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“Guess My Weight.”
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My life is not a carnival, but I play this game a lot. At Ethnic Technologies, people frequently walk up to our booth at places like DMDays NY and ask us to guess their ethnicity by looking at their name tag. We lovingly refer to this aspect of our work as the “guess my weight” phenomenon.

At DMDays NY last week one skeptical show attendee came up to the booth, not to discuss our product, but to test us at this game. I tried to explain that while our software product is name based, it’s a bit more complicated than that. He didn’t care; he just wanted me to tell him he was Bulgarian, which Tina did, much to his amazement. I’m sorry I don’t remember his name. And he wasn’t interested in leaving a business card.

Unless it’s a name I’ve looked at specifically, a name with glaringly obviously letter combination’s, or an ethnicity with which I have a lot of experience, I usually only know the region. When the person stands in front of me, I also get their physical features and their accent as hints. I don’t, however, have 30 years of research or the Internet at the click of my mouse like I do in the office. Bulgarian, Romanian, Moldavian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian… so, he was one of those, or a few others. You go with your first instinct, which in Tina’s case is almost always correct.

I play “guess my weight” pretty much every time I meet new people. When my sister introduced me to some friends last weekend, one with the last name Soltani asked the inevitable question. After he spelled his name (see my previous post about pronunciation), I knew the area of the world. Persian was a lucky guess… the luck being that I had some other clues from earlier in our conversation. But it’s always nice to impress rather than be forced to bumble about not having my computer at hand. Back in the office yesterday, I looked up Soltani in our software. No surprises there.

If I knew everything already, I wouldn’t be a researcher. I would be simply a product developer. But as a researcher, the very nature of my job is to learn more. It’s this learning that keeps the work interesting. On those days, however, when I correctly identify an ethnicity from a name tag, the knowing is immensely satisfying. My job is to learn (and to apply this learning to improve our products), not to know. Therefore the “guess my weight” phenomenon can put me in an awkward situation. People expect me to know, but I see success at the carnival as an added bonus.

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