Amy Roberts: What to do about what we do
Red Card Roberts
I spent the majority of my twenties and thirties collecting passport stamps. The more remote the country, the more difficult it was to pronounce, the more politically unstable it was, the more likely I was to book a flight. Well, “was” might not be the right tense. I still am this way to some degree. Though I don’t seek out a country specifically because there’s a Z or a J in its name anymore. And I tend to pay more attention to State Department warnings.
In large part my wanderlust stems from how much I learn when I travel somewhere new. It’s more than the food or the scenery or what side of the road is preferable for driving. I love interacting with people who are distinctly not American. Not because I don’t like us, but because I find it so fascinating to learn what other people don’t like about us. The answers often cleverly disguised as a question.
“Why are Americans so loud?”
“Why is there so much food everywhere?”
“Why is everything so huge in the US?”
“Why do you always want to know what others do for a living?”
My responses are somewhat standard.
“You think we’re loud in your country? You should see us at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico.”
“In America, we have competitions for the most innovative fried food. In many states, winning a blue ribbon at the county fair is more of an accomplishment than winning the Nobel Peace Prize.”
“We need larger cars, houses, and clothes to accommodate how much we eat at the county fair.”
But that last question, why do we always ask about another’s occupation, I don’t really have an answer for. It’s such normal small talk, until recently I didn’t realize others find it rude.
A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine who lives in South Africa called me. She has a crush on an ex-pat American and she was running some form of reconnaissance. “He wants to know what I do for a living! He has asked me twice!” She exclaimed, obviously somewhat put out by the question. “Why does it matter if I’m a CEO or a housekeeper? It’s so rude.”
I tried to explain to her this is our way of small talk. It’s an innocent question designed to lead to other questions. “Oh, you’re a lawyer? What type of law do you practice? Maybe you can help me with a dispute I’m having…” That kind of stuff.
Personally, I’ve long found it complicated to answer the question myself. I have a ‘big girl’ job that pays my bills. But I also freelance in an entirely different field. I write this column, and pen articles for various magazines. I’ve also written a book, I refurbish vintage refrigerators, and once or twice I’ve been hired as an interior decorator by someone who thought I had good taste.
I used to answer the “what do you do?” question by saying I work in healthcare. But when you tell people that, they often can’t wait to show you a growth they have on a place you do not want to see, and then try to cipher medical advice.
So then I started telling people I work in public relations. But too often I would have to explain to them that I don’t spend the majority of my day covering up my boss’s affairs, namedropping to journalists, or lunching with lobbyists. The television show “Scandal” really throws people off.
A few times I’ve told someone who’s asked that I’m a writer. Their concern is tangible. Not only do they assume this means they have to pick up the check, but also that I’m a sadistic, tortured soul who prefers dark, windowless rooms so that the sun doesn’t whitewash my creativity.
I can’t win with the answer to this question, so now I just tell people I’m a pirate.
But even as I was explaining the question’s innocence to my friend, I began to see her point more and more. Why does it matter what we do? Who we are in this world is so much more important than how we earn our paycheck. We are more than how we keep the lights on, or pay our mortgage, or put gas in the car. Our job description is not our life description. So why is it so often the first thing we ask at a cocktail party?
Why don’t we ask people what brand of toaster they have, or about their favorite emoji? I’d venture to say I’d learn far more about a person by understanding why they hate the color yellow or what they love most about their life, than where they spend 40 hours each week.
“What do you do for a living?” pins our identity to our profession, not our personality. If it’s not socially acceptable to hand out your resume at a party, why is it normal to verbally recite it? Our jobs are not the most interesting thing about us. Winning a blue ribbon for your deep-fried BBQ Twinkie recipe is a far better story anyway.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident, and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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