where X is any subject, preferably a very broad topic which has many aspects or can be applied to many other topics, eg psychology.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:53 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Until this moment I didn't realize there where so many Library workers here, many with variations on my least favorite questions. Usually after I tell people I work in a library, I don't get THE QUESTION, instead I get introduced to someone else as a librarian, and have to explain that, no, I'm not, and follow through with, yes librarians have an advanced degree etc...
Though Athanassiel has the questions I get most often and are most frustrating. Yes, I would love to help you, however we are only open 8 - 12 hours a day and you clearly need more help than that.
However, today I got my least favorite, by a homeless man who I had asked to leave the library because, we have stupid rules about sleeping in the library. Why did he have to leave? Because I have to back up my staff, despite the rule being stupid and arbitrary. I never feel lower than when I have to kick someone who is already down. Some days I hate my job.
posted by evilDoug at 9:59 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Isn't that depressing?"

On the days when it's been less depressing and more of an honor, I'm happy to respond that my career is incredibly rewarding. But yeah, sometimes it is depressing, and on those days it's hard to come up with anything more than a shrug and, "Sometimes." Kinda runs the conversation off a cliff.
posted by vytae at 11:18 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Can't anybody teach English?"
posted by bardic at 12:24 AM on April 15, 2013


I don't drive trains but I work as a civil engineer for the the railroad, so invariably when I meet a regional VP and say I am an engineer, their immediate response is "Great! Our region could use talented engineers, we need to run those trains!" And then I explain that "no, I am a civil engineer, I work on the railroad infrastructure." And then comes the inevitable disappointed look, "oh... well, good luck with that." Sigh...
posted by Vindaloo at 12:32 AM on April 15


It seems very odd to us Brit train drivers that Americans call us "engineers". We're not engineers. We're drivers. Very peculiar.
posted by Decani at 12:38 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article should have been an AskMe question. Lots of great stuff here!
posted by Harald74 at 1:00 AM on April 15, 2013


I am a robotics engineer.

"When is the robot apocalypse?"

"Are you building your own robot army? You're going to take over the world, aren't you?"

"Shouldn't we just implement the Three Laws of Robotics on everything?"

I tell people that part of why I love my job is because I'm making science fiction real. But sometimes people take that a little too far in their perceived understanding of what my job entails.
posted by olinerd at 1:30 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"What's Africa like?"

If I'm in a good mood, I'll explain that I have only ever lived in one country in Africa, and as a whole it's an incredibly diverse place, but if they'd like me to tell them more about the little piece of West Africa I live in and the other bits I've visited, I'd be thrilled to.

If I'm in a bad mood, and I want to indicate it's not a line of conversation I'm interested in pursuing, I'll just say, "Hot."

If I'm in a REALLY bad mood, and I want to both shut them up AND make them feel bad for asking a question that would be obviously unanswerable if they'd thought outside their own preconceptions for three seconds, I'll say, "Big."
posted by solotoro at 7:50 AM on April 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think they know what "belies" means. Or I'm just having a tough time understanding what "belies a deep misunderstanding" means in this context.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:59 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The best summary for my prior job was "red-tape machine." I got asked dreaded questions enough that I ended up coming with some decent, succinct answers.

"Why does this permit cost so much?"
"Because there is a lot of information to review and verify. That's the price of living in [coastal] California."

"Why can't I build that? This is my property!"
"Yes, but there are rules that have been agreed upon by others, and it's my job to administer those evenly and fairly for everyone. Welcome to California."

I'm looking forward to questions about my current job. I expect something like "why does it take me so long to get to [work/ that part of town]," and "can you get the pot holes fixed on [that road]?" I also expect "why was that road closed so long? I saw ten guys just standing around!"
posted by filthy light thief at 8:44 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"so, you're going to cure cancer then?"

Not because it's hard to answer exactly, but I'm never sure whether they're asking for a better description of what I actually do, actually curious why there is still no "cure" for cancer, or just making small talk and that's the first thing that comes to mind.

Often closely followed by, "so you're really smart huh?"

If anyone knows a non-awkward answer to that (the truthful answer is reasonably so, but not even close to genius level), let me know...
posted by randomnity at 9:15 AM on April 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Often closely followed by, "so you're really smart huh?"

If anyone knows a non-awkward answer to that (the truthful answer is reasonably so, but not even close to genius level), let me know.


Not if you ask my daughter.
posted by shothotbot at 9:40 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


If anyone knows a non-awkward answer to that (the truthful answer is reasonably so, but not even close to genius level), let me know...

I'm at roughly the same spot. My answer is always "That's what people tell me."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:34 AM on April 15, 2013


My answer is self-deprecating. "Ha, maybe I'm smart in some things, but I can't even make mac n' cheese without burning it."
posted by desjardins at 11:34 AM on April 15, 2013


the questions i dread are the ones that i hear again and again and again. i'm an architect so i get a lot of "have you read The Fountainhead?" "who/what is your favorite architect/building?" or just a general comment of "i always wanted to be an architect but it involved too much math."
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 4:52 PM on April 15, 2013


"Why are there so few women in IT?" and its brother "Doesn't the gender imbalance work to your advantage?"
posted by thatdawnperson at 6:20 PM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


How much does it cost to build a website?
posted by moonbiter at 7:31 PM on April 15, 2013


When I was in university and people discovered that my major was psychology: "You're analyzing me right now, aren't you?"

And when they discovered my second major was art: "Oh, so you are going into art therapy then, aren't you?"
posted by moonbiter at 7:39 PM on April 15, 2013


Often closely followed by, "so you're really smart huh?"

"On the other hand, I forget to eat pretty regularly. So, you know. Kind of a matter of perspective if you ask my wife..." Followed by a chuckle and a shrug. Alternately, "Well, I do cure cancer, but I can't figure out how to change my oil, so..."

I think a lot of people assume that working in highly technical fields means that you're inherently "above" the plebes. I think that's where a lot of chip-on-the-shoulder science backlash really comes from, too -- the believe that "those eggheads think they're better."

An honest response is all about conveying that you're good at what you do because you've put a lot of focused time into it, and you work with other people who do the same. Most everyone has areas of deep knowledge and expertise, about different kinds of things.
posted by verb at 7:55 AM on April 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


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