Would you like to read about nice people with good problems today? Good! Me too!
This question may fall under “general conversation skills,” but as I haven’t seen it on the blog, I’m writing. My spouse and I are both academics, in the same discipline. Her career is hitting some bumpy spots (high teaching load, few publications, not a great institution) whereas mine is going gangbusters (low teaching load, books & articles, awesome institution). That’s stressful, but we’re working it out (we have a distance situation, to compound things). What is really challenging is a conversational pattern we’re falling into, where talking shop feels like an emotional minefield. And our work involves a lot of our respective personal identities and time, so it’s hard to avoid discussing.
The fuller picture: I prefer “talking” about my area of expertise in writing. I avoided talking about it in grad school with my peers, really dislike Q&A at conferences, and kinda work alone, except when I read with other people (my work is pretty textual). My wife likes to talk in person, at conferences, and over post-conference dinners, and she likes to puzzle through ideas out loud. I often don’t want to, though I will–but she can tell that I’m not into it, and it makes her sad. Sometimes I feel like she’s talking a lot, and not listening to my desire to stop, change conversation, or to tell her that I just don’t know (and am not interested in figuring out the issue at the moment).
But she has expressed feeling not only sad, but feeling like my reticence is a signal that her work isn’t good, that I don’t respect her, and so on. But that’s not true–she’s awesome! And in fact, despite some outward success, I have the “imposter” feeling lots of academics do, and I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal. I sometimes share stuff, too, but it’s more “hey, I read this cool thing” or “I got this article done,” and not a give-and-take. Sometimes we can manage, like if we trade things we’re writing, or have a very clear focus. But casually bringing up work often turns into hurt feelings and an argument.
One more piece of (perhaps not relevant) info. Despite being in the same area, we work differently. She agreed the other day that I would not be the person she would normally seek out to chat about her work, because of our methodologies and focus. But we respect each other’s work–though given our conversational patterns, she doesn’t feel like I respect hers.
We do pretty good communicating elsewhere, I think, but this pattern is starting to get embedded, and I don’t want to hurt her. We’ve talked about just not having work be a shared topic of conversation, but that feels like cutting off big parts of ourselves.
Not good at catchy sign-offs
Dear Not Good At Catchy Sign-Offs,
I can relate to this strongly as a person with ADHD who sometimes just…runs out…of attention budget for the day. After 9pm + Long and/or complicated story or pitch for a script = Jennifer NOT GREAT AT LISTENING and it super hurts my spouse’s feelings, especially since he is pretty great at listening to me. So I’m working on this too.
I think what would make this more satisfying and workable for both you and your spouse is adding some structure to when & how you have work discussions. She benefits from talking through stuff aloud. You benefit from working alone (though your knowledge and understanding of your shared field probably benefits a lot from her puzzling through the stuff you don’t know out loud). But sometimes you do well “trading things you’re working on or having focused discussions” so maybe build this into your lives in a structured way, like, Friday nights you each open a bottle of wine in your respective places and sit down to work in tandem, and you keep a chat window open and share quotes or snippets or articles as you go. You also need those rituals that aren’t about work, like, Monday night is the night we watch our favorite show in tandem and text about it and there is NO work talk.
Because you’re long-distance right now, “working breakfast Saturdays” aren’t going to be as easy as if you saw each other all the time. But you need to find a structure, like, during this set time, you get to talk excitedly at me about your research and what you’re reading and thinking about, and I will put aside the fact that I’m not an expert and I will just listen as best I can and get excited with you! And then we’ll switch! But maybe not every day, maybe not at the very end of a long day of work when energy is very low and you’re feeling “researched out” or “discussed out” for the day, and you both get a limited “no work talk!” veto power. Important: Schedule this time when you both have energy for it. Don’t put it after you do all your “important” stuff, don’t do it when you’re hangry or distracted.
If your spouse were writing to me I would also encourage her to do some work to connect with other people in her specific area of focus and build a supportive and fun community to talk shop with that does not depend so much on her spouse for that. For example, I’m a member of a couple of Facebook groups around teaching in my subject area and it’s great to have a lot of informal discussions and connections to dip into when I feel like it and backburner when I don’t. Mr. Awkward is taking a class and has a teacher and classmates to pitch stories to. It makes our discussions better when there is another outlet.
Since this letter is about you and what you can do to change the dynamic, let’s talk more about that. It’s telling that you say “I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal” and I think this is worth working on within yourself. Why do you have to “feel intelligent” or like an expert all the damn time? Don’t be the people at those awful parties this Letter Writer described, where everyone can only talk about their Very Serious Research! If you find yourself getting bored or distracted because you’re not in Expert Mode, that is a good time to practice everything you know about active listening and staying engaged. Do it because it’s kind, not just because it’s sufficiently interesting.
You’ll be a better scholar and a better person if you can say “I don’t know very much about that, tell me more!” to lots of people who do lots of kinds of work, not just your spouse. While you need to be able to say “Babe that is fascinating but I am discussed OUT for the day, can we talk about makeouts for a while and revisit this during [structured work time]” sometimes, if you do say that the very next time you talk you need to remember what she was telling you and follow up specifically – “That article about x you were talking about yesterday, do you mind telling me about it now?” That will go a long way toward showing that you are paying attention and are curious about and invested in her work.
I wish you both luck navigating this.