Career SkillsCareersLessons on Leadership

Are You an Engineering Elitist?

By Jacquelyn Adams

“Every industry has its own jargon,” Sebastian shot back at me. “I could explain the details of my work, and you wouldn’t understand it. Why do you act like being an engineer makes you smarter than everyone else?”

His words were harsh and cut to the bone, but only because I heard the ring of truth in them.

“You’re right,” I admitted. “Sometimes I let it get to my head. I need to change that.”

This humbling exchange happened yesterday with the guy I recently began dating. I broached the subject after noticing he’d become sullen and withdrawn, hesitant to engage in conversation. He pointed out why, and as it so often does, the truth hurt.

I’ve always been proud of my career choice. Ever since the first math class I’d excelled at, I wanted to be an engineer.

That desire fueled me through the struggle to get my education. On one summer break, I had two jobs just to afford the next year’s tuition. During the days, I worked full-time as a computer intern at Parker Hannifin; at night, I waited tables.

But the long hours and the sleep deprivation were worth it so I could pay for the senior year, graduate, and achieve my dream. It was hard to hear I was now lording that education and achievement over others.

I thought back to the intellectual elitism I had experienced in my own Freshman Orientation. Amongst the typical questions of “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” one student asked me, “What was your ACT score?”

I was shocked at the pretentiousness of the question, thrown out so brazenly as a way of getting to know another person. However, this type of academic arrogance would rear its ugly head in many different forms throughout my remaining four years on campus.

Having been thoroughly disgusted by this imperious attitude towards others, I swore to myself I would never act this way. Obviously, I failed.

Engineers can, at times, act like intellectual snobs. Perhaps it’s because we received fewer sports trophies in our youth. Maybe we occasionally botch social interactions or, at times, are just plain awkward (I’ve had extensive experience with these last two).

It’s possible, because of this, we glean some satisfaction from showing off in our own area of expertise while watching others struggle.

Or is it even simpler than that? Perhaps we are not wired to be as empathetic as others. Being more logically minded, maybe our brains don’t naturally think to nurture and help others grow. We prioritize completing the task and neglect the development of those involved.

Whether it is for these reasons or others, it’s important to recognize we engineers are inclined to this behavior. It’s self-serving to our superficial desires for affirmation. It does not provide any real value to us. Often, it can be quite detrimental to our relationships with others.

To avoid coming off as an engineering elitist, consider these steps:

Engage in Active Listening

You’re a smart cookie. We get that! But it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from others. We all have our own background and experiences. Make the effort to really listen. Ask detailed and specific questions to ensure you understand their perspective. Don’t just wait for a chance to impress them with your response; really engage in the process and be present.

Recognize the Qualities Others Bring to The Table

Did I make fun of my sisters for their liberal arts majors? Absolutely! Did I take every opportunity to teasingly ask how their finger-painting classes and macaroni necklace projects were coming along? Definitely! Do I now realize I was immature and self-aggrandizing my own engineering education to the exclusion of others? Yes. What kind of world would this be if everyone was an engineer? Perish the thought! By recognizing the qualities others bring to the table and not overvaluing book smarts, we become more well-rounded, holistic leaders.

Practicing the Art of Diplomacy

Occasionally, we’re all going to be speaking to someone who we don’t connect with on any level. Even if you don’t find the conversation (or the person) interesting, it won’t do any good to point it out. Use this as an opportunity to practice kindness, a characteristic always needed in greater supplies. If that’s beyond you, figure a way to graciously bow out. Try not to see this situation as an inconvenience.  View it as on opportunity to practice the art of diplomacy.

By intentionally pursuing these practices, we ourselves benefit by becoming more thoughtful individuals. But it also improves the lives of those surrounding us.

Building a better world has always been a part of the engineering legacy. Why not make the extra effort to create a more benevolent one?

Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.


Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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  1. I have a hard time “showing off” my knowledge when very few people understand anything about what I do in my career. I encounter the opposite effect, liberal arts majors who accuse engineers of being narrow minded, boring, not well-rounded people who are so deeply immersed in our technology that we are incapable of considering the larger implications of our work. Universities commonly require engineering majors to take many general education courses outside of their major, and I don’t disagree with that because I don’t want to see universities reduced to the role of vocational training schools, but they do not require humanities majors to take any technology courses to understand the workings of the world that we live in. A general science requirement for liberal arts majors typically includes one astronomy or geology class in a four year curriculum and no exposure to the workings of the technology that we all use everyday.

    Engineers are accused of being ignorant of the humanities, but most engineers have at least heard of Plato and Shakespeare and know about their most important work. How many liberal arts majors have ever heard of James Clerk Maxwell? They carry little phones around with them all day but they remain completely ignorant of how those devices work, assuming that they must work by magic if they think about it at all. They fly on airplanes without knowing what holds the plane up in the sky.

    Universities consider that science and engineering knowledge is only relevant to people who intend to make a career out of it. Our society faces many issues that can only be decided by citizens and voters who have a well rounded knowledge of science and technology. And our educational system has failed most of them, so that they become vulnerable to the claims of charlatans who convince them that human-made climate change is a hoax, the Apollo moon landings were faked, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation causes cancer and vaccinations cause autism. We live in a modern world where ignorance carries the same authority as knowledge, and many people do not even know the difference.

  2. I hear what you’re saying. I had a similar issue with my family members. When people asked what I did, they’d respond saying I’m an engineer. After a couple of years in my career, it started to bother me that they had no clue how I spent my days. So, I created a simple sentence to explain my job. I told them I would appreciate if they would memorize this one sentence to understand my work. It was, “Jacquelyn trains engineers on how to fix medical equipment in hospitals.” I went around individually to each family member asking if they would be open to learning the phrase and parroting it back to me. This took some time and effort as there are nine people in my family (my parents are Catholic). But because I treated this as a genuine request I cared about and made it easier for them, they worked with me. And afterwards my family had a better awareness of my professional career.

    Was my job actually more complex than that? Absolutely! Was it an extreme over-simplification of my role? For sure! But it achieved my goal.

    People may not be familiar with James Clerk Maxwell. But they’re probably aware of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Isaac Newton.

    The point I’m trying to make is to meet people where they’re at. If your colleagues and my date are not interested in what you and I are saying, the fault isn’t on their side. It’s on ours. We can get upset and dig our heels in; while it continues to happen to us. Or we can adjust our method of approaching these conversations.

    Btw, your comment gave me an idea for a future article. You made me think of a couple of things I’ve done in my past that I didn’t include in this post. You’ll see the article published here in the next few weeks. I appreciate your taking the time to comment and thanks for the inspiration!

  3. I agree with the prior posts. We can meet in the middle.

    Quick story: at my first IEEE committee meeting, where I was the staff secretary, one volunteer said, “I have a very high government security level and if I told you what I do I’d have to shoot you.” and he laughed. At least he didn’t humiliate me by trying to explain how rockets go up.

    With a double major in English and Art History and an MA in English, and then some miscellaneous MBA and other business classes, I can honestly say I have no formal education in any science. But I have never been happier than since I’ve worked at IEEE and had the opportunity to speak with many engineers. In the main, our members are very enthusiastic to discuss their work with me (if it’s not classified) and educate me and answer questions and listen to non-engineer perspectives.

    From my experience, I have advice for people trying to communicate between engineers and liberal arts people:
    Engineer: A good teacher does not spew all the details at once, to a beginner and remembers that no question is stupid. So if you are trying to explain your very complex, PhD level research job to an English major, think of it like the sex ed talk for your 5 year old. no big words. just the general idea. The listener will probably have more questions!
    Non-tech person: You don’t have to know any math, but you can show interest in the engineer’s job and ask caring questions, such as “do you work in a lab? in a team? who will benefit if you solve the problem you are working on? what do you find fulfilling about this project?” Note: it would be nice if engineer also asked similar questions of the other person.

    Initially I thought this topic was about communication, but as I write I think it is about inclusion.
    Thanks for posting!

  4. I love your advice for the different groups of people communicating with each other. And I completely agree with the second to last sentence. I also thought this was about communication, but you’re totally right… it’s about inclusion. Thanks for your willingness to share your insights, Lynn!

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