068. I Can Talk to Anyone

tldr: perseverating with caution

Blog post number 7 on MITAdmissions! Fun fact, I number the URLs (called slugs) in the MITAdmissions posts.

Song: Down to Earth from Wall-E.

“I found myself pleasantly surprised with how well she was able to hold my attention with math content.”

Anonymous Reviewer aka Jeremy in my last post.

Some (including my own mom) may find it shocking that I am as (relatively) social as I am given that nearly every conversation with me involves either math, existentialism, or education. But in truth, I can talk to anyone. Well, mostly.

Some people want to purely engage in small talk– and that’s okay! If I introduce myself and all you want to say is “This weather is wild” and “It’s that time of the semester am-I-right?”, then I will happily listen and give the common responses: “Yes this weather is quite ‘wild’” and “Ha, yep, that time of the semester when [insert vague statement about being hosed].” I wouldn’t really count this as a conversation, but it certainly is small talk.

If the small talk evolves into the classic yet conversationally loaded “What’s your major?,” then the fun begins. I give the usual 30 second spiel about how I’m majoring in math and really interested in education, to which there are a few common responses:

1) Not following up with this subject at all. If this occurs, then my brain shifts back into small talk mode. We don’t have to have a deep conversation about math, but conversations are a game. There’s a set of rules most people follow in which one person says one thing, the other person follows up and says something else, and the conversation carries on. If the rules of the game aren’t being followed, then I don’t really know what to do. So I move back into small talk.

Though most people’s conversations are only small talk, so this tends to be okay.

2) Asking about anything regarding what I do in math. If this occurs, then I am officially engaged in the conversation. We don’t need to talk about it for that long– I just need to know that the conversational game is being played. If you’re interested about all the various things I can talk about with math, I will happily share all the various things I enjoy thinking about. And if you’re not, then I’ll hit the ball back into your court, asking about your major/interests.

3) Finally, as most “normal” people would expect: Saying that you hate math. This is the most interesting response to me, because I get it. I usually respond to this sentiment by saying something along the lines of “Honestly, it makes a lot of sense how many people end up hating math as an adult. When did you start to hate math, if you want to talk about it?”

And the conversation goes on from there. It’s so interesting to hear people talk about why they rightfully hate something. Maybe they had a terrible middle school teacher who forced them to do a math competition for extra credit, or maybe they just never truly understood fractions. No matter the reason, usually it becomes clear that the reason they hate math was based on something truly out of their control. And I tell them that. I say: “It sucks that your teacher treated you like that” or “So many children unfortunately get left behind once we start talking about fractions.”

Saying you hate math requires so much vulnerability, even if it is the social norm. And my job in a conversation is to actively listen and make the other person feel heard, especially if they’re confiding in me/being vulnerable. The last thing that person wants is to hear me boast or make fun of them. This doesn’t mean I can’t talk about why I like math, it just means that I should be more cautious. I make sure to emphasize how lucky I was to have teachers who encouraged me, and I share some bad experiences I’ve had in math. I make sure to understand where the other person is coming from, and try my best to leave the other person feeling better about math than they did before the conversation.

In this way, I can talk to anyone even if it may be difficult. I’ve found a way to use perseveration to my advantage. Maybe you (dear reader) can use it too.

Song: Hooked on a Feeling, by Blue Suede.

Perseveration is when someone gets stuck on a topic or an idea. For me, perseveration comes in a few different forms, from discussing math in various conversations to having an entire blogpost roaming around my head for weeks until I sit down to put it on paper [paper? Google docs? I’ll just stick with paper].

Before MIT, I mostly kept these thoughts to myself. I’d get lost in my thoughts on teaching and math, and tune out the world around me. But I haven’t wanted to do this as much at MIT. Partially because I started blogging [ah yes, the captive audience of the world wide web], but mostly because of the MIT environment/culture. Here, nearly everyone is ecstatic to talk about their research, classes, or interests. They don’t hold back, and as a result, I don’t feel the want to either.

As liberating as this can feel, it comes with a caveat (in my opinion, for all readers but especially MIT students who may happen to read this): be more cautious.

I love how the MIT culture encourages us to talk about our nerdy interests and hobbies, but I wouldn’t be painting the full picture if I didn’t acknowledge that sometimes these conversations can hurt. MIT students are brilliant, but we aren’t immune to feeling bad about ourselves. In fact, many students deal with imposter syndrome on a regular basis. And yet, all the time, caution goes out the window as students brag about starting the next problemset early or talk about how easy an ASE (Advanced Standing Exam) is. It’s okay to talk about your interests– you can bring up your interests in any conversation! But there is a fine line between talking about your interests [especially if your interests are academic] and causing imposter syndrome in others that requires reflection and intent. From my experience, this is unfortunately a line that is often crossed.

Why does this happen? I don’t really know. I mostly attribute these sorts of interactions at MIT to toxic-competition-based high school experiences, but I’m certain there are factors from the institute itself. Whatever the reason may be, I hope with time that more and more students start perseverating with caution.

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

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