Conversation Killer

Does this ever happen to you?  I was at a meeting recently and I was walking around one of those infernal mixer type deals, that they always have at these things, chatting with people.  And for the most part, that was all fine, and I’m usually quite comfortable with the random chit chat and walking up to complete strangers and starting a conversation about projects, or some other mutually interesting topic.

But then I had one of those weird socially awkward moments. I walked up to a good friend (a man), who was standing with a big group of men, senior in my field, that I had not previously been introduced to. My friend was lovely, and he introduced me to all the other men in the group one by one.  Then, all the group conversation totally stopped DEAD. I felt incredibly awkward- it was as if I didn’t know the secret handshake or the men had to use some other language to deal with me. I suppose this incident sticks out in my head because I was the only woman in the group, and junior in the field.

When I think about this incident though, I realize that it isn’t all that rare in my existence. I have a few male colleagues who, when we are together in a ratio of men:women >1, converse amongst themselves. I somehow just can’t seem to get my foot through the door and open up the conversation. The thing that always kind of shocks me when this stuff happens, is that I am one of the more outgoing and socially comfortable people that I know  (not to mention just plain loud– a couple of you regular readers out there who know me have SEEN me in action). I’m left trying to figure out why this happens: Is it specific to the personalities involved? Is it a gender thing- do men in a large group related differently to each other than the do to a woman in the group? Is it a junior career stage thing- that the senior guys talk around your head as though you are not really to be reckoned with? Is it a little of all of that?

This kind of thing might seem like a little, unimportant thing  to you, but I spend, probably 95% of my professional existence in groups where I am the only woman (or one of a very small handful), and it is awful that science conversation comes to a dead halt for me in these situations.

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21 thoughts on “Conversation Killer

  1. or perhaps the subject of their conversation prior to your arrival was one that they feel is not proper in mixed company and their calcified brains have trouble clicking over onto what they consider socially acceptable topics..

  2. Maybe they were helping one of their number get psyched for his first routine prostate exam?

    (When I was in chemistry, my grad advisor joked that a prerequisite for membership in the National Academy of Sciences was an enlarged prostate. At that point, he had more female grad students than male; he quickly noticed that we weren’t guffawing and added something along the lines of, “but that’s going to change!”)

  3. Dr. Free-Ride- Probably. Here is how I envision that playing out…. the women will tell each other birthing stories,… and the men will talk about their prostates… and we’ll sit on separate sides of the room… just like in high school. 😉

  4. Ah, but most women have no problem telling birthing stories in mixed company!

    Can you ask your friend what he thinks? He should be able to tell you if they were just telling raunchy jokes or something.

    I’ve had this happen to me more at IT-centric events than at science-centric events. As best as I can tell, sometimes its rude jokes and sometimes it is that the men don’t think I could possibly be interested in a conversation about database software.

  5. This happens to me too (I am a young male PI). I chalk it up to poor social skills….most likely the inability to gracefully change subjects.

  6. OMG yes… I do realise that the presence of my ovaries is the biggest handicap I have, but I managed to get a PhD and a myriad of awards, I’m sure I can carry on a conversation regarding the weather.

    Freaking men.

  7. Or maybe…..they know you are the blogger known as drdrA and were petrified they’d become Blog Fodder of the worst kind? …oops.

  8. I’m confused. You say you are sociable, so they all got quiet, you couldn’t get them started on some other conversation? I’ve had this happen to me a few times, and even heard a bit of the previous converation. It’s usually not raunchy. It’s just usually incredibly boring. And I don’t know what it is, but it seems like guys assume women to be more sociable. And so when I end up in a group like that, it’s like all the pressure of conversation suddenly falls on my shoulders. As in they think I have something better to say than what they were talking about before. I may be totally off base, I wasn’t there so the mood shift and all the details aren’t available. I’m not trying to defend anyone’s behavior, I’m just not sure with the information given that it’s obvious what’s going on here.

  9. This happened to me once in our department’s coffee hour when I was a new assistant prof … and they really were talking about their prostates!

  10. FrauTech- For some reason it totally caught me by surprise, and perhaps I wasn’t as ready with the next topic as I usually am.

    El Picador- Based on who was in the crowd, I sincerely doubt it.

    Anon- I can have a conversation about the prostate just as good as the average guy.

  11. Probably talking about sport.

    They fell silent because their minds were crashed by a common masculine think-loop of the following form;

    ALERT! A woman has entered who may not like sport so I cannot talk sport because it might bore her and because she might suspect that her male colleagues spend more time talking sport than science despite getting all the promotions … or worse still… the woman knows more about sport than me and that might make me look foolish talking about sport so I must stop talking about sport and talk about something else… but now everyone else has stopped talking and there is an uncomfortable silence and someone needs to break it and the pressure is mounting and I can’t think of anything accept “How about them Cards?” [blue screen of death]

  12. Haha, that is funny! but awkward (and yes, I have occasionally encountered this too, despite being a high grade blatherer as you know). However, there might be a kernel of usefulness in the comment from DSKS. No matter what they were talking about, you can usually get any group of guys to talk about sports. So, “how ’bout ….(fill in the blank with current sports trivia opinion poll question – Brett Favre’s comeback, Mike Holmgren as the new Brown’s President, Michael Oher, etc) can be useful if a bit hackneyed….

    But hey, guess what? Pretty soon they’ll be retired and we’ll be the “senior” colleagues.

  13. DSKS, is there an initiation sequence set off by teh ovaries to auto-stop blithering males after 10 minutes of spew? The mute button must be too easy because it doesn’t work when pushed by ovaries. There has to be some convoluted fifty step termination sequence and code words (like menstruation and pregnancy) that leads to blue screen.

    ALERT! Blowhard won’t shut up. (my left ovary hits *mute*…. nothin….my right ovary hits *mute* again …. ahhh!….here’s where I need help)

  14. In my experience as a male researcher, there are often conversations that would be inappropriate for a female be they researcher or otherwise to join. Perhaps, though in your situation you walked in on the end of a conversation, or they expected you to ask them a question to ignite a new convo. Don’t start man-bashing, to be honest with you you probably don’t really want to join a conversation that men are having. It’s usually either football or cars, not princesses and ponies jks 😉

  15. Probably just cluelessness and awkwardness on their parts. I’ve been part of conversation circles where a new scientist joins the group and the social chi of the circle is completely thrown out of whack and everyone clams up. That’s when I get all nervous about the silence and interject something likely retarded.

  16. In my experience as a male researcher, there are often conversations that would be inappropriate for a female be they researcher or otherwise to join.

    If you are having these conversations with other male scientists in professional contexts, then you are being a misogynist fucking douchebag.

  17. I’m going to vote for “awkward and unsociable”. There have been many times at meetings that I (young female scientist) was in a group or walked up to the group and the conversation stopped after the introductions. Unless there is a good reason to believe otherwise I would bet that the folks in that circle were just a little socially awkward. I bet if you had thrown out a conversation starter it would have all been fine.

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