Recently one of my labmates took the time to read my blog. People are usually pretty confused when I talk about it: “so, it’s like a diary?” Essentially, yes, in that it’s a place where I sort out of my thoughts. But it’s unlike a diary in that it’s meant to be read, and it’s edited with that in mind. It’s also edited based on the rules that were laid out for me when I originally started blogging for Wellesley, with additional guidelines settled in the years after that: no negativity unless the issues are resolved, try not to directly compare schools. Try to be conscious of phrasing and who might be reading, and anonymize when possible. Don’t be too raw about things—take the time to think about it; try to keep the emotional content low. I have my own rules about trying not to express controversial opinions too loudly.
That said, I’ve ended up with a pretty personal set of collected words readily available over the internet. It’s open to future employers, friends, family, people who I don’t like, people who I don’t know, people who I want to have a good impression. I feel and have felt for a long time that you get a much better sense of who I am by reading the writing than by meeting me in person. (You get a better sense of who I want to be as well. There’s a lot of frivolous nonsense involved in day-to-day living, silly pleasures and vices and goofiness that aren’t often expressed here.) I’m reliant on people’s general goodness with regards to not using this information against me.
And maybe that’s what people are talking about when they tell me—and this is usually peoples’ first reaction upon reading my posts—that they wouldn’t have the guts to write all of this to the world. Maybe people are talking about the stalkers and so-called friends and rude people. But I also think they might be talking about another category: the people who they want to have a good impression. Because my writing is pretty much me. I can change and have room to grow, but it’s who I am in the moment and the data points of my life are very much not independent. I think it would be weird if a potential employer read all of this, and generally people don’t care enough. But it is written for all of those people in mind.
Is it strange, then, that I don’t feel like writing these posts takes any bravery? I find it strange that my parents—still my anchors for this type of thing (and I’ve realized how lucky I am to have them to rely on)—let me write these at all. I’m exposing my naiveté and undeveloped thoughts and hopefully occasional tactlessness in a medium where there will always be a record. It would be only logical to keep those things contained: to control information, as is done when I interact with people face-to-face, based on their reactions.
I suspect it is the exposure that impresses people, the fact that there is so much personal content for others to judge and disagree with. I’m sure there is some habituation that makes it possible for me—this is halfway through my year five of blogging. I also think I’m like this (not afraid to share) in person: as someone told me recently: “I found your friendliness and frankness refreshing.” Parenting probably has something to do with it as well, since many of our parents are not shy in telling us how to be better, so I’m used to being analyzed. Coaching too—I’m used to hearing criticisms, and while I dislike it I am open to it.
But who knows, really? On some things I am lost, like how my friends frequently tell me they suffer from Imposter Syndrome, which is where you feel like you don’t deserve to be here and don’t belong. It’s a form of insecurity that I’ve thankfully never had to deal with, just as I’ve never had to deal with any form of mental illness or major struggle in my life. I’m capable of writing about myself, but I’m not very good at writing stories. I can’t imagine my characters; I can’t get into their heads. I’m very good at only my own perspective.
With regards to people understanding others’ perspectives (and I promise, I will circle back to this point), my father sent me an article recently. I recommend everyone read it. It’s about why women might leave science. It’s very, very good.
I like it because I believe it completely. I’ve had some experiences talked about in the article, and I’m only straight out of undergrad. I’ve had a post-doc stalk me until I felt uncomfortable going to class. He was emailing me when I didn’t want him to. He was following me when I didn’t want him to. Seeing him made me nervous and unable to concentrate. If I hadn’t had a friend in that class to sit next to me and walk me to and from lectures, I don’t know what I would have done until eventually he did back off.
(Quote from this post-doc: “So what are you interested in in research?” Me: “Oh, basically what’s going on in this class. Computational cognitive science, social stuff especially.” Post-doc: “Oh. You seemed so perfect otherwise.”)
(Other quote from this post-doc: “So we’ll go to dinner.” Me internally: did you just demand me out? Me externally: “I have homework.” Post-doc: “No, it’ll just be quick.” Me: “I’m just an undergrad. I have homework.”)
One of the other postdocs I know was telling me about the exact experience described in that article, where her direct advisor was the one sexually harassing her. I thankfully haven’t had that experience, but can easily see how it could happen. Or I can see how general harassment could happen with someone in a position of power. I could see how that would make me want to quit. I could see the situation described in the article happening—I completely, totally, to such a large degree, could see that situation happening to me.
(And we circle back) It was the one instance where I had more experience than my father, and more examples to pull out than him. Interesting being on the other side, since generally my life is pretty much sunshine. I’d say that what you need for empathy is mainly an interest in another person’s point of view, and being told a good story that makes you understand a snapshot of what it’s like. But you miss all the little things that go on after the story’s over: the scrupulous way you might inspect peoples’ behavior, the care in making sure a situation can’t go awry. Recently, I was scolded for being less polite than I should have been when someone told a group of us “have a good night!”, and I responded dismissively. And yes, it was rude, and yes, I shouldn’t have done it. But you have to keep in mind that I’m by default a pretty friendly person—and if the well-wishers hadn’t been high-school boys, if they hadn’t fit the profile of people who might have been interested—then I would have responded appropriately. Older men, too, are often interested in talking to me, and over time I’ve noticed that I’ve become more impolite with them. Small things, like cutting things off with “Have a good night!” or not asking back: “How are you?” Because things get long otherwise, and I’ve nothing against them and probably they mean no harm, but sometimes people don’t mean what you want them to mean and sometimes people just want someone to listen to them talk and I don’t want you following me home, because I accidentally thought you were just a post-doc who might be good to have as a contact but instead you wanted to go out with someone almost ten years younger who emphasized repeatedly: I’m an undergrad, I’m an undergrad, I’m an undergrad.
(And who thought you were perfect looks-wise but not research-interest-wise. I didn’t even think it was sexual harassment until I read the article, just related it to people as a weird and somewhat funny story. Labs (and life?) are full of weird stories like these.)
And of course while I know the women-in-science experience, I’m missing so many other experiences. I’ve discovered recently that people are country-ist: one of my friends was relating to me how she’d be sworn at just for speaking in her native language. People are racist here towards different ethnicities than they are in the US. I was reading another article about privilege, and how we forget we have it. (And don’t I always feel that way, when I write about a success? It’s not my own—it’s never just my own. It’s the whole community of people and circumstances which got me there. But then you get into the whole “women not taking credit for their accomplishments” debate, and it’s this see-saw of modesty and confidence with insecurity welling up underneath it all.)
What I am doing about these issues? Not much. I strive to be better personally, but I’m not changing anything on a wide scale. My friend Stephanie cares deeply about others’ opinions, and is reading communication books to try to understand how to change those opinions one person at a time. I’ve noticed in myself a deep reluctance to believe that individual actions can change the opinions of a collective, even when I see evidence of it every day. I write a blog that’s read by you, who I am deeply grateful to and amazed by because you’re interested enough in read it— but presumably you agree with some of my core opinions, otherwise you would have left because reading things you disagree with is far too much work, as we all know.
Empathy. New experiences. Reading articles with opinions we don’t agree with. Trying to understand why people do the things they do.
I asked Lukas, who is the labmate who was recently introduced to my blog, about what he thought about the blog, if there was anything interesting. He said that he never would have realized that my major motivation in pursuing psychology was trying to understand other peoples’ motivations. It is sort of, isn’t it—that’s what all of the recent posts have all been about? What a few of the other points I wanted to hit were about as well (a woman who founded her own inter-religious discussion group but was loudly dismissive of anyone else’s work, hearing about what individual people care about at brunches and formal halls)?
Stephanie tells me that when you probe people, they have far more thoughtful opinions and reasons for what they believe than you’d and they’d think. When I went to Amsterdam I read the quote that Anne Frank’s father believed that no parent ever knows their child, because the Anne in her diary thought far deeper than he ever would have guessed from knowing her in person. I suppose in writing I have this idea I center around: trying to figure out why people do the things they do, the algorithms underlying their behavior, personally or research-wise or however you want to put it. It’s not very deep, is it? It’s certainly accessible—something everyone can nod along to without thinking too hard, say: yes, that’s a good thing to be interested in. Not something they have to evaluate like a discussion about protests in Ukraine or whether a transcranial stimulation study was good (occasional lunchtime discussion). Maybe not something you’d be interested in reading about week after week, same thing in different voices read again. Maybe you would be interested though—maybe this is a core part of being human, maybe this human element is what makes discussions of differences a mundane conversation that is easy to nod along to.
They don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in England and we hiss at women in headscarves and dismiss other peoples’ experiences and don’t respect mental illnesses. I’m told “you need to get over the insecurity to make progress” and certainly that may be true, and maybe it’s better to say it bluntly or maybe it’s better to frame it compassionately. Wellesley alumni help one of their own who is being unfairly evicted, and patient scientists answer question after question when the public mobs them afterwards. People are kind when I am rude and Cambridge is full of deep and thoughtful thinkers, some of whom are studying with a goal to change parts of the world.
We’re all young—even the people ten years older than I am, the things they say sound the same as mine, the struggles are similar—we are all so young. I read that some species of human lasted for two million years, while Homo sapiens are in their infancy, struggling with the same problems throughout the ages but making progress with the passing years. Individual people care deeply about issues that they’ve overcome in their history, and that’s still the most fascinating thing for me to hear about, still the topic I want to write about, maybe even a topic people don’t get too tired of hearing, due to social evolution and inherent biases and the ease and relevance and importance of talking about each other instead of abstract ideas.
I don’t know, really. If it’s the right thing to be interested in, if I’ll be interested in the future, if I care that people judge, if it’s useful if I’m not making a difference, if it’s comprehensible without the relevant experiences, if there are too many emotions, whose experiences are valid (everyone’s, I suspect, unless they are hurting others), how much time and effort should be devoted to thanks and compassion, whether we’re all thinking about the right or relevant things at all. This isn’t the only thing I’ve been thinking about the last two weeks: I’ve also been thinking about the inherent priors in people’s heads viewed within the artificial intelligence framework and lying in the intersection of psychology and Bayesian statistics. Different scope, different focus, thoughts within the same head on different levels like all of us have.
What’s this blog about, anyway? People? Science? Me myself and my stories? The problems of my peers? Anything as large as humanity as a whole?
What is it about?