It’s become a sort of meme to complain about words people love to loathe, the ones that send a shudder up your spine: words like “moist”, “slacks”, “irregardless” and “awesomesauce” (shudder shudder). I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring all of these, but there is one word that inevitably makes my jaw clench, the crease between eyebrows deepen and the knot between my shoulders kick into high gear. Yep, you guessed it, it’s “chat.”
I will chat with my relatives, I will chat with the grocery store clerk, I will chat with just about anyone outside of work. I will chat with other scientists and students and visitors while we are waiting for the bus or before a meeting starts. I will chat about family life, the weather, movies, books, football and celebrity gossip. Chat sounds like a nice word. One online definition reads “talk in a friendly and informal way.” What could be wrong with that?
At risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I think a lot is wrong with chatting. Like lots of people, I work really hard to plan my day, satisfy my administrative demands, move steadily forward on experiments and analysis, balance writing and reviewing with teaching and advising. Along the way I fiercely protect precious little bits of time for reading and thinking. I try to be a good collaborator and mentor. If a student or colleague comes to me wanting to talk about a potential project or looking for help interpreting an experiment or even dealing with a rough personal situation, I do my very best to help. On the other hand, I get frustrated when someone wants to meet and “chat about our project”, “chat about my research” or “chat about the things going on in your lab”. Chatting is by nature unstructured and informal. To me, it makes sense when it arises from a chance meeting, and that kind of fortuitous discussion sometimes leads to interesting and useful ideas. However when someone asks to set aside time for chatting, my interpretation is that they have not thought about how to structure the discussion enough to make it productive for either or both of us. I can’t help but cringe at the inevitable time sink. The person is asking for my time, but at the same time not communicating that they respect or value it.
I understand the value of creating a relaxed environment and of unstructured discussions, but I think these goals can still be achieved in a thoughtful way. I am very happy when someone wants to brainstorm about project directions, discuss recent experimental results, explore avenues for collaboration, or talk through an issue. I know that with a little editing, any one of these verbs could be replaced with “chat”. While the issues are of connotation and tone, that doesn’t mean that they are unimportant. A clear statement of what you hope to get out of the meeting might help you to organize your own thoughts and certainly helps the other person to be prepared for the discussion. I know that asking to “chat” may seem less intimidating to a younger or more junior person, but a slightly more formal request communicates respect, thoughtfulness and professionalism. I think this is true even when someone is seeking a free-ranging discussion or relatively informal advice. Open communication is essential to a vibrant research environment, and even the most senior scientists benefit from being approachable, but I hope we can save chatting for the line at the coffee shop.