Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I work in a pretty specialized government job that, to an outside observer, looks like a lot of charts and gobbledygook. I want to be able to talk about my day with my wife, but whenever I do, I see her eyes glaze over. She swears that she’s interested in my work, but she says that when she asks me a straightforward question, I answer with a 15-minute monologue.
I’ll admit that — but it’s because I want her to understand what my work is really like, and sometimes it requires a lot of preamble and explanation. Do you have tips on how I can get better at this? It’s frustrating to feel like she’s not interested in my work, when I’m always interested in hers. Then again, she’s a kindergarten teacher, so her days often involve funny finger paint anecdotes.
I Bore My Wife.
When people ask you about your work, they’re not asking you about the work, they’re asking you about the experience you had with it. So, “I had a great moment with X,” “I have been working 18 months on Y and the mere mention of Y can anesthetize a room,” “Let me tell you about Colleague Z . ”
Think characters, not charts.
If it’s important to you that she have a baseline understanding of what you do all day, or if the anecdote you’re bringing home is only funny if she has some grasp of the work you’re doing, then I suggest a onetime or occasional tutorial, which you both agree will be an eye-glazer but will advance the day-to-day cause of your marriage thereafter. That way at least you’re not setting yourselves up for mutual disappointment every time one of you asks, “How was your day?”
For Mr. Wonky: I am standing in your wife’s shoes and, while Carolyn is spot on about people making better conversations than workflow, perhaps I can add another suggestion.
My husband also works in a very technical field where every (excruciating) detail truly matters, and he used to talk about his day by painstakingly recreating it for me so that I would also fully appreciate every bit of context and nuance. Hint: It didn’t work.
It took time and some loving-but-honest conversations, but I have finally given him to understand what the word “summary” means, and we are both so much happier.
Try using your commute to mentally recap your day so you can give your wife a lively (but impressionistic) sketch rather than a massive photo-realistic recreation of the major points, then let the rest go. Trust me when I say that she doesn’t need every detail to appreciate your experience. You must have co-workers, so learn to rely on some of them if you still need full work-related understanding. Please.
Thank you. What you’ve deconstructed here is actually a key social skill: Recognizing that you are the person most fascinated by (some aspect of your personal experience here), and accordingly breaking your stories of it down to a portion size that reflects your audience’s smaller appetite.
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