Reader question: "What does 'out of one's depth' mean?"
Imagine yourself trying out the swimming pool for the first time.
At one end of the pool you have shallow waters, say, at 1.2 meters in depth. At the other end, which is the deep end, the water is, say, 3 meters deep. As a beginner you're not very good yet with water. You tend to struggle against it, fight it instead of flowing with it. But then again, when you can flow with it, that is to say, when you can get about without having to worry about remaining afloat, you can swim, for swimming is to roll with the flow and to do so with ease.
Relative ease, that is. You don't have to be an Ian Thorpe or a Michael Phelps to enjoy the swimming pool. Nor do you need to be a fish to enjoy the sea. Many swimmers plop their way about in lakes and seas, very awkward to watch, but that's ok. They are in their elements and not out of their depth.
We're drifting too far. We're not to be swimming out to the sea yet, before we know the depths, so to speak. Let's turn back to the beginning and recall our first timorous tiptoes out to the edge of the swimming pool. And imagine some mischievous friends suddenly grabbing you by the limbs and throwing you into the pool at the deep end.
Now, that's what being "out of one's depth" feels like. You're not very good at swimming yet and you're not sure if you can get out of the situation unscathed. In fact, you're afraid that you're going to drown...
That's it. That's how it feels to be out of one's depth. You feel like you've got yourself "thrown in at the deep end" and you get "that sinking feeling" (look both expressions up if you will).
Likewise one may feel out of their depth in other areas of life. Say, you're asked to make a speech to a group of computer scientists and you know little about computers. Or you are asked to talk about China's foreign trade with Russia and you know next to nothing about the subject. You feel you're in unfamiliar territory and you might be unable to cope competently.
You may ask why are people invited to talk about subject matters of which they know next to nothing about? I don't know. It happens all the time. You should address the question to the so-called "experts" that give speeches everywhere, on campus, TV and radio. They might know.
Anyways, here's an example of "out of one's depth" in use from an article on WH Auden (A Voice of His Own, February 3, 2007, The Guardian). Quoted here is a meeting between the author of this article (James Fenton) and the renowned poet.
Actually meeting Auden was an experience that left us quite out of our depth, and there were awkward silences in our small group discussion. I remember desperately trying to think of questions. I asked him what he thought of the latest generation of poets – Ted Hughes, for instance. Brushing the inquiry aside, Auden paused for a moment before saying with a smile that he always suspected questions of that kind of having some malicious purpose. As soon as he said this I recognized with a blush that I had indeed been egging him on to say something perhaps disobliging about Hughes or his contemporaries, although I had no motive for doing so other than hero-worship. I must have crudely felt that, if Auden was the great poet of his day, he himself should say so.
On this occasion (and no doubt on others, for the elderly Auden often repeated his bons mots) Auden, when asked for his opinion of Yeats, said: "Yeats spent the first part of his life as a minor poet, and the second part writing major poems about what it had been like to be a minor poet." On another occasion Auden said that he had only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when he met Yeats.
If this comes as a surprise, considering that the most famous tribute to Yeats on his death is Auden's elegy, you have to remember that for Auden there was always a case pro and con, as far as Yeats was concerned. At the time I first met him, he had recently written to Stephen Spender (in a letter quoted by Richard Davenport-Hines in his biography of Auden): "[Yeats] has become for me a symbol of my own devil of inauthenticity, of everything I must try to eliminate from my own poetry, false emotion, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities."