The peril of talking to normal people

My sister used to vacation with me and my math friends for a week each summer; as you might guess she has a lot of patience. By the end of each vacation she was well-trained: she would laugh at our jokes, use words like “trivial”, “modulo” and “orthogonal” in casual conversation, and even get their meaning right. She became, for all non-work purposes, a mathematician. Most of my mathematician friends are a little strange. My mathematician friends are most of my friends, because I am a little strange myself in a way that makes me a socially high-functioning mathematician, but a bit of an odd one in the real world. To be fair I do well with physicists and circus nerds too.

The world outside our little academic bubble is a dangerous place for us. Here is a story to demonstrate the peril of talking to “normal people” like a mathematician:

In my early twenties I went through a bit of a rough patch. The circumstances have little relevance to this story, but I’ll give you some highlights for context: I moved from Europe to the US, away from my family and friends for the first time, and had some relationship issues. Not having much of a support network at my new home and feeling quite depressed, I went to the university counseling centre seeking someone to complain to. They were very caring and conscientious, and I ended up with a wonderful therapist and a psychiatrist whom I will call Dr. Safe Side. She liked to err on the safe side. This is how my first appointment with Dr. Safe Side went:

Dr. S: “Why did you come to see me?”
Me: “I’ve been having trouble with X and Y and Z.”
Dr. S: “Do you have family here?”
Me: “My husband, but we are going through problem Y. I also have one friend.”
Dr. S: “Do you ever think about hurting yourself?”
Me: “Of course.” (I was thinking “What a silly question, who doesn’t”? Years later I know that most people, including my present self, don’t. )
Dr. S: “Are you absolutely sure that you will not hurt yourself today?”

Let me explain: my concept of ‘absolutely sure’ is along the lines of ‘beyond doubt, no matter what happens later today, I will not hurt myself’. So I started giving some thought to this: “What if Husband and I have a horrible fight? What if he leaves me today? What if my parents think I’m a terrible person and disown me for making such a mess of my life?” (I was prone to slight exaggerations in my thought process.) After some consideration I said:

“How could I be sure?”

Obviously the wrong answer. My therapist would have known how to interpret it, or at least she would have asked me to clarify, but in the eyes of Dr. S. my fate was decided.

Dr. S: “Ok, I’ll call you an ambulance.”
Dr. S: “I think our first priority should be to keep you safe.”

ScreamWhat she meant was sending me to the psychiatric emergency room, and no matter what I said at that point, I was in for the ride. The emergency room turned out to be quite the life experience. They took away my shoes, lest I strangle myself with shoelaces. An acutely psychotic guy was ranting next to me, and the nurses were discussing each patient in front of all of us as if we were babies. I realised that I might be stuck there for a while and practically had a panic attack, which made me feel appropriately unwell. After a few hours of this delightful time, I finally got to talk to the intake psychiatrist. By this time I gathered that I should focus more on the fact that I was overall reasonably ok. After 15 minutes of talking with me he seemed confused and asked “So why exactly were you sent here?”. He called my therapist, who was quite surprised and assured him that I was not a danger to myself. I was released.

The other day Pink and I were filling out a pre-checkup questionnaire about our baby Pixie. “Are you concerned about your child’s hearing?” “No”. Pixie obviously hears just fine, at least to the extent that one can tell based on observing his behaviour: he turns towards our voices and startles at loud sounds. “Is anyone else concerned about your child’s hearing?” I was about to check “No” when Pink objected: “How would we know that no-one is? We can’t read everyone’s minds.”

Please share embarrassing stories about yourself or the mathematician in your life in the comments. Computer scientists welcome as well.

  46 comments for “The peril of talking to normal people

  1. March 13, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    I m sorry but this is a huge overreaction. The op clearly stated he had a problem with talking to people because of their vagueness implying that the other person was problematic . By stating the op is problematic instead of the normal person he is just stating that he is the source of the problem, not the normal person.

  2. Timi
    March 11, 2016 at 1:21 am
    • MC&C
      April 15, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      Yes, Evelyn is very cool :).

  3. Timi
    February 25, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    About US visa: while I was filling out the form last year, I was laughing at the questions, marking NO, of course, but during the flight I had endless conversations in my head about what they would ask me at the immigration, what should I reply, and what will I do if they want to send me back to Hungary, how will I refuse to come back, actually I think I made a complete movie about how I will live the rest of my life on the airport, by the time we reached NY I think I had a proper plan for EVERYTHING – and I was asked one short question: how long will I stay. I was both relieved and a bit dissapointed. (Not mathematitian, just an IT project manager, planing web based services:) )

    • MC&C
      February 26, 2016 at 9:49 am

      πŸ™‚ I’ve never come away from an airport or visa interview with a deep sense of satisfaction, relief+disappointment is mostly as good as it gets for me. My favourite though is when I’m asked a math question to test whether I’m really a mathematician.

  4. Vishal
    February 25, 2016 at 6:30 am

    Thanks for sharing this funny story.

    Being an engineer, I am kind of in the middle of normal and engineer, which, doesn’t bode well. I tend to talk normally first, but, soon lose control to the engineer. It’s usually too late before I start being normal again.

    • MC&C
      February 25, 2016 at 9:39 am

      Being able to pose as a normal person is a great life skill! I’ve been working on it too…

  5. Vaishnavi
    February 24, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    I love you people.

    • MC&C
      February 25, 2016 at 9:38 am


  6. anders
    February 24, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    When I was applying for a visa, there was a question along the lines of “have you ever committed a terrorist act or crime against humanity or been suspected of committing one?” and my natural reaction was “I don’t know if I’ve ever been *suspected* of anything… I don’t really have an alibi for the entire Rwandan genocide or Khmer Rouge…”

    I checked the “no” box anyway.

    • MC&C
      February 25, 2016 at 9:42 am

      πŸ˜€ I checked “no” too on that one.

  7. February 24, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    I realy enjoyed your story, will bookmark this site πŸ™‚

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      Thank you :)!

  8. Gerhard
    February 24, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Software engineer here, I almost got my healthy appendix removed when I was about 12. I had fever and was brought to the doctor. The doctor poked around on my belly and asked: “Does that hurt?”. Grown up man, poking childs belly – technically it did hurt. I said “Yes” and was sent to the Hospital. Operation was cancelled when I told the doctor at the hospital that his other Hand, placed in my ribs, would hurt me too.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 9:02 pm

      Haha, great story :)! Good save.

  9. honkytonkwillie
    February 24, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    Among other talents, people with Aspberger’s constantly see the imprecise nature and ambiguity in the language people employ. Then it’s always a struggle to determine if someone really meant what they said, or if they were just playing fast-and-loose with their poor choice of words.

    It’s usually the latter.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 9:01 pm

      It makes for lots of joke opportunities that a small subset of people find hilarious and the rest find incredibly annoying ;).

  10. DDM
    February 24, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    I usually reply to “Have you ever thought of… ” questions, where the object is abstract (e.g. “Have you ever thought of stealing?”), in the affirmative BTW, because my brain is sufficiently scattered that I’ve thought of a great many of abstract subjects. But it is usually the wrong answer. I would do better with giving a “no” answer to all such questions as in, “Perish the thought! How could such a thought ever have crossed my mind?”… which is what I think they want to hear.
    It’s about knowing the code, and the code is different in different countries. But honestly, I’d much rather completely ignore the code and speak my heart…

  11. DDM
    February 24, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    It’s charitable of you to attribute this to being a mathematician and to take the blame on yourself- I had an analogous experience (while we were doing research with Dror) and it ended up in court (well- just about; they backed down before it came in front of a judge and even wrote us a letter of apology) and it was a major contributing factor to us moving on.

    I’m much less charitable than you are in this regard; DSM-IV states that a person has to have a concrete plan to hurt themselved to be considered at risk, but there are places where psychiatrists take liberties. But your reaction is much more healthy- it’s usually got better utility to blame yourself than to fight the world.

    I actually think this is a fairly specific problem- we are from places where we assume that mental health workers are one thing, but in North America they’re something else, and we don’t register the difference. I would file this among the perils of being an expat (actually, one of the more serious ones).

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 8:57 pm

      Ouch, that sounds pretty serious! I agree that it’s a bit of a cultural issue, but I was also simply ignorant of how the system works. It was my first interaction with a psychiatrist anywhere and I had never considered the possibility that I could be involuntarily committed. I knew that happened to people sometimes, but never in a million years did I imagine it could happen to me. I thought you’d have to _do_ something for that, not just _say_ something.

    • DDM
      February 24, 2016 at 10:31 pm

      Technically, in the case of depression, you have to show concrete plans to hurt yourself… although that wasn’t how this worked in your case.

      I knew that and *still* got into trouble; like you, I didn’t expect such a light trigger-finger..

    • MC&C
      February 25, 2016 at 10:05 am

      Yes, and “plans” can mean a lot of things from innocuous fantasies to “I’m going to head straight home from your office with this gun in my bag that I just purchased and shoot myself in the head in my bedroom while listening to the Gloomy Sunday.” I agree that involuntarily locking people up should be done only on the severe end of the spectrum. That said I don’t envy psychiatrists for having to make that call. In my case of course I had “plans”, but of the common angsty teenage girl variety, focused more on stupidly romantic details like what dress I would wear rather than how damage to myself would realistically be done. I’d love to hear your story if you’re up for it, maybe on a more private forum like email :)?

  12. February 24, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    True, have felt many a times to add one more check box and write N/A, None of these etc πŸ™‚

  13. MC&C
    February 24, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Oh wow, hello everyone! I had no idea that anyone other than my sister and three friends would be reading this. πŸ™‚

    • Heather
      February 25, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Yeah, your story got posted at Hacker News yesterday. There are lots more comments here:

    • MC&C
      February 25, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      Thank you for the link Heather!

  14. corwerk
    February 24, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    Something like that IMVHO may happen only in US and USA-alike country, in Europe
    if a therapist do something like that first you would not have sent anywhere and
    second the therapist loses his degree in few week of police investigation for manifest
    lack of competence (after your and emergency service formal complaint)…

    Taking things literally is typical in anglophone world but outside reasoning is still the
    rule so if I go to an airport shouting something like “I have a bomb!” nearly no one
    give me more than a curious look and local police at maximum went to accompany me
    outside if I continue. Generally the Ford-model compartmentalized and no-reasoning-
    outside-my-compartment embarrasses me, it’s simply alien.

    Sorry for my English!

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 5:51 pm

      I think part of the issue in the US is that the biggest risk for a psychiatrist is to have one of their patients kill or seriously hurt themselves and be sued for not having done something about it. Sending someone for an unnecessary trip to Psych ER is safer. But Dr Safe Side was especially over-cautious.

  15. February 24, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Aye. That has got me into trouble a few times! Once at a job agency, I was asked “Are you prepared to do any job?” The normal answer is “yes”. But how would I know? What if the job was cleaning steeples? Or gathering spiders? I couldn’t answer “yes” without knowing, and I certainly didn’t want to commit myself to something unknown.

    My other concern was taking someone else’s job. All these higher qualified people, would be pushing down, causing the unemployment to shift to those in lower socio-economic circumstances. If there’s no job for me, I shouldn’t take someone else’s. All that happens is they go on benefits instead of me. Which I didn’t think sounded fair or right.

    She says, “But you have to answer yes, or they cut off your unemployment benefits!”

    So, we have this to and fro for 20 minutes at least before I finally relented (and said yes to her,but said no in my head).

    Fortunately, I never got offered a job I didn’t want to do.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 5:48 pm

      That question really should come with some qualifiers, the answer as is obviously ‘no’. Even to a ‘normal person’ I would think…

  16. Alex Jacobson
    February 24, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Just try and use the word” argument” with normal people.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      πŸ˜€ Indeed.

  17. Bill B
    February 24, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    This reminds me of a phrase I hate. When hearing bad news from a friend “I’m sorry to hear that”. Taken literally that’s more of a don’t tell me bad news, then any sign of real commiseration. Of course when you hear it, it’s a really bad time to bring it up.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Haha, I love this. I’ve always had a bad feeling about “I’m sorry to her that” but couldn’t put a finger on why, this is it!

  18. Tom
    February 24, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    Oh god, every day I struggle to not respond to polite inquiry such as “How’s dinner?” with a point-by-point breakdown of the meal’s pros and cons from both objective and subjective viewpoints. I’m learning to simply say “It’s great, thanks” to save them emotional stress.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      Well done :)!

  19. Heather
    February 24, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    For questionnaires like that, I often answer “not that I know of”.

    I am an engineer raised fundamentalist (constantly hearing that the rapture could happen at any time), which resulted in me feeling uncomfortable saying an unqualified “see you tomorrow” to schoolmates. I learned to add “barring death, dismemberment, or disease” just in my head, rather than out loud.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 5:53 pm

      Oh wow, that sounds scary. Good for you saying it only in your head!

  20. Irene
    February 24, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    My sympathies. I’ve met people who had this experience and wound up with a couple months of inpatient care. You got very lucky to be at a facility where they let you talk to an actual psychiatrist (rather than a social worker) on the first day, and that they were willing to call your therapist. Nowhere I’ve been would do that.

    Anyway, yeah. πŸ™

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 5:58 pm

      Yes, only later I realised how much this could have affected my life after. A hospitalization could have disqualified me from visas I later had to get, for example. It’s a funny story now, but only because I got lucky. I was very impressed with the psychiatrist at the hospital, he knew what he was doing.

  21. February 24, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Very funny. Sometimes I just write in N/A for questions like that.

    • February 24, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      “N/A” or “Neither Agree Nor Disagree.”

  22. Matilde
    February 24, 2016 at 12:55 am

    Living in Montreal with English as my second language and French as my third, I have tons of small stories coming from taking words too literally/logically and the duality of language. (These stories are very small, several orders of magnitude smaller than ending in a psychiatric emergency room!)

    For example, every day I agonize over how people say “Bonjour” (hello, but meaning “good day”) and “Bonne journee” (bye, but meaning “good duration of the day”). The big transcendetal questions I have are: What do you say when you have to greet someone you’ve already greeted in the same day? Answer: “rebonjour”, but not everybody does that and it drives me crazy! What do you say when you have to say goodbye to someone you know you’re going to see later in the day? Answer: “a tout a l’heure” meaning see you later. But somehow people don’t use this unless you have a clear appointment. Everyday I take my son to school I cross the school crossing guard twice (once going and once coming back) and she always says bonjour and bonne journee both ways and she drives me crazy because I don’t know how to answer. Sometimes I also run into my son’s former teacher, we cross paths for like 10 seconds and somehow we have to manage to say bonjour and bonne journee, one after the other, in like 10 seconds, and it also drives me crazy because it’s like saying the same thing twice. (Spanish, my first language, also have those greetings, but they are not so widely used in my country as they are used here. I think part of the problem is that Spanish retracts to French without being homeomorphic).

    With English I have to opposite problem, I don’t analyze it at all. So I oversay “you too”. Like in the airport, when everybody (airline employees, taxi driver, etc) is wishing you to have a good trip and I answer “you too”, and then I spent minutes regreting my lack of logic, while those people already forgot me.

    And then, my favorite is that in highly friendly/touristic places in Montreal people greet you with “Bonjour/Hello”, the idea being that you answer in your favorite language and the conversation goes from there in that language. But of course, if you say “Bonjour/Hello”, I’ll answer “Bonjour/Hello” and then an akward silence will follow. Or, people asking me whether I prefer to speak in English or French. The question goes like this: Do you prefer English/Est-ce que vous preferez le francais? Now, if the second language that was used was French, then I’ll naturally answer in French, that I prefer to continue the conversation in English.

    • MC&C
      February 24, 2016 at 10:49 am

      πŸ˜€ I do “You too” all the time too! Then I usually follow it up with an extra-awkward “Oh. I guess you won’t? Sorry.”

    • French_guy
      February 24, 2016 at 8:19 pm

      Forget that “Bonjour” comes from “Bon jour”, and see it as an exact equivalent of “Hello”, maybe it will help you !

      If you don’t have a formal rendez-vous later, you can say the very common “Γ  plus tard” instead of “Γ  tout Γ  l’heure”.

      If you meet someone again, you can node (perhaps with a smile), or ask if everything is ok (like : ça va ? or : tout va bien ?, or if you just cross him : bonne après-midi !)

  23. Pink
    February 23, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    And, if we had checked β€˜Yes’, then we would know for certain that somebody was!

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