October 22, 2010


You and I need a secret signal. When I send the signal I need you to call me, or come rescue me from a bad conversation. Will you do that for me?

I was sitting outside of our offices yesterday, about to make a phone call to Maggie before my class started. Before doing so, I sat down in a chair and checked my phone for emails. While this was happening, I overheard a conversation a man was having about his interest in being trained as a math teacher. I didn't listen in to it; I heard it was happening.

As I was about to dial my phone, the man walked by me and made a comment to me about UMass having a presence in the building. I looked up and realized that I knew this fellow; he was a classmate from my undergraduate days long ago. I didn't want to be rude, so I said "Hi, A-----. Yeah, some centers are located here because the university has a deal with AT&T."

A----- asked me if I was the director of one of the centers (I guess I was relatively well dressed yesterday as a result of my internship meeting) and I said "No, I'm a student in the program here and I work on research projects as well. You're interested in becoming a teacher?"

I was mainly trying to be polite. I admit, I wasn't actually that interested, because this was a fellow I never really had much cause to interact with. Even so, I am interested in mathematics teaching and I thought we had some common interest that was genuine. It turns out that I was wrong.

A----- told me that his knowledge of technology was what got him interested in teaching, because he'd heard that technologically savvy teachers were needed. But he didn't have a math background that the state would have required. That much is fine. But with nary a pause for breath, A----- launched into a discussion of specific technologies, computer chips, operating systems, programming languages, the size of memory chips, RISC processors, the Makerbot and other extremely technical details completely out of any sort of context that would make them interesting.

"…so they put C on the chip and it's 64K I think… well, there were chips that were 32K, but the 64K chip works better because…"

I think I was polite. After 8 minutes of this, I started to signal my wish to end the conversation by saying things like "Well, I hope you have good luck in your…" but I couldn't even finish a sentence like that because he would immediately tell me something like:

"… well the Mindstorms brick has an ARM in it and that was originally made in the 1980s by Acorn, and so ARM stands for…"

Ok, people. I'm not saying I am never interested in some of this stuff. But the stream of consciousness bombardment was too much for me. No context. And no conversation - this was completely one way. But it gets worse.

After the ARM discussion, I tried to turn the conversation to some of our common experiences, and I referred to when we were in college together. This was about 15 minutes into the conversation, or, more accurately, my captivity. He looked back at me confusedly. It was the first pause of more than 2 seconds in the conversation.

"Who are you?" he asked me.

He didn't know we went to college together. He didn't remember me. He had cornered me to tell me all this barely coherent stuff about computer engineering, and he thought I was a stranger. I started to tell him who I was, but he interrupted me and started on again about how small the pins are on some chip or other. Or how many pins it had. Something like that.

My boss walked by to the men's room. He didn't see me with my hands clasped together, trying to shrink into the wall. He did not admonish me for being away from my desk; my prayer was not answered. I realized, I was starting to feel an urge to visit the facilities as well.

I tried for the 5th time to extricate myself from the conversation by asking if we could start walking towards the men's room. He didn't skip a beat in his talking and just followed me as I walked that way. When it looked like he was going to just follow me inside, I stopped walking. I was not going to let him corner me in the men's room.

My boss came out of there. He did not make eye contact. Damn.

We were now near the elevator. As he stepped toward the elevator I realized that 25 minutes had gone by. I fantasized that the elevator doors would open and I would push him through them and make my escape. Not every version of this fantasy involved a waiting elevator behind the doors.

After about 5 more minutes, my phone rang. As A----- rattled on about not being able to remember what company made some chip that he wished dearly could run Python code, I checked it; it was Maggie!

"Oh, it looks like I have to take this call. Sorry! Well, good luck with your…" he wasn't listening to me, he kept talking.

I put the phone up to my ear and said "Hi" to Maggie, and A remembered what company made that chip, and started telling me why they made the chip. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU END A CONVERSATION. I had to tell Maggie to "hang on" (I HATE doing that to a caller).

I "let" him tell me a couple more things as I waved my hands and the phone, indicating the conversation should be over. He continued talking as he stepped into the elevator. "Thanks for having a sympathetic ear." He told me. Gah. Well, not so sympathetic, I am afraid. I am interested in many things. But none of them is being cornered and talked at. I feel like the chair would have been as good a participant in this discourse.

So, please, people. We need a secret sign. I promise to rescue you someday, if you need it.

Posted by James at October 22, 2010 3:03 PM
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Poor you! Andy and I have a secret sign for just such occasions -- one of us will pretend to pick lint off the other's clothing. That means "GET ME OUT OF HERE!"

Also ... there's an app for that! I forget what it's called, but I read about an iPhone app that you set to call you in x minutes. Unfortunately, in order to take advantage of it, you need to know in advance that you're going to need to get rescued.

Posted by: Karen at October 22, 2010 4:36 PM

I almost took my phone out and texted Ryan to call me.

Posted by: James at October 22, 2010 4:39 PM

I used to work with a guy like that, long ago. He was eventually let go because he wasn't getting any work done. (Guess who had to finish most of his unfinished work?)

Back then, I felt more obligated to be polite to people who wasted my time. I was also at a disadvantage because he would station himself in my cube while talking my ear off about whatever. I would be stuck with him until someone called him away.

But now I realize that people who are so oblivious to body language and verbal cues are probably also used to having people walk away from them or take other unsubtle measures to shake them off. Fortunately, they don't take offense. Unfortunately, that's because they barely notice it's happening; therefore they never wonder why it keeps happening.

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