I am a programmer and my colleague is a scientist, we are similar ages and at the same seniority. Neither of us have a background in economics, though I have studied some economics out of interest.

One day an economist was visiting our department, and the Phillips Economic Machine came up. My colleague started explaining to me what it was, and I said "Oh yes, they're awesome, there's one in the Science Museum in London...", and the conversation carried on happily.

Later the same day, with a different economist, the subject of Nassim Taleb came up, and my colleague turned to me and started to explain to that Nassim Taleb wrote a book called Black Swan, about unusual events... I rolled my eyes and said "I know who Nassim Taleb is", before the conversation continued. My colleague perceived my eye-rolling as rude, and said so.

I believe my colleague was trying to be helpful, and I shouldn't have rolled my eyes. However, I was annoyed by my colleague's assumption that I needed the explanation, about a really popular author, in a field in which neither of us is an expert, when I had demonstrated that I already knew about a more obscure topic in popular economics a few hours earlier.

Unfortunately, explaining happens to me quite a bit, and I usually ignore it, but get irritated internally. Sometimes after I've given a talk about a specialist programming topic, people will come up and start telling me about much more introductory topics in the same field, unsolicited.

What's a polite, gentle way to stop people explaining to you things that you already know? I'm not talking about situations where the person has no context about you: I'm talking about situations where you've already shown that you have knowledge of the area, and the person continues to assume you know less than they do.

Perhaps I should just allow the explaining, especially with strangers. But I would like to find a polite, non-hurtful solution, because (i) it's boring to have things explained to me that I already know, and (ii) it feels strangely invalidating, like the other person hasn't really absorbed who I am.

Thanks for any advice.

  • 1
    And your college also could have asked if you knew of the book Black Swan before assuming he had to explain it to you.
    – paparazzo
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 6:42
  • In your first story about the Phillips Economic Machine, you said that even after the colleague started explaining it "the conversation continued happily". Why weren't you annoyed by the first situation but seem to be annoyed with the others? Are you sure the explaining is the problem?
    – Brandin
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 9:15
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    @Brandin the first situation was fine because it's an obscure topic, and the colleague had no reason to think I had any prior knowledge of economics. The second was irritating because it was about a much more well-known subject, and the colleague now had prior reason to believe I might be aware of the book, but hadn't adjusted their belief about my knowledge. Also, the colleague has no prior reason to believe that they know more about economics than I do. It's the lack of adjustment based on evidence that's irritating. (See also: people explaining after I've given a talk.)
    – anon
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 9:33
  • 3
    I think you would be better off trying to change your initial reaction than find a polite way to tell someone to shut up because you aren't interested in what they're saying. Your perception of what folks should assume that you already know isn't reasonable. Give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are just trying to share something they found interesting, then put yourself in their shoes and treat them the way you would want to be treated. It's harder than it sounds, but it's worth the effort.
    – ColleenV
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:02
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    I think it is a leap to suggest that since you saw the machine in a museum, you must be familiar with the book. I've seen many amazing items in the NYC Museum of Modern Art, that doesn't mean I've read all of the books available which discuss these artists and themes in modern art.
    – cdkMoose
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 16:30

5 Answers 5


I don't know this scientist, but if I were saying things like that to you, it would be an expression of my respect for your intellect.

If someone who is very learned, such as this scientist appears to be, when any difficult or complex subject comes up, and it needs to be brought into a conversation with someone else, they tend to put the "someone else" into one of three possibilities:

  1. This person is familiar with and competent in this subject.
  2. This person is intelligent, and capable of understanding this subject, but is not (yet) familiar with it.
  3. This person is not able to understand or learn this subject.

This scientist put you in category number 2, when you were in fact in category number 1. I took this to mean that he respects your intelligence, but doesn't know you well enough to know that you are already familiar with these topics. This is understandable, as neither of you specialize in economics, but both appear to have learned it outside your core vocation.

If he had put you in category number 3, and just "dropped" you from the conversation when the complex topics came up, THEN you would be right to be upset.

Your first scenario you handled absolutely perfectly. The second one would have been better with something like, "You've read him, too? I'd love to go over what your take on his work is over lunch, sometime." You shut him down, but respectfully, and even enthusiastically.

Do this often enough, and you'll find that you'll have an ally, and perhaps even a friend.

Oh, and apologize to him for the eye-roll. Tell him you get tired of "... the jocks Mansplaining to you," and just reacted out of habit before you remembered who you were talking with. Trust me: He'll understand.

  • Thanks, this is a helpful answer. I think the irritating thing is when people repeatedly put you in 2 even though they've already had evidence that you should be in 1. But I like "You've read him, too?" - subtly implying that if the other person puts me in 2, then they are firmly in 2 as well :)
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 7:35
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    There are many other reasons for bringing up a subject in an introductory way. Although it may be off-putting if someone starts a discussion assuming that the other knows nothing about the topic, it is far more awkward to start a discussion with an incorrect assumption that the person knows the topic deeply. To a large extent it is necessary to "guess" someone else's familiarity and error on the side of not making too many assumptions about what they know.
    – teego1967
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 11:46
  • Thanks, that's interesting. I don't actually agree, I'd rather someone assumed I knew more than I do, unless it's in an obviously abstruse or professional area. There's nothing difficult about asking for clarification - people enjoy that and it shows interest - but it is awkward to tell someone you know everything they're saying.
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:37
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    @Richard, OK, but recognize that's your own very personal preference. Many people don't feel comfortable upon being blindsided with a question or remark that makes no sense to them. Moreover, whether or not something is "obviously abstruse" is often impossible to guess with any accuracy, especially if one is talking to folks who are different demographically or in occupation, culture, or age.
    – teego1967
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 15:07
  • I think you should re-think your impressions. The difference between 1 and 2 is in their understanding of your experience and background. Unless they're your family or a close friend, expecting them to get that one correct is asking a great deal. The difference between 2 and 3 is in their assessment of your intellect, and putting you in 3 when you've demonstrated the intelligence to be in 2 would be what I would find insulting. Commented May 17, 2016 at 16:10

I rolled my eyes and said "I know who Nassim Taleb is", before the conversation continued. My colleague perceived my eye-rolling as rude, and said so.

Imagine how much smoother things would have gone if instead of your eye-roll you had responded with "Oh, yes! I read that book. It was so interesting!" It doesn't matter if you and the other person are of opposite genders. An eye-roll is rude. Expressing interest and knowledge is exactly the opposite.

Your colleague's behavior might well have been that of a male being condescending to a lowly female. Or it might well have been that of a scientist being condescending to a lowly programmer.

On the other hand, it might have been from one intelligent and curious person (but perhaps socially inept person) to another who respects that other person's intelligence and curiosity but at the same time knows how unlikely it is that another person knows about that topic at hand because it is outside that other person's domain of expertise.

And that's a problem in the modern era. Even though the domains in which I have professional or amateur expertise have expanded greatly over the years, I know that there's a whole lot out there that I just don't know. My unknown unknowns? I am utterly clueless of that.

Ask yourself: How many programmers (male or female) do you know that have read (or even know of) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable? Your colleague would have been better off asking if you knew what "black swans" were before lecturing you on Nassim Taleb, but that is an subtle social skill that takes some time for highly intelligent and curious people to acquire.

  • Thanks, but I'd be very surprised if any programmers I know hadn't heard of the Black Swan. It was a popsci smash, in every airport bookshop.
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 7:30
  • 4
    I'm a programmer and I hadn't heard of it before now. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It sounds interesting – I'll take a look at it now! Commented May 17, 2016 at 10:37
  • 2
    I too am a programmer and haven't heard of it til now :\
    – Kiwu
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 11:30
  • Cool :) My prior is that a scientist is no more likely to have heard of it than a programmer, that was really why I objected to the assumption. In general, if I mention a topic of obscure but general interest, I'll start by checking if the other person has heard of it.
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:31
  • Oddly enough, I knew Taleb from his interviews in other articles I've read, but I hadn't read "Black Swan." Got a new one for this weekend's book list, now. Commented May 17, 2016 at 16:19

"Oh yes, they're awesome, there's one in the Science Museum in London..."

This was the perfect response. Demonstrate your familiarity with the subject matter by offering an interesting fact in reply.

"I usually ignore it, but get irritated internally."

Remind yourself that the person "teaching" you believes they are helping you. There is nothing to be irritated about. Anger is rarely helpful, especially in a professional environment.

  • 5
    Even if the fact is as simple as "yes, I've read it". It's polite to say that in a tone which communicates " so you can skip right to the point you were trying to make" rather than "and I don't want to hear anything about it"; the eye-roll communicated the latter.
    – keshlam
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 0:02
  • I do understand that anger isn't helpful, hence my question :) Unfortunately I think this tactic is unlikely to work, in the sense of stopping further unnecessary explanations.
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 7:28
  • @Richard What was wrong with the first tactic? Another tactic is to ask a question that requires knowledge about the subject to answer. e.g. "Which event described by Taleb in Black Swan did you find the most unusual and why?" If the colleague is genuinely interested, he will answer with interest (similar to your first situation). If he was explaining it just because he thought you didn't know anything, then he will dodge the question and probably stay quiet.
    – Brandin
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 9:10
  • @Brandin I just don't think it will stop the behaviour in future. In fact, it might encourage it. This is the lesson from the first story: colleague starts explaining, despite having no reason to think I know less, I respond politely and demonstrate familiarity. The same day, the colleague makes the same misjudgement. If I don't alter my response somehow, why would the colleague change their behaviour? Yet I also don't want to antagonise this colleague.
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 9:42
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    @Richard The tone of your response is probably what will or will not antagonize. For example, if you state calmly "I am familiar with his book." it may work the best. Say this after removing any anger. Try not to assume the person is "teaching" you. It's also possible that the colleague wants to show off his knowledge to you (perhaps trying to impress, or perhaps trying to assert some sort of superiority), not that he assumes you know nothing.
    – Brandin
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 11:03

Along with a few other gestures, "rolling of the eyes" is one of the most clear and aggressive signals of dismissal.

Imagine what it would be like to talk to someone, perhaps for the purpose of small-talk or developing rapport, and then getting an eye-roll as a response. Until they really get to know you, others have no idea what you've read or understand.

This is not about "black swans" or knowing obscure or not-so-obscure topics, this is basic manners. Basic manners dictates listening to people when they talk and giving a thoughtful response. If you like you can even respond with a witty/clever/humorous remark to indicate that you know the topic and in so doing, implicitly suggest a higher level of discussion. Rolling your eyes shuts down the discussion and probably many other future discussions.

  • I am aware of this, as I hope is clear from the fact I bothered to ask this question :) Clearly, if I had done it on the first occasion, it would have been both rude and unsolicited. On the second occasion, it was still rude. I hope you can understand the difference and my frustration, though :) Also, I've been working with this colleague for a year.
    – Richard
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:26
  • 2
    @richard, there is no situation where eye rolls are acceptable in a professional context. If you feel you must do it, excuse yourself go into the rest room into a stall and close the door and do it.That behavior was rude and totally unwarranted and inexcusable.
    – HLGEM
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 18:53
  • @HLGEM - I expect Americans will be seeing a lot of eye rolling in the next 5+ months from both The Donald and the Hillary. Commented May 18, 2016 at 12:59

Unless you dislike someone rolling the eyes is not a great response for the obvious reasons. As is showing off too much.

I have a very broad general knowledge and often hear about subjects that I know in depth. But I rarely say anything. There are number of reasons why just listening politely is a positive thing. You may even learn something new.

I don't even really speak up if I am convinced that they are wrong unless I'm asked for my opinion. Or I see some sort of gain for myself. Why start a battle I'm not passionate about.

That's just me though, your personality may differ. Here's a very short list of positive reasons to listen, mostly to do with people skills.

It doesn't antagonise people.

You get listened to when it's your turn.

It makes people feel good that you're paying them attention and treating their knowledge with respect.

The overriding one in my opinion is it helps you gauge a person. Viewpoints (even one's you perceive as wrong) allow you to better judge people which is always useful.

So I usually hear people out for those and other reasons.

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