‘So, what do you do?’ Innocent, innocuous small talk; an uninspired icebreaker. It’s what we need to know before deciding whether to keep talking or to look for the crab cakes. I get it. We don’t have a lot of time and it’s super important we size each other up with quick and easy labels. The question belongs to a society where value is intrinsically linked to work. And the kind of work we do is linked to how much bacon we bring home. This line of interrogation is so inherently North American that most would be surprised to learn it’s considered très le rude in European countries like France where talking about oneself is a sign of faiblesse mentale that might be met with a side eye of shade. Mais pourquoi, you ask? Well, attempting to establish some kind of social order or trying to (gasp) network at a party is simply tacky. Furthermore, it doesn’t reveal anything about who we actually are. It’s tedious, lazy and totally gross.
Because here’s the shocking 411. Lots of people don’t like their jobs. Many don’t wish to be defined or judged by their bacon making ability. Would you talk to me any differently if I were a corporate CEO or an amusement park carny? A barber or a bus driver? A teacher or a technician? For the underemployed, unemployed, those on disability, or somehow without a 'real' job, this question is stressful. Suddenly you’re in a status battle when all you wanted was some chablis to go with your chèvre. Add to this the growing number of people whose job titles are less conventional and require some explanation. Do we really want to get to the heart of what Chandler Bing does all day?
And then there’s disease. Serious illness often impacts careers. MS is a never ending identity crisis, morphing into something new just when you’ve made peace with the most recent version of yourself. In the midst of changing physical abilities, having to confront the question of Who am I if I don’t x is a circumstance most don’t encounter until retirement. It’s not easily explained over a cheese plate. Insecurities and self-doubt are magnified in the presence of this loaded little question where we might be sensitive to the perception of being ‘less-than’.
Most of the time ‘What do you do?’, is not even something we really want to know. Sure, there are people who love this question. But God help the person who asks. You will be stuck in the suck zone of actually having to listen to the answer. AND YOU DESERVE IT. There’s nothing more throw up in your mouth-y than hearing about someone’s stupid boring blah blah and having to nod and pretend it’s fascinating as they try to impress with what probably literally applies to nobody else in the room.
So, let’s cool it for five minutes. I don’t want to know if you're a business analyst or a bank teller any more than I want to know if you like cats. I want to know whether or not we’re cool. If you get me. If you’re funny. It’s not a job interview but in the interview for my friendship, or even for my attention, I would much rather learn at least three of the following things about you:
- What's your favourite brunch spot?
- What are you
- What's your karaoke jam?
- Montreal or NYC bagels?
- Is Steven Avery guilty???
- Have you ever had sex with the host?
As luck would have it, I was at a function just last Saturday that required me to meet new people. Truthfully, it felt wildly inappropriate to ask the couple I’d just met if either of them had ever had sex with the mutual friend whose birthday we were celebrating (Geoff). And even though I’d already started to write this essay I clammed up and was downright weird when I was inevitably asked the dreaded question of what it is I do. I stuttered and stammered before exclaiming ‘Oh, look! Appetizers!’ Distracting people with charcuterie is one way to go, but it’s maybe not the coolest. The reality is I do a lot of stuff. Interesting stuff. But I don’t always get paid in bacon. And isn’t that what you mean?
The question demands a clear cut one or two word answer like magician or astronaut psychic, not an existential essay about how I am a wife, aunt, friend, volunteer, traveler, archivist, entertainment and social coordinator, cook, half-assed housekeeper, sometimes singer and unpaid blogger, retired translator, former docent, full-time smart aleck and part-time concubine. All these answers sound defensive as hell or unapproachably sarcastic. Like, is she kidding? Nope. (Okay, one of those things isn’t entirely true). It’s quite possible I have a fuller life than you, random stranger, even if I continue to answer this question with an uncomfortable, squirmy look. As much as I feel I have a pretty good grip on who I am and what I bring to the table I’ve not yet figured out how to distil this down into a socially acceptable party response. Lately, I feel like my disease hobbles into the room before me with a label I have to explain away. There is a negative judgment on me before I even open my mouth.
|I'm NOT drunk. I have MS. (Also, I'm a little drunk)|
Obvi the answer is to know yourself and who cares what other people think. But at the end of the day, we need the short answer that satisfies the nosy room. It really doesn’t matter what that is so long as we know ourselves. The question will continue to be asked and since I can't actually move to France, the next time I'm confronted with it I think I'll just roll my eyes as I accidentally spill wine and mutter ‘Où est ma cigarette?’ Then I'll go find the carny and ask about his troubled relationship with the bearded lady.