Don't Pick My Brain

I am not a chicken bone.

Posted Apr 15, 2010

Look what they've done to my brain, Ma.
Look what they've done to my brain.
Well, they picked it like a chicken bone,
And I think I'm half insane.
- Melanie Safka (1971)

To judge by hits, readers here like it when I go off on a rant. I try to make my occasional tirades relevant to the theme of this blog - The Good Life - by some hand-waving comments to the effect that what annoys us undercuts our pleasure and fulfillment, But readers probably just like my righteous indignation because I speak for them. And I enjoy writing harangues to let off steam. Sometimes things even seem to change as a result. After my recent blog entry "I Hate E-mail," there was a notable reduction in detestable e-mail messages in my inbox. I hope that lasts.

So, consider this new pet peeve of mine: People (invariably folks I don't know) who get in touch by e-mail, phone, or occasionally letter asking for an appointment with me "to pick my brain."

I understand that this now-clichéd phrase is well-intended, even complimentary. It means "You know something about whatever, and I would like to get this information from you."

My problem with this phrase is that it is unidirectional. My students, my colleagues, and my friends don't pick my brain, and I don't pick their brains. We talk, discuss, argue, and sometimes even reach consensus. Regardless, a good time is had because we interact over ideas.

But when someone wants to pick my brain, I feel like a carcass, a heap of bones in the desert being eyeballed by a buzzard.

So, please, dear readers, think before you use this phrase. Consider saying "I would like to talk with you about a topic of concern to both of us." Or consider saying, "I know you can teach me some important things, and maybe I can teach you some as well." And oh my goodness, consider saying, "I want you to help me with my agenda, and I want to know how I can help you with yours."

"You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

And I certainly am not a chicken bone.

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