I wanted to run, but he had a firm grip on my wrist and was looking me square in the face. It was an early fall morning on a Saturday and only a few people were milling about. The conversation had started innocently enough as we sat opposite one another: “Good morning! How are you? What do you do?”
However, the pleasantries quickly faded when I mentioned that I was a geologist in the oil and gas industry.
“So, you’re an ocean-raper then,” he said coldly, pulling my hand closer to him while he reached with his other hand for a bottle of henna paste on a nearby table.
“No … ,” I stammered, averting my gaze.
I had only started working a few months before, after somewhat simultaneously defending my dissertation, landing my first real job, moving to Houston and buying a house. I was finally – against all odds – “adulting,” and excited to have begun my professional career. Yet, it suddenly felt like everything I’d accomplished had been violently thrown back in my face.
Detecting his sarcastic eyebrow raise out of the corner of my eye, I knew explaining my love of the ocean, or that I had only ever worked on offshore development wells already several years into production, wouldn’t help my case. I had encountered this energy before as a grad student, most often at gem and mineral shows, when, invariably, someone would ask a question about radiometric dating as a segue to berate me for my science’s gross overestimation of the age of the Earth. Always quick to avoid confrontation, and certainly to avoid a debate over the finer points of creationism versus evolution, my defense mechanism in these instances was to quickly gesture toward the large specimen of pyrite we usually brought from the University for display, desperately hoping that either the fact that it had belonged to Stanley Marcus (of department store Nieman Marcus fame) or the fact that it was shiny would divert the guest away from the subject long enough for me to make my exit. However, there was no escape from my present situation, and I was feeling more like a fool by the second.
Granted, a fool would have hardly stood out in that environment, as it was a Renaissance faire, and the henna artist grasping my wrist was cosplaying as a Bohemian. Unfortunately, this also took away the opportunity to point out the potential hypocrisy of him having driven a fossil fuel-powered vehicle to the fairgrounds since it was entirely plausible that he had arrived via camel or horse. Instead, we sat in a tense, awkward silence punctuated only by the shrill offers of turkey legs from the nearby food vendors. He, artfully drawing a tasteful floral motif on my forearm. Me, wishing I was anywhere else, grateful to be receiving a floral design and not a sad, oil-slicked seabird, and, as a woman, feeling particularly hurt by the mention of rape.
Perspective and Improvisation
Upon later reflection – and I do reflect on the incident quite often – I don’t blame this person for how they reacted to me. In truth, I think they were reacting less to me personally than what, to them, I must have represented. In my mind, the petroleum and energy minerals industries have helped sate the world’s ever-increasing demand for energy, and petrochemicals have played a pivotal role in multiple industries, including health care, agriculture, plastics and food science. They’re an essential component of modern living.
To others, however, and frequently to the public, the face of the oil and gas industry is the oil spill surrounding the ruptured hull of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker or the burning wreckage of the Piper Alpha platform or the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible. While we can attempt to atone for the mistakes and accidents of the past, we should not seek to delegitimize how someone feels about a particular subject – any subject. “Right” or “wrong,” how they feel is how they feel. But, even in acknowledging that perspective, his words still stung. They sting to this day.
For a long time afterward, and especially while the henna tattoo was visible, I felt branded by a complicated legacy, one in which the production of the materials that literally make the world run was conflated with an open and ongoing assault on the environment. I thought I was helping make the world better, but instead I felt saddled by an inherited burden that didn’t feel like my responsibility to carry. I began lying about what I did for work when in mixed company, fearful of provoking another reaction. It was safer to say I worked with land snails than for the petroleum industry. At least the former only goaded avid vegetable gardeners on occasion. It was a half-truth, since I did study land snails in school, but it was still disingenuous. It was with this mindset that I started taking improv comedy classes.
At the theater, I could pretend to be someone else and it was fun. For two hours every Wednesday evening, I didn’t have to be a geologist. I could be a wizard, or a nurse, or a unicorn. It didn’t matter. The first rule of improv is to say, “Yes, and …,” to support the story and develop the game being crafted onstage with additional details and characters. My fellow students were from all walks of life, but we all shared the joy of being creative and making people laugh. With the help of our instructors, we learned the improv basics through games and exercises, including how to heighten our performance using the five basic emotions: joy, lust, sadness, fear and anger. We practiced taking each emotion from mild to explosive by talking about life experiences that we equated with those feelings. When it was my turn to take the stage in anger, I thought of the Renaissance faire incident and steeled myself to unload a torrent of words on my invisible antagonist.
“How dare you!” I bellowed, my voice echoing into the hollow theater space and increasing in intensity as tears welled up in my eyes. “You don’t know me.”
After the exercise, each of us told the class what we were thinking about when we demonstrated each emotion. For the first time since the incident, I told a group of people about my background and about being called an “ocean-raper” by a stranger because of it. I explained why that made me feel angry. As everyone nodded along empathetically, I noticed that the words didn’t sting quite as before.
“Emotions are a gift,” our instructor offered. “They clarify the tone of the scene and can inform the game being created. As improvisers, it’s your job to acknowledge those feelings when they appear and determine how to deal with them. You’ll never take the uncertainty out of a scene, but you can learn to use it to your advantage.”
Clear and Vivid Communication
As geologists, we manage uncertainty for a living. Geological scenarios are rarely “black and white.” Through experience, we’ve come to expect the various shades of grey that accompany the technical decisions we make, usually much to the vexation of our engineering colleagues who are more accustomed to speaking in absolutes. We’re trained to do the best we can with the data we have in any given moment and explain why we commit to the decision we make. Over the decades, we’ve excelled at this practice, except in one critical area: our own public image. We’re completely capable of explaining risk and reward to a boardroom of investors, but some proportion of the public thinks we’re “ocean-rapers.”
I don’t know when it happened exactly, but somewhere along the line, we lost credibility with those outside our science because we didn’t explain the uncertainty we see every day in ways that the average person can understand. Evidence-based technical work is essential, but it doesn’t mean anything to the general population.
In the past year, we’ve seen reactions to the coronavirus pandemic further erode confidence in science. Some people are questioning the validity and efficacy of vaccines with a renewed fervor, and it’s partly because we didn’t prepare the public for the uncertainty associated with the scientific method, particularly when the process is faced with a novel virus. Now it feels like we’re stranded on a very well-informed island in the middle of a sea of disinformation. Navigating this situation will require committing to what Alan Alda, actor and namesake of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, calls “clear and vivid” communication.
A key component of The Alda Method is listening and connecting to your audience in a way that focuses more on what they understand than what you want to say. That was the mistake I made at the Renaissance faire that day. Instead of using the information I was given to create an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with someone who held beliefs and understandings that were different than my own, I selfishly made the situation about myself. I should have accepted the gift that I was given, because he had chosen in that moment to reveal something about himself, but I subconsciously refused it and shut down because it wasn’t what I expected.
As we begin a new year, I encourage you to join me in thinking about how we can begin to expect and address the unexpected and make it our professional obligation to increase the accessibility of our science. If we hope to redeem our reputations as scientists, we need to think about all the communities in which we operate, in-person and online, and listen to what they have to say. They have had a long time to form an opinion of us; now is the time to start talking. Successful advocacy begins with connection and engagement built on mutual trust and respect. In failing to listen and act on what we’re told, we eventually condemn ourselves to fade in relevancy even faster than a temporary tattoo. We have the capacity to change and I believe we can do it if we work together. As we say in improv, “I got your back.”
For more information on the Division of Professional Affairs and what we do, visit us at https://www.aapg.org/divisions/dpa or email us at [email protected], or contact your Region or Section DPA representative.