Why We Should Stop Talking About Work
What you should ask the next time you meet someone new.
(Hint: it’s not, “What do you do?”)
Put yourself in the following scenario. You’re going to a gathering. A party, maybe, if it’s the weekend or a particularly festive Tuesday. Maybe it’s a work thing, or a fun thing, and you’re tagging along with a friend. Maybe it’s both. You don’t really expect to know a lot of others in attendance except maybe someone that you met once or twice at a similar occasion. First names and distinctive features will be all you remember or recognize, so you know that you’re definitely well on your way to meeting a lot of new people all at once.
“Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it life?” — Mary Oliver
If you’re anything like me, the outlined situation sounds a little stressful. Not because meeting people is unpleasant or coming up with personal memory games for names and faces takes a toll (mnemonic devices are pretty fun), but because I often find that meeting new people can many times center around similar topics of conversation, the main one being:
“So what do you do?”
Now, if you’ve been asked that question before or if you are a human being at all, you generally know the person asking it to mean, “And what trade do you engage in that allows you to pay your bills?” And probably if you answered it literally about all the various things that you actually do (“Well, I start by getting up in the morning around 6:30, brush my teeth, feed the cat…”), you’d get a few raised eyebrows in your direction.
There’s nothing wrong with this question. There’s nothing criminal about being interested in a person’s profession. In fact, I’ve used this line myself, many times. And while I wouldn’t say that I’m completely disinterested in the answer, I think I’ve asked the question is more out of a default habit rather than a genuine desire to know anything real about the person standing in front of me.
Work is a big part of our lives, that much we know. Since Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” and since I tend to take what Annie says to heart, we would be correct in the assumption that work is a larger portion of how our lives are spent. Whether it’s personal, professional or a little bit of both, if it’s something we can throw ourselves into and immediately forget the time or if it’s something that makes us watch the clock minute by minute, it’s definitely something to consider.
It’s not the only thing.
It just can’t be. Because whatever you’re doing that 40-odd some hours of the week, there’s also the other 168 where you’re doing something else. Sleeping, probably, at least part of the time, so. If you subtract 8 hours a night x 7 days a week (right?), that’s 123 hours you’re living the rest of your life.
And even though it would be nice if we all really loved our jobs all the time, it turns out that’s a rare circumstance. And if you’re reading this and you think, “I actually really enjoy my work,” then congratulations, we’re all really, really happy that that’s true. Well, I am. I won’t speak for everyone. Some people might react in jealousy or roll their eyes at your seemingly good luck, but there are a lot of reasons why you might like your job and a lot of them (probably) have to do with your attitude and the way you look at it and engage yourself within it. But that’s another story altogether.
The point is that if you can begin the occasion of meeting someone without immediately asking about their job, you may learn a little more about this person really is. If you say something like, “So, Janice, what do you like to do for fun?” or “How do you spend your time off?” they might get to:
- Tell you about something they really, really like about their life. And it might be their job! Yay! But if it isn’t, it still gives them the wiggle room to talk about something else that they’re good at and like to do. It also might open a door that makes them realize, say, I don’t really have a lot of time for extracurriculars because I spend so much damn time in the office, which could get a little dark, but at least it’s real and real is better than phoney, am I right?
- Tell you about a passion project they’re working on! It turns out that a lot of us have personal side gigs when it comes to “our work.” Sure, we’ve got our day jobs and whether we like them or not, we’ve still got those burning desires to do our own thing and so we do it, after hours, late into the night, getting together research to start our own food truck or write that novel that’s been swimming around in our brains. That’s something worth discussing, yeah?
- Escape the common pressure that comes with the standard What-do-you-do line. It turns out that whether we like our jobs or we don’t, when dropped in a room of strangers, we can often succumb to the mounting pressure to be impressive. We might talk about our careers and money-making endeavors with an edge of shyness, of wondering does-this-seem-cool-enough and every time the person we’re talking to looks around, we’ll fear that they’re looking for someone better to talk to when really they’re just looking for the bathroom. The fact is, working for a living is always something to be proud of. You’re filling a need that wouldn’t otherwise be met. And if we were all brain surgeons, we wouldn’t be better off. So even when you feel pretty low on the cool-job totem pole, remember that you’re doing something the world needs. Even if it’s not glamorous and it’s only temporary (and we’ve all been there), you are appreciated.
Will you try this the next time you’re introduced to a stranger? Be warned, it will probably catch them off-guard. They may be poised to answer the question they’re already expecting from you. They might have to think about it for a minute. You might say, Hey, I know this is kind of a weird way to get acquainted, but it also might be fun. Fun is an important thing to have, right?
Post originally shared on Holstee’s online magazine, Mindful Matter.