Picture it: Two English majors having a light discussion—one is a Pre-Law student, the other just a regular old English major less sure of his future. The Pre-Law student asks the other what his goals are professionally. With palpable apprehension, he responds, “I don’t know, I’d like to teach or maybe write for a magazine?” The first then retorts, “Well, I hope you’re content living off ramen noodles for the rest of your life.” This is the dramatic scene I faced about two weeks ago.
Everybody knows this situation all too well. It’s incredibly common for students, especially STEM majors, to criticize those whose fields of study, particularly in education and the arts, will lead to generally less lucrative jobs.
Why do they feel the need to criticize other majors? It depends on the specific person, whether they’re honestly just poking fun at you, they lack interpersonal skills and are just referencing a statistic they heard or they’re attempting to validate their own job path by speaking ill of yours. The topic at hand, however, isn’t as much why people do this but how to handle it when they do, because there are some productive ways to approach this situation, and some where you’ll only give them even greater reason to look down on your major than before. So, when faced with the inevitable, snarkily posed question “What do you plan to do after graduating?,” here are a few ways to bite the bullet and hold your ground, while seeking to better understand where your peer is coming from.
1. Be classy
Take a page from Ron Burgundy and stay classy throughout the exchange. If you’re duking it out with a student from any of your school’s math, science or engineering programs, you’ll have weighing on your shoulders not only their perception of your major, but that of sociology, psychology, art and every other degree they deem as less significant than theirs. Though you’re not beholden to anyone outside of yourself, it’s important to represent yourself and these other fields well.
With that said, you have to explain your major to exactly zero people, no matter what they try and convince you of. Do your best to not enter the discussion on your guard, scrambling defensively to rationalize your life’s decisions to someone who doesn’t even really care. Keep your composure and your class—the high road is just such a better look. Don’t sink to the level of the stone-throwers, and maybe they’ll catch on that they’re kind of not being too cool.
Going along with this…
2. Refrain from any clap backs
It’s tempting in any situation where someone comes for you to get a jab or two in at them and to hit them where it hurts; in the aftermath of my standoff with the Pre-Law guy mentioned earlier, you better believe that I’d compiled a set list of top-tier comebacks, ranging from “But, guaranteed, I’ll be happier than you down the line” and “I hope that made you feel better about yourself just now.” At the time of the exchange though, I simply stared back at him and waited to see what his next move would be.
This worked well, as he was fairly quick to apologize. If you were to snap back as readily as they did, then no one’s walking away with unbloodied hands; this discourse will remain uncivil, and you’ll see no olive branches extended anytime soon. And whether the apology is sincere or not, if you don’t go low like they did then they’re a lot more prone to recognize their faux pas and at least think to apologize.
If the endgame sees them, stop and think, “Man, that was a pretty uncool thing to say. I have some self-actualizing to do.” How’s that for progress?
3. Be sympathetic
Speaking of self-actualization, it’s important to be mindful of the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the person insulting you, if for no other reason than to understand where they’re coming from. Having, as Sarah Silverman put it in a similar situation, “the wherewithal to be like: ‘You know what? He’s probably going through something,” will keep you from being too hurt by any comments and instead open your eyes to how and from where they originated.
Maybe your peer’s parents pushed them toward chemical engineering when what really piqued their interest all along was Renaissance literature. Maybe they wish they had the same resolve you do to pursue their true passions rather than selecting a career path for financial stability or increased opportunities for employment. Young people are urged to go into what are considered practical fields, even if they wouldn’t find them fulfilling. A snide remark concerning your life choices could act as a form of relief for those most affected by this pragmatic pressure, wherein they’re internally defending their major from a rational standpoint and you become collateral damage as a result.
If you suspect that their insult does come from a place of projection, remember to class it up and not be so quick with a negative response. And although I stated earlier that it’s generally not super important why each person feels the need to issue this insult, asking why is a helpful way to get a fuller understanding of them. With that said, a comment of this nature could just as easily come from a haughty attitude in which they feel as if they’ve got life all figured out and need to rub it in somebody’s face. That person could maybe stand to be knocked down a peg or two, depending on context of course, but always seek to understand first and then act.
It may seem a tad aggressive within this context, but a former CIA officer once said, “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.” As a student of the humanities, fine arts or social sciences, you have to your benefit a greater understanding of people and, likely, the desire to learn more about them. This is the perfect chance to test your knowledge and patience, while gaining greater perspective.
4. Be funny and/or creative
Okay, this is your moment. All the precious hours you’ve spent not hovering over a Petri dish in lab pay off right here, right now, as does the time you spent reading the works of Oscar Wilde, portraying those of Shakespeare onstage or creating stunning visual artwork of your own. As a creative type, this is your arena, where you get to formulate a clever, un-offensive (or covertly offensive, up to you) rebuttal to an uncalled-for assault.
It should all arise organically from the context of the conversation, so your comeback isn’t forced or incongruous. But something as simple as making an innocuous comment and then referring to them as “old sport” at the end of it could make a statement, in your eyes and ideally to any onlookers (that would be the perfect mix of classy and clever, too). If all else fails, you could use some idiom or metaphor that you may have to explain to them—“water off a duck’s back,” for instance. They won’t have heard it, and then you’ve really turned the tables. Who’s ill-equipped for the real world now?
With your understanding of the humanities comes a greater knowledge of many things cultural, which will carry much more weight long-term than will being a book-smart, left-brained college student.
While many like to think that they have everything figured out, in reality, very few people do. So when your major is dragged through the mud, remember that whatever culprit is committing the deed probably has as solid a life plan as you do.
It’s unfortunate that non-STEM majors are so often ridiculed and scrutinized—they’re the poets, filmmakers, teachers, counselors, philosophers and academics of the next generation, and yet they’re told their aspirations aren’t worth it and that they’re better off settling for something they care less about. Please stick to your guns and outfox whoever decides to put this doubt onto you. As inevitable as that is, so too is it that your grace, good nature, understanding, tact, humor and creativity will show as you successfully emerge on the other side.