I’ve written several posts about the risks of getting involved with an engineer but some of you have already decided to entwine your life with an engineer. My wife suggested I write this post, not as a warning, but as a guide to communicating with that engineer in your life.

Nothing I’ve ever written would indicate it’s easy living with me. Sure, I can repair appliances, set up a WiFi and troubleshoot computer problems but consider it from my wife’s perspective. She has to make do with 20 year old appliances because I keep repairing them. She has her own computer but I’m just as bad as the IT group that you’ve learned to dread at work.

My wife doesn’t have to worry about me spending money on drinking, gambling or season tickets to the Cowboys. As a tradeoff, she’s had to become accustomed to the latest in electronic toys showing up unannounced. Computer upgrades, software, my 3D printer and recently several quadcopters, they just seem to follow me home.

My vision of a project is so strong that I’d don’t even understand why she can’t visualize the grandeur of the final result (substitute ego for vision and you have a better understanding of what he’s saying – wife). Discussions are best considered an exchange of requirements and while my emotional range is slightly wider than Spock’s, logic is still my guiding light.

Let’s start with a typical conversation. Recently, my wife decided she wanted a safer vehicle than her pickup truck to transport her show dogs. Whereas my wife wants to research the vehicles, decide on a color and discuss what her friends are using, I appear not to be interested.

That’s not true but I’ve already reviewed the available data in my head and come to the conclusion that she has a much easier access to the necessary information by drawing upon the experience of her friends. There is no reason for me to be engaged in this phase of the project. Yes, I tend to see such discussions as projects.

In fact, the only pertinent data to me is cost and availability. Again, it’s not that I’m not interested but I’ve evaluated the data and realize I’m not the one making the decision. I’m the one paying the bills, so cost and availability are the only topics I’m interested in.

Let’s look at another typical problem. When my wife and I go to a store she looks for a parking space close to the entrance. She might even wait on another vehicle to back out. If I’m driving I pick the first space available with no waiting. I visualize this difference in my mind as a difference in algorithms. Her parking algorithm gives priority to minimum distance walked. My parking algorithm is based on minimum time to enter the store. Time is a critical parameter to me.

It’s amazing how difficult communication can be. My wife has trouble understanding that until she gives me data that I can take action on, all I hear is noise. If she tells me to stop on the way home and pick up some hamburger for spaghetti and meatballs, I have no idea what she’s asking for.

At our local store, hamburger comes in at least five grades and a wide assortment of weights. Nothing my wife has said allows me to narrow my search. Since I don’t cook, I don’t understand if the meat grade is an issue or not. Have you ever tried to buy rice? Wild rice, minute rice, long grain rice, and the list goes on. When she asks for rice, I break out in a cold sweat.

I’m driven by problem solving. When I’m working on a computer problem, my wife doesn’t understand why I would rather continue working on the problem then have a warm meal. As I concentrate deeper on a problem, the world around me tends to disappear. When she tries to have a conversation with me at these times, my responses tend to be short and terse. She hears this has an anger response but it’s actually an indication of limited free bandwidth while I’m trying to retain my focus on the problem.

I have to admit that I see much of the online gaming that I do as a sequence of problems and tend to concentrate just as hard. Take it from me, it’s very embarrassing when you don’t realize that your wife went out shopping for an hour or so. The second time is usually very expensive.

Unfortunately my wife has learned a deep dark secret of engineers, if she can present it as a problem or a challenge, I have no choice but to attempt it. Fortunately, this doesn’t always work, because I also evaluate the task on merit. I also take her words literally because, foolishly, I believe she will always say what she means.

If she says, “the grass is too wet to cut”, I take her at her word, it’s not a challenge. If she says “I was unable to cut the grass because the lawnmower would not start,” I will start the lawnmower for her. I’ve read some place that she also expects me to be nice and cut the grass but nowhere in the conversation did she express that as a desire. The challenge for me was to start the lawnmower, I already know how to cut the grass.

Over the years my wife has learned to cope with the way I interpret her words. She no longer asks me to bring dinner home by telling me, “whatever you want.” Two dozen donuts, despite being what I wanted, apparently did not meet her unspoken requirements for dinner. Now she always suggests a range of acceptable foods.

As I said, engineers make excellent companions. If you take a little time to understand how we interpret your statements and what data is critical to us, you will find that many of your communication problems go away.

Sadly, my wife is correct, it’s almost impossible for us to resist a problem. Correctly phrased, with data and a set of bounding parameters, we will come up with a solution. The danger here is that it’s not always the solution you expected.

That brings me to the last issue for this post. Don’t ever express a problem and upon hearing our solution say, “that won’t work because,” adding some entirely new criteria. That’s worse than changing the rules in the middle of the game. Your problem goes from a challenge to a poorly thought out guessing game and you lose credibility for not being able to properly frame the problem in the first place.

I hope this helps some of the relationships out there. I had my wife review this to see if it accurately addressed some of the issues she’s had to face. I’m assuming she approved because she made no suggestions, she seemed more concerned about a problem with her garden. I don’t understand why it’s a problem, the solution is obvious. All she needs are a couple of 2 X 4s, a few screws and …

Update: Several of my readers found this post entertaining enough that I’ve written several more under the category of Married to an Engineer. Check them out here.

Engineer Dream

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