2.05.2016

Why asking 'What do you do?' is all kinds of wrong

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 drinking reading?
  • 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. 

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16 comments :

  1. My favorite brunch place is Charley’s Crab in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I read MS Blogs and Alcoholics Anonymous literature. The last book I read and enjoyed was Awkward Bitch by Marlo Donato, a woman with MS from NYC. I’ve done karaoke once, about 15 years ago, it was Ice Cream Man by Van Halen. It rocked. My name is… “The Big Fat Panda.”

    JE

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    1. Yes! This is what I'm talking about. If I'm ever in Grand Rapids, I will have brunch at Charley's Crab. And you are the second person in one week to recommend Awkward Bitch to me, so I am going to order it today.
      Thanks JE!

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    2. Brunch at Charley's Crab is on Sunday, and is usually very busy, they slice prime rib... Enjoy Awkward Bitch. I bet you will.

      JE

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  2. I call myself a "life-keeper" ;) I don't work because I am disabled and I am not unemployed. I just work on keeping me alive and well. I want to start a trend!

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    1. 'Life-Keeper', I like it. Thanks for sharing Teresa.

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  3. As I struggle with updating my Linked In after a 15 year hiatus from what I used to do, your post made me smile. Wonderful stuff.

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    1. Try adding the answers to my list to your linked in profile!

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  4. This post, as always, is spot on! Full time smart aleck is my favorite. I have to tell you that I want
    to write these things down so I can remember to say something like this next time I feel the need to defend / define myself! And you truly do have a gift - making us smile in the face of this illness. If that isn't a bit of wizardry I don't know what is!
    Thanks again - Barbara

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  5. Amazing post! (... part-time concubine?)

    However..., I think you are a bit too down on bacon. In the past day, I have just ate some (ok, about 500g) of the best bacon ever, crazy good bacon - just snacking on it every time I go past the fridge. Honestly, who would ever bother with carrots? And I can think of nothing better than being paid in bacon...

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    1. While you raise a good point, I once tried to take some bacon to TD bank and it didn't work out. I don't know about other Canadian banks but they assured me that, as far as they are concerned, bacon is not 'legal tender'.

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    2. Oh, sorry, I guess Canada and Germany differ here

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  6. I am new to your blog. I love your humor! As I become more and more challenged with getting from here to there the "new" me is being is perpetually being defined. Awhile ago I realized that I can't use the phrase " I used to" which was inevitably the opening to my answer to your original question. Ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life. Now I see that the ordinary moments in our lives is where we can find real happiness. FYI my favorite brunch is home with friends. I need a new book but I did pick up a hankering for bourbon and I'm a bialy girl. If you're ever in Boston let's do brunch!

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    1. Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your note, I'm so glad you found me.
      You're right about the 'ordinary'. Isn't that what everyone is working so hard to achieve, anyway? More of the ordinary time with the people we love.
      I like brunch at home when I'm feeling ambitious. I rock a mean French Toast. Actually, it's Martha's recipe and the secret ingredient is booze, natch.
      Boston is badass town!

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  7. Neil Gaiman tells a wonderful story about how he was once asked "What do you do?" at a party. He said, "I write comic books." The other person looked disgusted and then asked, "And who are you?"
    "Neil Gaiman."
    The other person then exclaimed, "Oh no, you don't write comic books. You write graphic novels."
    And Gaiman said, "I felt like a hooker who'd just been called a lady of the evening."
    Now I'm beginning to think I should start conversations at parties with, "So are you a hooker or a lady of the evening?" although "What are you reading and can I get you another drink?" is what I'd really like to know.

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    1. I'm reading Last Night in Twisted River (John Irving) because I will never stop hoping for another Owen Meany.
      Recently I was told 'You're not a writer, you're a blogger'. So I guess that makes me a hooker.
      And I would love another drink, thank you. Something with maraschino cherries.

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