“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 I broached the subject after noticing he’d become sullen and withdrawn, hesitant to engage in conversation.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.