What do you do? [Nerd on a Wire] Jun04

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What do you do? [Nerd on a Wire]

A few weeks ago I read a story about a guy who flipped out when someone asked him the most common of all lazy cocktail party questions:  “What do you do?”  Instead of answering, the guy threw a hissy fit and lashed out at the questioner, calling them all sorts of names, before storming out of the room.  It all seemed a bit immature.

No, the guy wasn’t me.  It really was a story I read somewhere.

Anyway, as I prepare to leave my job, I kind of see where the guy was coming from.  “What do you do” is a really annoying question.  Here’s why:

Generally, if someone is asking what you do, it’s not out of any genuine interest in what you do.  They just met you, what do they care.  It’s so they can categorize you.  In Los Angeles, an answer of “I’m an actor” comes with a whole host of background characteristics:  self-centered, bartender, superficial, etc..  A answer of “I work for a nonprofit that serves homeless youth” comes with another set:  self-sacrificing, poor, noble, etc.  Based on your answer, the questioner then assumes a certain social stance towards you.

This happens.  I’ve had occasion to give both of those answers at times–actor and nonprofiteer–and have seen wildly different reactions.  The assumption behind the question, of course, is that what we do as a job defines who we are as people.  I’ve tried combatting this assumption by elaborating.  “Oh, I’m an actor, but I also write and work with nonprofits” or “Oh, I work with homeless youth, but I’m really an actor.”  It doesn’t matter; all of that is too complicated for a cocktail party.  You can only be one thing.

Rather than getting frustrated about it, I propose a simple solution:  let’s come up with a different question.  Instead of “what do you do,” try “what is your story?”  I have.  The range of responses has been staggering.  I’ve had everything from blank, puzzled looks (as if to ask “what, like, define myself. . .but. . .but I don’t know who I AM!”) to meandering tales about travels through exotic locales told by someone who I later found was a corporate attorney.  If I’d simply asked the person what she “did,” I probably would have gotten a dismissive statement about lawyering.  Because I asked for her ‘story,’ I now know the best places to eat in Cambodia.  Ta-daa.

People are infinitely more interesting than their jobs.  Tempting as it may be to categorize folks based on where their paychecks come from, it is also reductive and robs whomever you’re talking to of the chance to reveal themselves in a more genuine way.  That, I’m guessing, is how the guy in the story I read felt–reduced to a fraction of himself by a simple question.  His reaction, the whole storming out of the room thing, was maybe not the most effective.

Inevitably, there will be people who simply don’t care about your story or anyone else’s.  These are the people who ask what you do for the express purpose of categorizing you and determining whether or not you are worthy of their attention.  When encountering people like this, you have a couple of options:

You can simply not talk to them.  Or:

Ask them what their story is.  Do this with genuine interest.  You may find that they really are so interesting that they shouldn’t care about the lives of others.  But, more likely, you’ll find that they don’t have much of an answer.  That they haven’t given much thought to the shape–narrative or otherwise–of their lives.  And, when faced with the task of defining their own story, they may either walk off in a huff or start to cry.

The latter. . .that is kind of satisfying.

So.  What’s your story?

Note:  I was going to write a whole thing about how this is the Nerd on a Wire’s first official post, but didn’t have much to say about it other than that.  Thanks to the folks who weighed in. . .Nerd on a Wire won out mostly because I received multiple threats that bad things would happen if it didn’t.  Plus it’s awesome.

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featured image credit: Rickydavid