So, I was at a Barbeque the other day and a situation occurred that, well, I'm getting tired of. It happens almost every time I meet a new group of people.

When you meet someone, eventually you come down to finding out what they do for a living.

I'm an engineer and work in the space industry, and after explaining that no, that doesn't mean I'm an astronaut and no, it's not as exciting as it sounds... I seem to end up as a go-to point for anything that they don't understand.

As an example from the weekend, I had to patiently explain why the flat earth movement is nonsense (sorry-not-sorry believers) due to concepts like gravity which I understand - this individual didn't, so I had to explain that.

Luckily I was saved by a 7 year old asking what causes lightning =]

Kids I'm fine with, it's adults who either weren't listening in school, or perhaps didn't get the education I did, that perceive "has a degree" as "knows everything and wants to discuss it at length at every opportunity".

I don't, I'm having some beers in the sun, and while I fully encourage people to learn more... I'm not a teacher.

How can I, as politely as possible, escape from these kind of situations without playing dumb?

It's a vicious cycle when answering one simple question leads to another, to another - and before I know it a group of people are hanging onto my every word until I run out of steam. It then becomes almost awkward to have a "normal" conversation afterwards - once someone sees you as a font of knowledge the balance of power shifts.

  • 3
    Is this question a possible help or duplicate ?
    – OldPadawan
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 14:04
  • 2
    Another useful link, this question has good advice on dealing with arguments.
    – Em C
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 14:07
  • 64
    Why are you against just casually saying "I'm not sure.", and then changing the topic? I am a software guy, which makes me the defacto go to for all computer issues. This strategy has actually worked really well for me.
    – user1856
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 17:23
  • 24
    One question to be sure: Do you accept good questions about your field ("How did the Falcon X achieve blablabla?") and you simply don't like those strange questions (paranormal, conspiracy etc. etc.) or do you want no discussion at all (simply enjoying your beer)? Commented May 31, 2018 at 20:37
  • 4
    Does it make a difference to you if the person asking (a) is actually honest-to-Diety curious, or (b) is simply trying to keep a conversation going? Whether we like it or not, lots of people ask and talk about what one does for a living; my experience is that some people are genuinely curious and want to learn more, and other people are just trying to be social not realizing that perhaps the very act of trying to be social can be off-putting to others. (Cue the typical extrovert vs introvert interaction; not implying you're either.)
    – user
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 17:56

8 Answers 8


You need multiple strategies here.

First, be more precise about your job. "I work in the space industry" naturally makes people think you're an astronaut or a rocket scientist. "I'm in professional baseball" would make people think you're a player or a coach rather than an accountant, chef, or janitor. So if you develop software, say you develop software. If you're doing research on the Northern Lights, say you do research on the Northern Lights. And so on. You're the one who makes it about your industry by saying what industry you work in, rather than what you do.

Second, if you don't want to explain something, don't. Say someone tells you the earth is flat. You can simply say "I'm convinced it's round." If they argue, don't get into facts and proving. You can say "is it a matter of faith for you, or the word of someone you trust, or you've seen good evidence?" Then no matter which they answer, you can say "it's the same for me" (it will be for the case of a round earth, we have all those things) and then smile and say "enjoy the barbeque" and go to another part of the yard, or inside to get a drink, or whatever.

Third, if you are asked a question you can answer, and want to, pay attention to the asker to see if they want a short or long answer. If you personally only feel like giving a short answer, do that. You can even say "I can't give you the long answer here without a whiteboard, so the short answer is ..." and summarize simply.

Fourth, learn a little catchphrase. A chef I know says "I cook all day and night for work, don't ask me to talk about it too!" and while people laugh, it changes the subject nicely. You can come up with something similar if you're being asked to explain climate change or the like.


This is similar, in some ways, to the questions I get as a computer professional (and even more so when I used to work at NASA.)

A few ways to escape conversations I've used or have heard other people use successfully:

  • "sorry, I'm not a great teacher, but there are some really good explanations [of the basic concepts] online."

  • "sorry, I haven't used that stuff since college, I concentrate pretty tightly on dispersal patterns of volcanic ash in the stratosphere." (Or whatever your narrow focus is.)

  • "sorry, I know too many trade secrets to be comfortable talking shop with outsiders."

  • "sorry, I answer technical questions all day at work and just want to relax at parties."

  • "enough about me, what do you do for a living?"

Make sure that you avoid saying anything that can be construed as "it would be a waste of time to try to explain it to you" even (or especially) if that's what you're actually thinking. This particularly goes for charged subjects like climate change, evolution, vaccination, or even plate tectonics, where you may be running into people who are more interested in reaffirming their commitment to one version rather than listening to actual information.


Change the subject

Interrupt them with a counter question or question about a similar but different topic, or find something else going on around and divert attention to that. This is probably the easiest way to get the focus off of you, where you could slip away or keep the conversation headed away from you.

Show them how to research on their own

If they are really adamant about staying on topic, you could always end the conversation by telling them about some helpful websites or books they could pick up from their library. You could even tell them something along the lines of:

If I were to go in depth into this topic it would take a lot of time. Right now I just want to (enjoy a beer, eat some food, etc).

Most people would understand that explaining things takes time and effort and won't be offended that you want to relax. They are just interested in learning.

  • 1
    I don't think showing them how to research on their own would be effective. If they were interested in researching on their own, they would already know the basic information that they don't know. Changing the subject is probably going to be the bread and butter here. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 13:04
  • 3
    @tylerS.Loeper If they've never come across the subject before the BBQ they wouldn't have been able to research anything beforehand. I never really considered what an "engineer who works in the space industry" would do and I would probably have a lot of questions when first presented with an expert. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 13:16
  • 1
    The question mentions flat earthers, so I don't think the quality of the questioning is generally very high. The question also says "it's adults who either weren't listening in school...etc". Obviously we don't know these people, I am just extrapolating that the culprits are probably not interested in putting in the work to find out the information. There is certainly the case of people asking educated questions. I guess it might be a good strategy for those people. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 14:03
  • @tylerS.Loeper That is why I put change the subject above show them how to research on their own. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 14:07
  • Alright. Makes sense. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 14:10

Conversation at BBQs with strangers is all about small talk; these people are trying to make contact with you by showing an interest in your (obviously interesting) job. However they are usually not interested in the answer. They are interested in expressing their own opinion, and/or talking about themselves.

So just answer the question in a very superficial way like:

"You know, I just sit at my desk and stare at math formulas all day!"

Then indicate that you don't want any more questions about work saying something like:

"Oh well, we're not at work now right?"

Then introduce a new subject (anything superficial like sports, cars or pop-music will do) and turn the conversation over to them:

"By the way, I really like your shirt. Do you play hockey?"

Then if you want to gracefully end the conversation, either talk about the weather or change the setting:

"I'm thirsty/hungry, can I get you something?"

It's okay not to return to the person if it's a busy BBQ but if not, return with the drink and then tell them you found an old acquaintance you need to catch up with.

You might also want to pick the BBQs you attend with more care...


Try a new strategy - Lie

I had a friend who was a dentist.
As you can imagine, his equivalent barbecue party, he'd be asked to look in people's mouths, diagnose that faint nagging feeling they've been having about this or that issue, asked to advise on which toothbrush to buy...

As you can imagine, he soon tired of that.

For the past 30 years he's been telling people who ask what he does that he's a biscuit designer.

Very few people have ever had a follow up question to that, beyond, 'did you design the oreo/hob-nob/rich tea?' etc. to which he would simply answer, 'No.' & the party continues.

This strategy, of course, works best when you are unlikely to ever meet these people again - much harder if it's a circle of friends, although a circle of friends ought to have got the message by now.


Being an Audio and Software Engineer, I can kind of relate. Not so many people are as excited about my field but I do always end up with someone's phone in my hand, working as the free technician of the afternoon, which is extremely annoying in its own right.

Personally, I've found there is no real way around this when at a cookout or similar event without being a little blunt. For example, when someone tries to hand me their phone I simply offer them my email address and tell them to contact me when I'm not relaxing and I'd be more than happy to help them. This allows me to deny the immediate request without completely shutting them down.

When I run into those who want to discuss app ideas or which DAW is best for techno production and so on and so forth... I simply hit them with the same strategy, different dynamic.

Anyways, I hope this helps even a little. Best of luck to you.


Preventative measures.

These problems are happening because you are sharing your potentially very interesting background. If it was me I would be more vague if I didn't want to talk about it too much, and deflect incoming questions.

You basically have two options for dealing with these kinds of problems; be direct, or be boring.

Example: Be direct:

What do you do?

I am an engineer.

Of what specifically?

Oh I don't really want to talk about it. I just want to relax/forget about work/enjoy the party.

But what do you do? (Unlikey, but if they don't leave)

I already said I don't want to talk about it. Please respect my wishes.

Example: Be boring:

What do you do?

I work on making sure that the equipment designed by my x company works as efficiently and predictably as possible, so we can reduce costs.

Oh that's interesting. Like what?

Usually I talk with my peers and together we try to think of things that might go wrong. We try and identify common problem that cost a lot of money, and make sure to avoid it. We have to be very precise and most of our time is spent crunching numbers. It sounds interesting but really it is not. We just do the same thing everyday.

You can choose your words differently, but the idea is to deflect as much as possible. You could also be extremely specific when they ask you what you do to the point it is no longer interesting. Basically your simple options are to be direct, or to be boring.

People will stop asking very quickly. You are not giving them any positive reinforcement, which is a concept from behavior analysis to reduce behavior. In ABA terms you would be punishing (reducing) the unwanted behavior by withholding the reinforcement (expected reward that motivates the action). You can read up on the science of this, if you want to understand how to implement this and other forms better.

http://theautismhelper.com/aba-101-aba-and-behavior-reduction/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punishment_(psychology)

To the person you are doing this to this is a very natural flow of circumstances that happens everyday. So it won't be rude.

  • 4
    Welcome to IPS. We require that you provide some sort of backup for your answer beyond "trust me".
    – Magisch
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 10:58
  • 1
    Trust me was not used as evidentiary, just as a verbal expression. I did mention a field that backs up the claim. I have now also cited some sources. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 13:02

I offer a frame challenge.

Of course you have every right to feel the way you do. Most people don't like talking about "work" outside of work. But really, it's only "work" if you choose to look at it that way. It sounds like people aren't asking you about Excel spreadsheets and tedious numerical calculations. They're asking you about the very mysteries of nature, things mankind has pondered for millennia and slowly come to understand piece by piece.

I also have a background in science and engineering. Personally, I wish more people would ask me questions. The view I see it, you have a golden opportunity to do two things here:

  1. Help your community become less ignorant and more educated. Sure, helping one person understand why the sky is blue might not count for much, but you'd be doing more than that. You'd be showing people that there is a reliable, logical way in which to deduce truth, which is based on experimental observation of nature and generalization of the results. In this age of magical crystals, climate change denial and alternative facts, it's clear that most people don't have any idea how to determine truth from non-truth. Most accept as true whatever they've heard the most times, this is a significant problem in pretty much every society. Some of us have the ability to play a small role in the solution of this problem, and I believe we should.

  2. Become the "wise-man" (or woman) in your group. Why did you learn everything you did in school? Perhaps it was just to make money, which is fine. Perhaps because you found it interesting. Either way, with the knowledge you have now, you have the chance to become someone who is helpful, appreciated and respected. Is that not a higher calling than your professional work which is "not as exciting as it sounds"?

How can I, as politely as possible, escape from these kind of situations without playing dumb?

My answer is don't. You can use these situations as an opportunity to become a respected and appreciated resource for the people in your life.

If you don't want to do this because it sounds like just more work to you, that's a perspective you might want to analyze. For instance, the question of whether earth is round or flat might feel menial to you, but maybe that's because you take it for granted. Historically it was a very controversial topic, mired in religious and philosophical conflict. This question great example demonstrating to people that though our senses tell us one thing, we can systematically deduce a truth that our instincts would have hid from us. In my opinion, the questions you are being asked are profound, and you have a chance to better live up to your potential as a human if you seek to address them. Just my opinion.

If you don't want to answer questions because you're not sure of the answers and will inevitably get stuck on some detail you can't explain, that's fine! No one has all the answers. You can always simply say "I'm not sure about that specific point, but hopefully you see the general idea." Personally, I look at it as a chance to learn. Maybe you feel like learning is a chore, some people do and I used to as well. I'd again challenge you to reevaluate that perspective.

Tl;dr You have a chance to do something with your knowledge far more meaningful than your daily professional tasks, if you choose to view it that way.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.