Groping for something else to fill the silence, she got in her word first. ‘And what do you do?’ she said.
‘Oh,’ I said, grateful for the usual filler, ‘I’m a geographer.’ And even as I said it, I felt the safe ground turning into the familiar quagmire. She did not have to ask the next question, but she did anyway.
‘Er … yes, a geographer,’ said with that quietly enthusiastic confidence that trips so easily from the tongues of doctors, engineers, airline pilots, truckers, sailors and tramps. After all, everyone knows what they do, and off the conversation goes on the awful ‘flu epidemic, the new bridge, the latest jet, the long haul out of Kansas City, the storm in the Bay of Biscay or the doss houses of Saskatoon. But a geographer?
It has happened many times, and it seldom gets better. That awful feeling of desperate foolishness when you, a professional geographer, find yourself incapable of explaining simply and shortly to others what you really do. One could say, ‘I look at the world from a spatial perspective…’ or ‘Well, actually, I’m a spatial analyst,’ … Or there is the concrete example approach. ‘Well, at the moment we’re calibrating an entropy-maximizing model for a journey-to-work study…’ or possibly ‘We’re using a part stochastic, part deterministic, computer simulation model to examine the threshold values in a regional development programme,’ all of which would be true up to a point. But the words, with their precise meaning for geographers, convey nothing to others, and end up sounding like some private and deliberately obfuscating jargon. Which would also be true. Up to a point. Often, in a desperate attempt to build a bridge with more familiar words, one ends up by saying, ‘Well, actually, I teach geography.’
‘Oh really?’, and laughing. ‘What’s the capital of North Dakota?
– Peter Gould