People (in academia) are (strangely) mean

28 Jan

Of course, not all of them. But surprisingly many. And I had it tough growing up as a book worm and a straight A student in a country where standing out and being a bit different was not tolerated or encouraged. On the contrary, it was ridiculed and called names upon. As someone who has been bullied in some way throughout school, I did develop a thick skin. Unfortunately, what kept me going was believing that one day I will be surrounded by equally curious, equally (or even more) knowledgeable individuals, whose passion and enthusiasm were admirable.

Now, here is the thing about academic circles: Yes, many of the people are very smart, yes many of the people are very friendly and eager to share the enthusiasm they have for science with you, but one large part of them are mean jerks. I say it kindly and with respect. I always naively imagined that academia is some magic, in a way better, world where people talk about ideas, help each other, discuss science and stay away from the mediocre. Little did I know. In one way or another, many people in academia are not pleasant, nice to talk to or hang out with (Ok, many is perhaps an exaggeration due to the ex ante expectation of a low number I had in mind). Turns out, many of the people in academia are all touchy and have some ego issues, or they were bullied growing up and now recuperate by being mean to others. There are ways to convey a message, to offer criticism without destroying someone’s work. But perhaps I am misunderstanding them and the attacks are purely high regard and respect towards the science, so that  work of less than impeccable quality should be annihilated. Perhaps.

Of course, I agree that all new findings and discoveries should be regarded with suspicion and scrutinised closely. We do not want to have another Plastic Fantastic case in any scientific filed. Ever! But it is so discouraging for productivity when you go to seminars and conferences and you witness this hostility. Researchers sometimes are not even given the chance to explain themselves, to clarify and elaborate on a point because the attacks begin. And out of the seminar rooms, the attacks are often personal and very disrespectful. Often they are not intended to help someone advance in their research, they want to destroy it.

I’ve spent some amount of time in my research trying to understand why some people go for a criminal career. It also puzzles me and fascinates me why some people are simply mean. To what extent the circumstances and what we go through shape us, and to what extent it is genetics, the family environment we are raised in, the friends we choose, and then, of course, it is not random why and how we have made these choices. Is being mean simply the way you are wired? If the only purpose of saying something to someone — irrelevant if it is a close friend, or a distant acquaintance — is to hurt their feelings and make them feel crappy, why the hell would you say/do that? How can people do something that on purpose is hurtful to others and live with themselves? Paradoxiacally, the bigger deviances I can understand, as there are usually a number of factors both in and out of someone’s control that might be contributing. But being otherwise average,striving to live a normal life and considering yourself  a good person, and then acting like a jerk is something that is beyond my comprehension. Unless you are the Grumpy cat, you’ve got no excuse.

And in the end, here is a totally unrelated photo of a kitty to fight the negativity.

kitty mean


Posted by on January 28, 2015 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “People (in academia) are (strangely) mean

  1. strider

    June 19, 2015 at 9:30 am

    I have seen this mean behavior in seminars and conferences too. I can come up with a few explanations.

    You mentioned being ridiculed and called names – this is what a lot of high achievers go through in their high-school or even college years. Therefore, until a person is enrolled in graduate school she’s being put down. So when the person starts her academic career, it’s payback time!

    Other than that, people feel better about themselves by putting others or their ideas down. There’s not a lot of occasions that a person from the academia can really feel appreciated. Researchers are constantly working alone or in very small groups and exert a lot of effort often with little to no recognition. So a conference is a time to shine and to be recognized. And it’s always easier to look smart by critiquing others than producing something yourself.


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