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Explaining what you do

'Tis the season!

Awkward conversations around the dinner table with you, frantically trying to explain to your family how your work matters in the world.

We've all had these conversations. And we're all going to have more of them in the coming weeks.

Back when I was exclusively doing linguistic research in places like Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India and Montalvo, Pastaza, Ecuador, I found it difficult to tell my relatives what my work really was.

I would say things like, "I'm documenting language usage patterns." and "I'm interviewing people to see how they talk in different situations."

But these explanations never really carried the full depth and importance of my work - at least not in my opinion.

This is why I've come up with a few ideas for how you can better explain your work to relatives.


Come up with an elevator pitch

Everyone knows what an elevator pitch is. If you don't, Google it. It's pretty straight forward.

With this elevator pitch, though, the intent isn't to try and convince someone to buy your product or hire you. Instead, the goal is to convince your relatives that what you're doing matters.

Think of in terms that they understand. What matters to them?

  • Is it prestige or title?

  • Power?

  • Salary?

  • Impact?

  • Being a part of something meaningful?

Don't embellish or lie about what you do. You've seen the sitcoms and you know it never turns out for the best. Be honest and truthful. But also don't put yourself down. You've worked hard to get to where you are, even if it's the bottom rung of a very tall corporate ladder.

Be proud of the work you're doing. And if you aren't yet proud of that work, ask yourself how this is the right step for you to be able to do something bigger, better, and more impactful.


Simplify, simplify, simplify

We all do a wonderful job of overcomplicating things in our own lives. Don't make it harder for people to understand your work by using technical jargon or long sentences.

This doesn't mean that you should talk to your relatives as if they were dumb. I'm only suggesting that you likely use a lot of TWAs (that's an acronym for three-word-acronyms) in your work-talk. Using those terms to define your work MAY impress people, but more likely it won't. Also no one likes a pretentious know-it-all. Especially not family members.

Be modest, humble, and simplify how you talk about the work you do. Don't diminish it's impact (see above), but also don't try to hype it up with flowery language.


Side note:

I once worked with an intern who spent an entire day explaining how much he knew about so many languages. He was so proud of all the fancy words he knew like "syntax" and "morphology" and "grammar". He explained details that he "knew" about a couple of languages that were very clearly wrong to any trained linguist.

I bit my tongue.

A few days later, I sent him an email. In it, I signed my name with those three letters - Ph.D. - at the end of it. Wanting to prove how smart he was, he came over and asked what my doctorate was in, to which I replied simply, "linguistics."

He stood there with his mouth open. Not because being a doctor of linguistics is particularly impressive (it's not), but because he had just realized how much of an idiot he had made himself look like by explaining linguistics to me.

Everyone on my team knew I was a linguist. And one even came up to me afterward and asked why I hadn't told him sooner.

"Because I don't need to prove myself to anyone," I replied.


Don't just talk about yourself

No one likes that one relative who can't stop bragging about all of the amazing things they get to do for their job.

You know what they say:

  • "I just HATE having to fly to New York City for all of these meetings. I mean, at least send me in business class if I DO have to go."

  • "You know, I can't even remember what it's like to make less than $75k a year."

  • "I can't believe I got so many frequent flier miles this year!"

  • "Have you ever sat in a board room meeting before? Ugh, they're so boring!"

Just stop it. No one cares.

If you get asked a question about what you do, be humble about it (especially if it's really cool work). If you don't get asked questions about your work, be the one who is asking questions of others. Show genuine interest in their world, their work, and the things that matter most to them.


No relationship was ever ruined by someone actively trying to listen with the intent of understanding someone else.


Best of luck this holiday season!


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