‘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. But even before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I hated this question. 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 rude in European countries like France where talking about oneself is a sign of faiblesse mentale.
Mais pourquoi, you ask?
The French believe that attempting to establish some kind of social order or trying to (gasp) network at a party is tacky, tedious, gauche. What we do for money often doesn’t reveal anything about who we actually are. Because, here’s the skinny:
Lots of people don’t like their jobs.
Mondays don’t have a bad rap for no reason, and lots of people don’t wanna be judged by whatever it is they’re doing to get by. And anyway, would you talk to me any differently if I were a corporate CEO or an amusement park carny?
Almost certainly yes.
Okay, carnies are an extreme example, and you probably shouldn’t ask them too many questions anyway, but for the under-employed, unemployed, or those who are without a ‘real’ job, this question is stressful. 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 disability. Serious illness often impacts careers. In the midst of changing physical abilities and professional identities, having to confront the question of Who am I if I don’t do whatever it is that I used to do is a circumstance most don’t encounter until retirement, and not a question anyone wants to address at a cocktail party. 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 into a socially acceptable party response. “What do you do?” demands a clear-cut, one or two word answer, not an existential essay about how I’m an aunt, friend, volunteer, traveler, activist; a gossiping, wine-drinking smart aleck, part-time concubine, and well, blogger.
Oh, you’re a blogger? But, what do you REALLY do?
The fact 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?
No doubt, there are people who love asking and being asked, “So, what do you do?” But not because they want to know more about you. More likely they want to blah blah and impress you with their own exciting career, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Instagram is for.
I’m not saying we should never talk shop at a shindig. I’m saying, let’s all take a deep breath and a big sip of sangria before launching into “What do you do”. How we pay the bills shouldn’t be the first thing we find out about each other.
Fine. What the hell can we talk about?
In the interview for my friendship, or even for my attention, I’d much rather learn about what you’re reading or Netflixing. What’s your favourite brunch spot? Ask me how I know the host, or what I’m drinking. Ask me what I like to do, or how I’m spending my summer.
The answer is to know yourself and who cares what other people think. But we still need the short answer that satisfies the nosy room. The question will continue to be asked, and since I can’t actually move to France, the next time I’m confronted with “So, what do you do?”, I will shrug and say “Whatever I want”. Then I’ll go find the Carny and ask him what he’s binge-watching with the Human Cannonball.