‘Tis the season of cocktail parties and awkward social gatherings. I say awkward because I’m not used to going out at night and chatting with people I don’t know. Over time it gets easier and I tend to warm up with a few sips of wine. It’s those first few minutes after entering a room that are the worst. I never know who to make eye contact with or how to introduce myself. Usually it’s best to get there early so I can be a part of the established group. That way as others enter the onus is on them to join a conversation already started.
Am I the only one who worries about these things? Surely not.
I’ve attended my share of holiday social events this year and while most of them have been mildly diverting, I am getting a little tired of answering my least favourite question in the world. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s asked in every single conversation with a stranger, typically right after names are exchanged. I’ve asked it myself, for lack of anything better to say, but it always feels uncomfortable and makes my eye twitch.
“What do you do?”
They mean profession, of course. What do you do to put money in the bank? Or, in other words, how much money is in that account anyway?
In our supposedly classless society, job choice is the only means we have to judge our place against others. Doctors and lawyers are at the top of the scale and are sure to impress, the same way titled nobility made a mark several hundred years ago. Military is right up there too. Second comes any other position that requires professional certification, et cetera, et cetera.
In all fairness, most people don’t mean anything by the question. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it’s instinctive. We ask it mostly to be polite and because we genuinely don’t know what else to say; we might hope it will start a longer dialogue.There is often simply nothing else to ask. To not ask would be strange.
Knowing this, it still bothers me. It still comes off as a little too searching, a little too supercilious. “What do you do? Tell me so I will know if you are my social superior, equal, or inferior. What is your social rank?”
One could argue I may not feel this way if I had a job in the higher social strata and one would probably be right. However, I don’t feel that one’s profession defines them. There is so much more to a person than what they do to earn a living. You never know what choices they have made or what opportunities were or were not available. Though one person may be a highly specialized surgeon, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is any more capable than the person she hires to weed her garden. She just had more education.
Education is a tricky thing. Quite a few years ago after a frenzy period of studying I took the LSAT and was accepted into law school. If I had gone ahead with my plans, I would have graduated from said school two years ago. Life had other plans and I ended up going a different direction. While I wonder where I might be today had I gone that route, I have no regrets. I may not be a lawyer but I have many other accomplishments of which I am proud. Does it make me less of a person?
It strikes me that dogs don’t do this. At the dog park Shiva doesn’t run up to other canines and sniff them to see how expensive their collars are. Nor does she watch them arrive and gauge where she stands in their ranks based on the price of their human’s car. Instead, dogs seem to seek out others with similar interests and personalities. Shiva doesn’t know she is a mutt. All she knows is she likes to run and play and seeks out other dogs who frolic with the same energy.
Maybe I can learn something from her here. Instead of asking that icky middle class question, perhaps I can phrase it differently. Rather than asking “what do you do?”, I can ask “what do you enjoy?” That way I will learn more about the person as an individual and find out if we have anything in common.
Of course, if all else fails, I can stick to my favourite question and avoid all awkwardness completely. The one line of inquiry that instantly starts a warm conversation with almost everyone I’ve ever met is so simple I often forget to pull it out. But it’s guaranteed to work almost every time:
“Do you have any pets?”
Do you have any tips for social events? What question do you dislike being asked the most?