Does Your Assumption of What Others Know Alienate Others?

I spend my work time and non-work talking to people from all walks of life. At the onset of speaking with someone, even when we have a mutual connection, an introduction is required to give people further context. The presumption of their memory of that introduction, or the assumption that they’ve researched you is a faulty one. I’ve had to learn, the hard way.


Over the past 6 years I’ve had to introduce myself with a great deal of awareness as to my tone because I have some associations that some people might know. So, I regularly ask the following questions, separately and sentences apart:

“Are you familiar with” (The organization I helped to found that is super well known in the nonprofit sector, but less so for folks who’ve worked in other sectors and/or don’t also volunteer)

“Are you familiar with Gene Roddenberry?” (The creator and author of Star Trek, who is the namesake behind the Fellowship I support, and a beloved figure in nerdom and popular culture)

While both of these references are important parts of my career, I don’t ever want to presume that people know them, or don’t know them. At different points in my introduction journey, I assumed one, or the other. Some people have reacted as though they were offended that I assumed that they knew one or both, and others think it absurd that I presumed that they know either.

So, I had to learn the hard way to go into most situations with very neutral expectations and using language that presumes nothing. What I care about is being a generous conversationalist and making someone feel welcome and seen.

This is key because I’ve a large number of people in life, both friends and family, but of course also those I coach that I regularly encounter on flights, trains, and in line who have no particular knowledge of the non-profit sector or social enterprise. I therefore have learned that dropping terms like 403b, board governance, Echoing Green or Ford Foundation President Darren Walker will end up with another person looking at me with a blank stare and either feeling stupid or believing that I am pompous/out of touch.

The blank stare is not my friend. It isn’t your friend either. I’ve been a part or cause of enough uncomfortable social situations to never want to be the impetus of situations where others feel awkward. That tendency has a chilling effect on all the good that can come from conversation.

  • They won’t understand who you are and what you’ve done, making collaboration impossible.
  • They are less likely to introduce you to others because they won’t know who would be relevant and whether you could have a productive conversation.
  • They will think less of you as a person.

And this can really hurt you at the workplace too:

  • Landing the Job - are you excluding people in the room when you interview?
  • On the Job - do you make it impossible for your colleagues to work with you?

Your love of acronyms and references has a chilling effect on anything useful happening. While we are on the subject of alienating others. I think I want to refer back to the seminal book on dianetics and semiotics by Umberto Eco. You may have read the recent excerpt in its original Italian published in the 2023 annual review by the Asian Semiotics Society (ASS). So, Umberto Eco exists. The rest is a blather of the type that shows up somewhat frequently in networking or first meeting scenarios. Not fun to read, nor to hear at any function, or 1:1 meeting.  

Don’t be a jargon-based life form. Nor should you make your conversation feel like a quiz. Why do people end up doing this?

  • They are too insular in their assumption of others.
  • They want to sound impressive and brag about their knowledge and connections.
  • They want you to feel less than them.

These people end up being monologists……. because no one can or wants to engage them.

Please shift the focus from being selfish and alienating to being a generous conversationalist. The generous conversationalist:

  • Doesn’t assume people will get their references and doesn’t make them feel ridiculous for not knowing.
  • Keeps the overall number of references in check.
  • Make references that are relevant to the conversation.
  • Will ask the other person about what they know. No one signed up for a lecture from you.

The generous conversationalist wants to learn and have the other person feel heard.

I promise you that this isn’t just about coders and scientists. All roles and industries have jargon, seminal text and well-respected leaders which is incomprehensible to 95% of the others. Even in massive areas of popular culture like sports or televisions we need not to dig far to lose most people. (6-tool player? Key-grip?)

Stop making the people you speak with feel like they are not enough.

Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market