June 21, 2011 | File under: Society and Pressures
“What do you do?” It’s the ultimate small-talk conversation starter in social situations. What is no doubt an innocent attempt to elicit chit-chat has always seemed rather silly to me. What do I do? Well, I do all kinds of things: I run, I spend time with my husband, I bake delicious muffins, I clean my house, and I read, to name a few things.
Why must people always define what they do in terms of their means to make a living? Few people are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to pursue their life passions. For the rest of us, it is what we do outside our time at work that defines who we are.
When I was a lawyer, that aspect of my identity was a very small facet of who I was. In fact, I tried to disassociate myself with my profession as much as possible because I felt it was such a poor match for my personality. My time outside of work is what best illustrated my personality.
When you tell someone your job title, it creates instant associations. For example, the moment people hear “lawyer,” they may assume I am aggressive and/or serious. They may draw inferences about my life such as how much money I have or even my political beliefs. None of these conclusions are necessarily correct, nor are they the business of cocktail party strangers.
It also strikes me that asking someone “what they do” is rigged to favor traditional careers with the greatest degree of social caché. Careers valued by society as prestigious such as doctors and lawyers are recognized as having high “worth,” and thus are the ideal responses to the question. These responses evoke certain stereotypes that are easily processed in casual conversation. On the other hand, responses indicating a non-traditional career, a period of unemployment, or no professional career at all do not lend themselves to definite stereotypes and often provoke awkward explanations, delve too deeply into personal matters, or elicit unwarranted social judgments based on people’s conception of a social hierarchy.
If generating false assumptions isn’t bad enough, the what-do-you-do question also provides an unfortunate prelude to even more conversing over career talk that makes my eyeballs roll back into my head. If there’s one way to steer a conversation with me the wrong way, bringing up the law is the way to do it. You can guess that I have never attended many cocktail parties because of this.
The impulse to inquire into job matters immediately upon meeting someone is a telling reflection of what our society values. People perceive someone’s career as the most direct reflection of who they are. It is a manifestation of the careared mentality that each person must pursue an occupation that is commensurate to his or her “potential” and that properly situates him or her in the overarching social hierarchy.
Taking a step back, it’s important to remember a job is just a job: a way to provide food and shelter and other things that require money. Though society has built up the concept of career to have great significance, in reality most people are not in love with their work. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s important to keep in perspective that life outside of the workplace provides a much more accurate reflection of who people are and what they value. These are the things that do define each individual and that make far more interesting talk of what someone does than what is contained in the hours of the day for which they receive monetary compensation.
So, what do you do?