Nadia Eghbal

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Technical conversations

When my paternal grandmother moved to Germany, she didn’t speak a word of German. But she was alone, in her forties, with two small kids, so she had to learn. She taught herself by watching TV and listening to the radio until all the words began to decipher themselves, a hard knot unraveling before her eyes.

I’m not a developer, nor a scientist, nor an expert in any technical field, but I like listening to technical conversations. I enjoy being around people who are feverishly excited about something, and I’d rather absorb their unfiltered world than have them treat me like a tourist.

Sometimes, when listening to a technical conversation, I think about my grandmother immersed in gibberish, waiting for a few, precious words to reveal themselves to her. Saying “I’m not technical”, while a well-intentioned reflex, prematurely shuts down the upper bound of the conversation. Worse, it signals “I’m not that kind of person so don’t try to talk to me like I am”, which can have a dampening effect on the other person, especially if they’re genuinely excited to share something they care about. It’s the conversational equivalent of putting your hands up.

If you don’t know what’s going on, there’s no shame in asking questions. Questions aren’t a sign of ignorance; they’re a sign you’re paying attention. “Technical” people is kind of a nonsensical term, when you think about it. Nobody is literate on every technical topic out there. A chemist has no idea what a cryptographer is talking about (unless they’ve learned both fields, of course!). I think technical people are just people who try to understand.

My dad is particularly fond of telling me how my grandmother fearlessly brandished her meager German at poor unsuspecting strangers, and when she inevitably made a mistake, she didn’t react with embarrassment. Instead she’d laugh and tell her friends how she mixed up Katzen and kotzen, and how funny that was. She’d ask what she did wrong, and what to do next time. In this way, she became fluent in not just German, but in five other languages.

It’s okay to not know what people are talking about. It’s okay if it feels like complete gibberish for awhile, and it’s okay to admit that you only understood 5% of the conversation thus far. If you only understood 5% this time, well, maybe next time it’ll be 10%. Your brain is wired to find patterns in chaos. Eventually, the words will decipher themselves.