Today I made a mistake. In front of a bunch of people.
I said something that was incorrect. It happens to everyone – logically, I know this, although I rarely observe it in my fellow students – and it wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t even a misunderstanding of the subject matter, just a statement that betrayed a lack of knowledge of who is doing certain work.
A professor corrected me. Emphatically, but with less of the pompous I-know-more-than-you attitude that some folks in academia relish. I handled it remarkably well (for me), taking in her explanation and admitting my error with relative calm.
But I felt my cheeks flame with embarrassment. Wanted to run away and hide. Wanted to rush back to my office and stab my arm with scissors, truth be told. I didn’t – and don’t worry, I don’t actually stab my arm with scissors in situations like this. I just think about it.
I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I need to speak up more often, to demonstrate how much I know about the field. (Yeah, there’s definitely a vanity component to it: when I make mistakes like I did this morning, I blame it on going too far in my desire to “show off.” But it’s also an expected part of academic culture.) And if I don’t speak up, I might miss out on interesting conversations.
But speaking up means taking the risk of being thought an idiot. Who was it who said, “Better to stay silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt”? (Google results credit both Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, among others, suggesting the quote’s origin is likely apocryphal.)
So on the other hand, it’s hard to speak up when you’re expected to always be the expert. I demand an unreasonable amount of perfection from myself, but so does my environment. As my friend’s advisor tells her, “You’re always being judged.”
Evidently, this bothers some people less than it does me.