It was the end of an interesting but challenging Q&A session. I’d been getting a lot of questions about the ethical implications of my presented work on hookup/dating apps, and I was ready for the session to end.
A man stood up in the back row of the room and looked me square in the eyes. I sat up, eager to hear what he would ask.
“I just have to say …”
Uh-oh. Something told me this was going to be a different kind of question than the rest.
I don’t remember exactly what he prefaced his question with. Something to do with the way society is changing with technological advancements and so forth. Then came his question:
“Society is degrading. We’re moving away from our morals and values … . What do you have to say about the general direction society is headed in?” [paraphrased]
He sat down.
I took a deep breath. What do I say?! This question isn’t about my research at all. Why did he ask that question to specifically me? Does he think my research is immoral? Does he think I’m immoral because I’m doing the research? Did he ask me this because I outed myself as gay in my presentation? Does he think being gay is immoral? These questions whirled through my brain, seemingly all at the same time.
I took another deep breath and then I cautiously tip-toed into my answer. “I think that’s a difficult question to answer, because the answer depends on how you define morals and values.
“I definitely understand the narrative around societal decline, and I think it’s one that is at times appealing and relatively easy to invoke. At the same time, I also think we can find examples of societal change that we can use to sort of push back against that narrative, because not all of the changes in society are bad.
“But in terms of what I think about the direction society is heading in, I can’t really answer that question. If you were to give me a specific set of values and morals, then I’d be able say whether or not society is moving away from or toward them, but without specifying which values and morals we’re talking about specifically, I don’t think I can answer that question for you.” (see note at end)
He nodded slightly, and with that the session ended. I let out a deep sigh, packed my bag and made my way over to my colleagues.
There’s a few things I’m taking away from this experience.
- When in doubt, respect and diplomacy are your best friend. Even when someone comes at you or your research with a question of morality and societal degradation, the best course of action is to be respectful and diplomatic in responding to their question.
- If you manage to do #1 well, people will notice. The amount of positive feedback I got from how I handled this man’s question was surprising to me, but highly affirming. I attribute that to the respect and diplomacy I showed in answering his potentially controversial question.
- The value of taking a deep breath before answering a difficult question cannot be overstated. It calms you down, allows you to center yourself, collect your thoughts, and then move ahead into your answer.
- Q&A periods are great opportunities to flesh out your work in ways a 15-minute presentation cannot. They can be terrifying, but they’re also exciting and great platforms to promote your work. Look forward to them!
In hindsight, this was the most challenging Q&A session I’ve experienced yet, but also one of the most enjoyable. I’m trying to learn to trust myself, to recognize that I know more than I acknowledge to myself, and that I have a good head on my shoulders and will probably be fine, even if I don’t know an answer to a question.
I paraphrased what I remember about my answer. The main gist of it was: Viewing society as declining, in terms of losing our sense of values and morals, depends on a very specific definition of “values” and “morals”, and without explicitly defining those values and morals, you can’t really say whether society is headed toward or away from them.