Don’t you hate it when you ask someone how old they are, and they think it’s coy or cute or something to give you a non-answer? Or when you ask, “Where did you go to college?” and they say something weird and indirect that doesn't answer the question, like, “Northern California” or “in Boston." You know. Instead of the truth: “Stanford,” or “Harvard?”
People do this because they think they’re being “modest.” But actually, they’re being condescending little pricks.
First of all, it violates the most basic tenents of human communication. According to psycholinguist Paul Grice, conversation is supposed to be cooperative. Unconsciously, we all follow a basic set of rules, or maxims. Among them:
"In Boston" is, quite simply, uncooperative communication, because it violates the maxims of quality and manner.
Second, let’s give a literal translation of “Northern California”/”in Boston.” You think it means you’re being modest. But what you’re really saying is:
That’s pretty condescending, dude. Going to Stanford doesn’t mean you got a good education, and going to a state school doesn’t mean you didn’t.
Moreover, most adults aren’t still hung up on college rankings. Hopefully by now they have accomplishments other than getting a fat envelope when they were 17.
That’s why I never tell people I went to college in Northern California. And when people ask where I went to high school, I tell them the truth: “I went to Phillips Exeter. It’s a boarding school about an hour north of Boston.”
But, honestly, it’s not just about respecting the people I’m talking to. It’s also about respecting myself. Exeter was an amazing experience for me. I got to use a scanning electron microscope, just 'cause whatever. Between my undergraduate and graduate research, overseas study experiences, and the friendships I formed, Stanford was a defining part of who I’ve become. Why would I ever try to hide or erase that part of myself?
And! Saying where you went to school is a conversation enhancer. Dodging and naming some city/region is a conversation stifler. When I say, “Stanford,” people follow up with, “Oh, cool! Did you know So-and-So? He went to my high school!” or, “Whoa – isn’t that where they did the Prison Experiment?” Next thing we know, we’re talking about Dr. Zimbardo’s latest book or messaging someone we haven’t thought about in a while.
Meanwhile, if you say, “Northern California,” what’s the other person’s response? They know you’re being indirect. That doesn’t feel good. I guess they can be like, “Cool.” But… it still feels weird.
And, sure. I suppose there’s a tiny chance that the person you’re talking to will truly be "triggered" when you say the S-word or the H-word. But you know what? Those people are probably not worth your time. Do you really have the bandwidth to constantly prop up someone else's ego? Do you really want to be friends with someone who requires you to censor yourself? If you can’t even say the name of your school in front of them… maybe you should find someone else to talk to.
Tl;Dr – When you don’t say the name of your school because you think your school is sooooooo wonderful that it’s going to evoke insecurity and jealousy from those you’re talking to… you’re being arrogant, not modest.
People aren’t going to crumble to pieces if you went to a “better” school than they did.
And if they do, they should be talking to their therapist -- not you.
And you shouldn't have to hide or erase a part of your life or identity.
Now go be true to yourself.
11/27/2016 07:16:29 am
Great post as always. I think faux-modesty can be damaging other times as well - it's the worst when someone says "oh, I did okay in that class" the night they're getting a special award for high performance. I've always found it preferable to say "I did pretty well - Professor ___ made the material so interesting" or something that acknowledges the success without being over-the-top.
11/28/2016 02:30:39 pm
Couldn't agree more - that is ridiculous. I like your strategy of acknowledging without being over-the-top.
11/29/2016 07:41:10 am
Great post! I had someone, at a conference, tell me that they did their undergrad 'in Boston.' I did my undergrad at MIT and was very weirded out that he had looked at me and made the snap judgement that I couldn't handle knowing he attended Harvard. I looked him up later, and he had actually also attended MIT several years before me, so that would have been a great connection if he hadn't obfuscated it.
12/1/2016 02:42:07 am
Good point as usual - in SOME cases. But it makes a lot of assumptions. Like you are assuming that somebody is treating you as insecure, jealous etc. There can be other motives - like wanting to be judged on who they are now or what they have accomplished more recently - rather than on the status of their school. Perhaps they are tired of hearing classmates brag and want to find other ways of connecting. Not all deflections are condescending, sometimes they serve other functions.
3/5/2017 07:14:57 pm
I went to MIT, and (unfortunately) I usually say I went to Boston for college when asked. But the reason I do so is that their response usually makes me feel uncomfortable - it is usually, "oh, wow, you must be a genius!". I feel uncomfortable when getting compliments (I guess that is something I need to work on), and the truth is that I am not a genius, not very smart, heck I'm worried I'm getting dementia even though I'm only in my 30s.
8/15/2017 02:06:40 pm
EVERYONE'S memory starts declining in their 30s. That's totally normal! :P Their minor injuries also start taking longer to heal, but that's another story.
3/28/2017 10:35:26 am
actually I hate it when people pose a question like
8/15/2017 02:13:42 pm
It's not an expression that FORCES any answer. It's one that expects a certain answer. Like, seriously -- is there someone who DOESN'T hate dodgy, indirect, gamey answers to very simple and direct questions?
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