The president’s science adviser, the U.S. undersecretary of energy, and the heads of both NASA and the National Science Foundation sit at the front of a room, offering visions for the future of science from each of their unique perspectives. Their talks run a bit long, leaving only about five minutes for questions until the conference must move on to further sessions. An anonymous woman steps to the microphone in the audience. What an incredible opportunity! What a wonderful chance to probe the minds of these leaders of the scientific community! What would she ask?
So what did the woman say? I have no idea. I can’t remember, because instead of asking a question, the woman decided to ramble for four of the five remaining minutes without actually posing a question at all, and my brain melted a little. At that point, White House science adviser John Holdren — a man who has frequent direct contact with the fucking president — stood up and apologized profusely for having to leave to head back for a meeting at the White House. Damn it all.
“My question is the following statement” is the bane of any sane conferencegoer’s existence. Any conference, panel, lecture, seminar, symposium, and so on, in any possible field you can imagine, can be the setting for this crime against humanity. The tendency of audience members to stand up and speechify rather than simply ask is remarkably widespread — anecdotally, everyone I know says they see it all the time, and everyone says they hate it. (This raises the question of who exactly is responsible for the sin, but I just assume I only associate with reasonable, good people.) The effect, of course, is that the speakers the audience actually showed up to hear have less airtime; no one came to hear Mr. Loud and Long-Winded Audience Man talk, and yet talk he does.
I realize this isn’t the most pressing of social, educational, or scientific concerns — but it is, as far as I can tell, a near universal experience, and one that tends to irk all who encounter it. As Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait pointed out on Twitter recently, there is even a song about it!
At the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, as the woman at the microphone wasted any chance to hear John Holdren answer questions, I started wondering why people do this. In some ways it’s obvious: We’re an arrogant, terrible little species. That, however, isn’t exactly an expert diagnosis. So I started asking the experts.
“Haha, Dave: If you gave me a dollar for every time I’ve seen this, I’d be a rich man,” began Reeshad Dalal, chairman of George Mason University’s Department of Psychology. He went on to offer up some ideas: Chief among them are “dispositional characteristics” — that is, take a person who just kind of sucks at social situations or lacks good communication skills, add in a dash of entitlement, and voilà. Also, he noted the possibility that these speakers are frustrated about their own failure to display competence in this particular situation. In other words: “These panelists are missing my very important perspective on XYZ.”
Interestingly though, I found that several psychologists offered up explanations for the practice that painted the practitioners in far better light than I could ever muster. Dalal said the “good” cause would be, quite simply, an interest in the topic at hand. Can you blame people for being engaged?
“I would speculate many people think their perspective or experience is at least as important as what is said,” began Nathan Kuncel, of the University of Minnesota’s psychology department. “I am not sure this is all bad” — !! — “as people generally like to think about things via experiences and stories. You can offer the fact that 3,000 people are starving in a far away place. Or you can tell a story and show a picture of a single person. The second seems to have more of an effect on people and their reactions.”
Another psychologist noted that academics in particular are quite used to speaking in front of others and even see it as their prescribed role. Turning that role off could be difficult. He also pointed out that those of us sitting quietly in the audience, or standing up to actually ask a short, specific question, probably have a pretty high bar when it comes to tolerating audience speechifiers. What question or comment, exactly, would we all be totally fine with?
Paul Piff, an assistant professor at UC–Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, guessed that there is likely “a confluence of processes at play.” He said that people may indeed just want to speak up and be heard, a tendency that “may be higher in individualistic cultures like ours.” This gets at an idea I’d been pondering, though one that’s pretty much impossible to analyze well: Has this issue been getting worse over time, as social media has encouraged the concept that our every waking thought deserves a public airing? (I recognize this is essentially a “kids these days,” “get off my lawn” type of argument — but that doesn’t make it wrong.)
“In my own discipline, I’ve noticed a ‘gotcha’ mentality — questions are premised more around stumping the speaker, or asking a question that tries to pinpoint a fault in the thinking/design,” Piff went on. “It’s perhaps a way to signal competence and status while also perhaps casting the speaker in a negative light.” And with that, we’re back to the “arrogant, terrible little species” theory.
Obviously, there’s no single explanation for why people in audiences think we all want to hear them rant. My guess is that most probably don’t even realize they are ranting. There are two solutions to the problem: call these sinners out when you see them, which, granted, most of us are probably too confrontation-averse to actually do (guilty!); feel free to take the passive-aggressive approach and use #MyQuestionIsTheFollowingStatement instead. Second, we could replace them at the audience mics with actual, reasonable, short questions. Stand up and ask something smart, and let the speakers speak! This could both shame the assholes into silence and simply give them less time to assholify.
We can all fight this together, people. The loudest, worst people around tend to dominate a whole host of scenarios; this feels like one we could take back.