A new kind of self-interest

Social scientists typically see self-interest in terms of individuals satisfying their interests/desires. I’m going to discuss another kind of self-interest: individuals who in conversation are only interested in themselves!

arrogant-guyI’ve met many people like this. (I’d be lying if I pretended I too wasn’t sometimes guilty of this!)

Some such people will answer your questions but won’t follow up with questions of their own. I once waited in silence for a whole minute before giving up and talking to someone else at the table. This was someone with so little grasp of how conversations work that he couldn’t even see how to turn back the previous question at me. Similarly, someone who used to be a very close friend subconsciously thinks himself so superior to me that when we discuss things that we both do, he simply doesn’t try to ask me about my approach. This is not just impolite: it’s disrespectful.

Other people will close down a line of conversation that doesn’t interest them. For example, if you say “I was just watching Downton Abbey”, the response might just be “I don’t like historical dramas”. There’s no attempt to engage, to find out more, even to feign interest: what you say goes only into the part of the brain that asks “do I like or dislike X?”, and the answer to that goes straight into the mouth.

Whether conscious or not – usually not, I suspect – both approaches can end up making conversations purely about the other person.

I suspect there’s many possible reasons for this kind of self-interested conversation:

  • sometimes these people are a bit insecure, and feel more comfortable talking about things they know about;
  • sometimes they have a lot of worries/stresses/problems, and need to talk about themselves;
  • sometimes they’re used to people dominating them in conversation, and this is a deflecting tool they’ve picked up;
  • sometimes they haven’t picked up quite as many social skills as one might like;
  • sometimes they don’t really care what others think of them, unlike people who are more polite in conversation because they don’t want others to think badly of them;
  • sometimes they arrogantly assume that other people want to know about them;
  • sometimes they genuinely aren’t interested in what you say;
  • sometimes they don’t respect you as a person;
  • sometimes they’re just a tosser.


My most rewarding term of teaching ever

This term has been really hard: I’ve had a great deal of teaching to do, papers to write, and a book to edit – while trying to sell my house (and succeeding), and trying to juggle many other balls (and failing!).

But thankfully, the teaching has been incredibly rewarding, thanks mainly to the calibre and engagement of the students I’m privileged to teach at King’s College London. Most of these students are from my department, the Department of Political Economy, but this year I’ve also been privileged to teach students from Law, Liberal Arts, Management Studies, and even the Social Science, Health and Medicine department.

Here are the teaching highlights:

  • Adrian Blau lecturingsuperb engagement from my first-year ‘Studying Politics’ students. As ever, most students took a bit of time to get the hang of this module, but especially in recent weeks, some of the ideas discussed in the seminars have been incredibly penetrating. My wonderful students are seeing issues and problems in the readings that I and my TAs haven’t spotted before, and the seminar discussions have been fascinating. I’m particularly pleased when students who start off rather shy or reticent end up making some of the most incisive contributions in discussion;
  • some stunning interpretations from my second-year ‘History of Political Thought’ students. My own seminar group has been awesome: I’ve been pushed hard on my readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau (although I’m not yet convinced by the quantum physics reading of Hobbes!). The essays were superb as well: a quarter of students got Firsts. This is a hard course – one in ten students dropped out in the first few weeks – but the response has been wonderful. If you set the bar high, some students will slink off (to another kind of bar), but most respond very positively;
  • some impressive dissertation drafts, as ever, although I suspect I’ll see even better next term. But again, the engagement is better than I’ve seen before: in the past, about half of my dissertation students have been very much under the radar – this is the first term that I’ve seen every dissertation student regularly;
  • a wonderfully enjoyable MA research design/philosophy of social science module, taken by students on the MA in Public Policy, the MA in Political Economy, and the MSc in Public Services Policy and Management. Each week I’d test their grasp of the ideas with specific research-based exercises, and the quality of suggestions was the best I’ve yet seen;
  • introductory lectures on writing well, in my ‘Academic Writing Skills’ module – DPE is the first department in the university to run a term-long module on academic writing skills, and I know a lot of students in other departments are jealous of this course;
  • great progress from my super PhD students Donald Bello, Irena Schneider, and Elena Ziliotti – all brimming with clever ideas;
  • and bits and bobs of teaching in the Doctoral Training Centre (on research ethics), the Graduate School (on publication strategy and tactics), and some ‘taster’ lectures for school students thinking about studying at King’s.

It’s also been a huge pleasure to work with my outstanding TAs: Alex Chadwick, Simon Kaye, Liz Morrow, and Sarah Wilford.

More generally, the Political Economy community seems more positive than in previous years. My first-year tutees are happier than ever – something in the drinking water?! My colleagues, like me, are tired and overworked, and we know that there’s still ways to improve our teaching; but most students appreciate our efforts (even if most of them have no idea how hard we work, or that we are researchers not just teachers). Our great students respond so well to the way we push them. That means an incredible amount to me.