How to translate your degree into dinner table discussion

As Cambridge students, many of us feel that we have suddenly been given access to a new world of mind-altering knowledge. Immersing yourself in a degree can almost be like learning a new language. Unfortunately, this is also true for those around you, and your family has probably never heard about the power of reflexivity in Foucauldian theory. Suddenly, you might find yourself in a situation where: a) no one understands what you’re talking about, or b) they get offended by your constant appeal to theoretical authority. Does this happen to you? Here are a few simple truths that can help to sort out the well-known cognitive bias called the “curse of knowledge” – how to communicate what you know best without losing your listeners.

Identify the purpose of the discussion

When you feel like an expert, it’s easy to get into debate or lecture mode. You either want to “win” arguments, or you authoritatively explain away without much input from others – even when no one else is interested in that kind of discussion. Let’s face it: this is probably never a good strategy. However, it depends on what you’re aiming for. Like with any piece of communication, you must first decide what the purpose of the conversation is. Do you want others to appreciate and learn from your point of view? In that case, an exploratory discussion where everyone is allowed to contribute will probably achieve that goal. Do you want to impress someone around the dinner table? Chances are they’ll be annoyed if you slip into a know-it-all rant (we’ve all been there…), whereas a considered down-to-earth discussion would work better. Don’t let your degree work against you.

Avoid referencing authority

In any discussion, others might oppose your point of view – even if you’re an expert. When others question you, avoid simply referencing “but I learned this at Cambridge” or “but theory X says so”. It’s easy to be dismissive of those we perceive as knowing less, but Cambridge (clearly) can’t teach you everything. For example, while many of us learn a great deal of theory, we are given much less experience. This might go without saying, but it’s important to remember that there are other sources of knowledge that deserve our respect.

Find the most basic words

Similarly, avoid using too much terminology as this quite literally is another language. We all know at least one professor who inadvertently makes their lectures into a frenzy of covert Wikipedia searches, and you don’t want to be that person. Think: would I know what this word meant if I hadn’t gone to Cambridge or chosen this particular degree? Here you might argue that words and concepts can always be clarified, but that usually puts you right back into lecture mode. If the answer’s no – let it go.

Stay interested and ask questions

As social beings, humans are very attentive to subtle cues of social standing. This is tightly connected to attention and interest; for example, if you’re in a group of four where one person refuses to look at you, you will feel dismissed and uncomfortable. If you have the upper hand in a discussion, and you want the approval of those around you, it’s your job to put them at ease. Stay interested in others’ perspectives by actively asking questions. This is guaranteed to create a more relaxed atmosphere.

Ida Svenonius

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