Rude to Talk About

Food for Thought

Mark and I talk about geeky things, like the differences between the three cameras used to take these photos, one of which is my iPhone. At least we are aware that what we find interesting is painfully boring to most people. So, for us to talk about these things to our hearts’ content, we need to be alone to avoid the possibility of eye-rolling, but, I’ve always felt that this is unfair.

I understand why; because it’s rude to talk about things that exclude anyone within the group. I agree. If the topic becomes too specialized or technical, it’s likely that some people in your group wouldn’t have enough knowledge of it to follow the conversation. But, when someone rolls his eyes, there is always an assumption about what we all should know and shouldn’t have to know. It’s fine, for instance, to talk about popular TV shows, the latest fashion trends, or the current events. There is an unspoken, culturally predetermined baseline of knowledge that allows people to confidently roll their eyes and judge others. What is implied in their judgment is that they are right, and you are wrong, about this baseline. It’s a form of tyranny and dogmatism.

The unfairness becomes clear in cases where certain specialized knowledge is included in this baseline. Fine art is a good example. If someone at the dinner table talked about, say, Jean-Michel Basquiat, he might roll his eyes at you for not knowing who he is, which is the opposite of what would happen if you talked about Niels Bohr. Clearly, this baseline is subjectively determined and forced on us as a universal.

If being considerate is our goal, no such baseline should be employed in choosing the topic. We should simply observe if people are engaged. It shouldn’t even be about knowledge because we can be interested in things we know nothing about. The problem with physics is that most people are not interested, whereas they are about art. If we focus on engagement, not on knowledge, we would realize that rude people are everywhere because they consider only what other people should know, not if they are interested.