"You mean, what do I do?"
"Sure" I said. "If that's what you're passionate about."
"Well, I work at a lawyer's office."
"And are you passionate about it?"
She looked at me as if I had just walked into a women's lingerie store, and said matter of factly, "No", as if the answer had been obvious enough.
There was more mild banter around the group before some people dispersed to get a drink and others stalled for conversation. I asked the other person next to me "What do you get involved with during the week?"
She looked at me for a second, before replying,
"Like, what's my job?"
Feeling self defeated and rather disappointed, I sighed out a "Sure."
She told me she was a product manager at a company that she seemed to be proud of.
I asked her if she cared about the products that she was promoting.
I could see her brain searching for an answer, testing which one sounded better or more right (perhaps in case I was an employment spy).
"Yep, I guess."
A stereotypically non-committal answer from a gen-Y....which actually revealed more about her than she realised.
"No" was what she said with her eyes and entire body language.
[by the way, if you happen to be reading this and your line of work is to hire employment spies....yes I'd love a job.]
Filming the Response
The whole thing startled me; especially if startle also means to frustrate and sadden. It was like the question that people were expecting to get was "What do you do?" which sounds about as exciting as "How many pairs of sock do you own?"
A couple of years ago I met a guy in Canada who wanted to get to know people with these two questions: "What gives you life?" and "What breaks your heart?"
When I first heard this I remember thinking that he was out of his mind....and that I would have loved a video camera for the responses. Perhaps the two girls thought the same thing of me too.
But now I think that the Canadian was onto it....or at least on the right track. "What do you do?" or "Where do you work?" have become expected questions in order to "get to know someone" but dulls the dynamic of the conversation without actually getting to know the core of a person, or what makes them tick. Like Tim Ferris said, it's almost as if job descriptions have become self-descriptions.
If someone asked me five years ago what I did, and I was to tell them that I worked in IT, they would have run for the hills yelling "BORING!". Instead, I told them that my job was to reduce people's stress levels by getting rid of paperwork, and turn mundane tasks into automated programs. And you can bet your bottom dollar that that created a world of interested people.
Sure my questions above were quite intense for people I hadn't met before. But surely we can do better than asking people what they do for a job. Start somewhere else, use your creativity, feel the freedom....you can do it.
The second question is one that goes much deeper into the psyche....and unfortunately where we often don't realise how we sound. Heading into my late twenties it's been one that I have seen like a weatherman tracking an impending natural disaster.
"Do you have a girlfriend / boyfriend?"
Asking someone about their dating life....particularly without taking the time to get to know them is unbelievably awful! It'd be like walking up to someone you think has less money than you and asking "Why are you not successful?"
You would never do that! You can't even think it in your head - it automatically presumes that the person has nothing to offer you, that your life is superior, and that you have a plan for how to help or fix them.
The more we ask questions around this topic, the more we help people develop a spiral of discontent, and challenge their self worth.
We don't need someone else to make us complete;
We all have plenty to offer the world around us on our own;
We can - and will - be salt and light (and beacons of hope and opportunity) for the communities we live in. Would you please let us?
Now, I know that people don't really mean that when they ask you if you have a partner, but boy do you notice it when you've been single for long enough.
Why can't we be satisfied with other people trying to be content on their own? Can we instead encourage people to develop a sense of purpose and direction using their talents, abilities and personality - rather than the feeling of 'missing the boat'?
I know it comes from a place of "care" for one another, but the more times it gets asked the more it drums home a negative connotation. Please, please stop asking someone about a "special person" in their life.
I know that this is just the start of the conversation, but one we need to have. But I hope you can see how limiting and constraining these two questions have become .... and how their good intentions get riddled with mixed messages. Let us all become liberated from feeling the burden of asking and responding to them; especially when there is so much more to explore of - and contribute to - the world around us.
The question I'll leave you with instead is this excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver:
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?"
Matt Browning is a storyteller and lover of ideas. He is currently setting up a social enterprise for youth unemployment in Rotorua, New Zealand – taking youth who are dropping out of high school or coming out of youth prison, and hiring them full time so that they can get the experience needed to be hired in the future.
Matt Browning's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html