Last night I realized I am a huge bummer at parties. I don’t think this was always true, but it sure is now. Maybe it’s just Bay Area and L.A. parties. Well, it’s at any party where people lead off conversations by asking “So, what do you do?” I hate being asked that question, and last night I watched myself bluntly refuse to answer it, thereby shutting the whole conversation down.
My least favorite question used to be “How are you?” because it never feels like anyone actually wants to know, they’re just going through the motions. But when they ask “What do you do?”, they’re keenly interested. They’re looking for the quickest possible way to size you up. And I’m like, “I contain multitudes, dude*. Why do you care so much about the most boring part?”
*I use dude as a gender-neutral term because I am a feminist bro.
My work isn’t boring, that’s not what I mean. But we’re at a party! Can’t we lead with the stuff that makes us who we are instead of the stuff that stresses us out?
Much like “How are you?”, “What do you do?” has problems encoded into the language of it. Literally, the question sounds like it’s asking “How do you tend to spend your time on this Earth?” But properly acculturated Americans know it’s far more specific than that. In America, that question means “How do you earn money?” That’s the sphere of “doing” deemed meaningful in our common language, and people who go along with that feel to me like they’re infected with something scary and contagious.
The question is scary for me because I only have unconventional answers that cause skeptical or incredulous looks on people’s faces. I guess now I could also say “I’m an author” if I wanted to suddenly appear to the person to be wearing a tuxedo, monocle, and top hat emblazoned with the words “I AM AN ASSHOLE!” in all the most tasteless places.
The worst consequence of “So, what do you do?” is how predictable everything becomes after it. The conversation is doomed for five entire minutes, if it even survives that long. Whoever was asked first has to get through whatever prosaic, canned description of their job they’ve got stored in working memory at all times, and then they conclude with, “So what do you do?” and the other person, relieved to be talking again, gets to do their shtick now. If both parties are lucky, some commonality will be discovered through this mind-numbing ritual, and then a real conversation will start.
Last night, my stupid answer was, “Oh, I don’t like that question.” It was terrible. The person’s feelings were already hurt when she replied, “Oh… Why not?” Then I had to explain all the awful, cynical judgments I assume are behind the question, thereby revealing only how awful and cynical I am. And when she tried heroically to reassure me that “we’re all friends here,” I gave in and said, “Oh. I’m a writer.” And she said, “Me, too.” But she wasn’t excited to talk about it because I was The Human Bummer, and I wasn’t, either, because I was ashamed of myself, so the conversation died on the vine.
Later, I think I figured out how to respond when someone goes with the “What do you do?” script. From now on, I’m going to ask a clarifying question: “You mean for work?” That gives the other person a chance to either reaffirm that they want to know about your job or job-like-mode-of-economic-survival, or to check themselves and say, “Wait. No. What do you actually like to do?” I’ve also always been a fan of taking the question up one level of abstraction and asking, “Why do you do what you do?” There’s always an interesting answer to that.
The institution of Shabbat seems to account for all this discomfort at the intersection between the personal and professional spheres. People observing Shabbat refrain from all work, they don’t even touch money, wallets, or purses, and ample themes for conversation are provided by the weekly Torah portion. After a night like last night, I look forward to an evening of not being asked that tired old question. Let’s discuss the sweet stuff of life tonight!