4 tips for non-mathematicians attending math dinners

Seminar dinner, conference dinner, generic math gathering, I want to be there.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  I love eating and drinking, and I enjoy both of these activities even more in the company of smart and interesting people.

Still, at more than one math dinner, I’ve been told, “I’m surprised you’re here.  My wife would never want to do this.”

This makes me feel strange, like some mutant math groupie (which, in truth, I am).

I understand where these other non-mathematician partners are coming from.  Mathematicians can be abrasive, and it can feel isolating when you can’t take part in the dinner conversation because you don’t understand the math.  But there’s a lot of fun to be had at these dinners, and sometimes you have to do it for your partner.  So here are my tips for having a good time…

1) Let people talk about math

Nothing is going to turn a group of people against you faster than telling them you hate the thing that they love or that they shouldn’t talk about it in your presence.  The purpose of these dinners is to encourage informal exchanges that will lead to more formal work: project ideas, thesis problems, collaborations, etc.  Don’t stand in the way of mathematics!

Keep in mind when you get together with your coworkers, you talk shop.  Shop talk is generally boring for outsiders. In the case of math conversations, this shop talk is also inaccessible.  Don’t worry.  There’s no need to try to follow the conversation if it becomes technical.

2) Retreat to your rich inner life when necessary

Chances are if you’ve been invited to a math dinner, you’re an interesting person.  People are going to ask you about that.  You’ll get to ask them about the fun things they do: travel for conferences, activities in their home city, etc.  But when the conversation turns to Hodge Decompositions or Del Pezzo surfaces, you’re going to have to amuse yourself, which you can do because you lead a rich inner life.

For me, there’s something very zen about being able to retreat into my own mind when I’m surrounded by people having a conversation that I can’t understand.  It’s like traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

If you want to please your partner, remember a few math words from the conversation and use them later out of context (e.g. Can we start calling hugs tangent bundles?).  Only do this if you’re willing to have a math conversation.  Don’t be a tease.

3) Drink

This one is probably self explanatory.  Even if you don’t drink, though, the point is to focus on aspects of the experience that you can enjoy like the food or the ambiance of the restaurant.  I once attended a conference dinner that included an extended discussion of Joe Harris’s lineage (i.e. his graduate students and the students his students advised).  I found the conversation tedious, but I would gladly listen to it again if it meant I got to eat the multi-course Chinese meal we had that night.

4) Don’t take things personally

Mathematicians spend their days saying “That can’t possibly be true!” and asking “Wait, is that true?”  If you attend enough math dinners, it’s likely that someone will question something you state as fact.  That’s their job.

This really turned me off at first.  I studied demography in graduate school, and at one point early in my relationship with my husband, I got into a discussion with one of his friends about how many people have ever lived on earth.  This was a homework problem in my demographic methods textbook that I’d solved.  I relayed my estimate but this guy countered with an estimate he and his friends had come up with based on how many people died during the Blitz in World War II.  This deeply offended me at the time.  I was the expert!  And for years afterward, I’d express hostility whenever he came up in conversation with my husband.  Then, the guy came to visit us, and I had a really great time with him.  He’s an awesome person, and I felt dumb for having disliked him for all of those years merely because he asked me to defend my position.

This last example demonstrates what I’ve gained from attending math dinners over the past eight years as a non-mathematician: a thicker skin and a fondness for intellectual arguments.  I’m a better thinker today for having spent many an evening at math dinners.


  1. Sarah–

    This sounds like good advice for many partner-required dinners and other interactions–crisp writing style also. Thanks! Marie

  2. Hi Sarah! This is beautifully written. I write a blog called Social Mathematics (socialmathematics.wordpress.com) and I would love to reblog this post to my site. Would you give permission for me to do so? I want to share and spread your remarks! Thank you very much!

  3. Reblogged this on Social Mathematics and commented:
    I think this article is lovely! Attending a math conference dinner is a really hard thing to do. Mathematicians, as a community, are very good at talking about math and very poor at talking about other things. I think this article is a lovely take on that.

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