The Apology and why it bugs me

3 Aug

I want to remark at the beginning of this post that I love math people.  We’re a little weird, very friendly, and generally quite open-minded and supportive (at least, this is true of the math people I know, a.k.a. geometric group theorists and friend fields).  There’s one thing that really, really bugs me that many (definitely not all) math people do when talking math with each other.

Also, I’m really into lists right now.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m doing an exciting research program this summer involving four faculty, five graduate students, and three undergraduates doing at least five research projects.  With so many different experiences and different personalities interacting, there are lots of times when apologies are required:

  • Interrupting someone in the middle of a productive thought (actually people don’t apologize for this enough.  Reminds me of this post from the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog)
  • Stealing someone’s notes/pen/paper/seat
  • Talking over someone (similar to the first thing here)
  • Probably more things I can’t think of right now

And I’m totally down with all of those.  They make complete sense- apologies are a nice lubricant for social and professional interactions.  But there’s one apology that really bothers me, which comes up in these situations:

  • Not knowing something that you’ve never been exposed to/had a reason to explore
  • Not being able to read the mind of someone who isn’t communicating clearly (related: this old post on teaching)
  • Having a different background than someone else, mathematical or otherwise
  • Being better at processing things in a visual rather than audial way, or vice-versa

These all come down to one thing: you’re a different mathematician than whoever you’re talking to.  And this is the thing that you might say in this situation:

Sorry, I’m slow.

I dislike this so much!  I’ve heard very many mathematicians say this over the past few weeks, whom no one would call “slow.”  One reason for my distaste ties in with the whole “women apologize more” bit, explored in a Pantene ad, dissected by Time, and perhaps most effectively explained in this spoken word video.

To be clear, this is not a women-only problem (while I’ve noticed more women do so than men, men also do this).  I dislike the phrase “sorry, I’m slow” because

  1. I’m apologizing for an adjective that I’m applying to myself- ->I’m apologizing for who I am.  [I am not a person who likes doing this.  I certainly apologize when I make mistakes/do bad actions, but to judge myself on my character, and invite you to pass that same judgment?  Not fun.]
  2. I’m devaluing my contributions to this conversation.  If I don’t take myself seriously, how can I expect you to?
  3. By saying these words aloud, whether I believe them now or not, I convince myself and you that I am, in fact, slow.  Just like if I looked in a mirror everyday and said “I’m ugly” I would eventually believe it.
  4. I’m perpetuating a system of these apologies- now whenever you’re in a conversation and struggling to understand what’s going on, you’ll be tempted to say “sorry, I’m slow” and cause 1-3 to happen to you.

Maybe the worst part of “sorry, I’m slow” is that there are good reasons to say it: when faculty/those further along say it, it encourages undergrads/younger folks that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way.  Similarly, if you say it in a group of peers, it builds camaraderie (in the way that teenage girls insult themselves in order to get compliments from each other).  When younger people say it to older people, mentorship instincts kick in and older people often share personal stories of some other time they felt slow.

Really what I’m saying is that “sorry I’m slow” is bad because it makes you believe that you’re slow, and it’s good because it tells everyone else that you also think you’re slow.  I just wish people didn’t pass these value judgments on themselves.  =(  I suppose this post is why I’m a mathematician, not a psychologist or sociologist.

From here:

From here:  Also, I’m the puppy and the cat.



2 Responses to “The Apology and why it bugs me”

  1. Jesse Johnson March 14, 2015 at 8:31 pm #

    Great post! It’s frustrating to think about how many people give up on math because they get lost early on, and don’t feel comfortable asking the basic questions that they need answered, let alone asking the question and apologizing for it. Ironically, I think when I hear someone ask a basic question unapologetically, I assume they must be really smart – i.e. they must know a lot about other things if they’re confident enough to admit their ignorance about this one topic.

    • yenergy March 14, 2015 at 9:03 pm #

      Thank you! I try to kick myself to ask basic questions in seminars, but they’re almost always “I’m sorry, I forgot what that notation meant.”. I guess that’s still a valid question though, but I never see anyone ask it

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