Get­ting to know you

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - MARY SCH­NEI­DER star2@thes­tar.com.my

SThe ‘what do you do?’ ques­tion should be banned from all con­ver­sa­tions with strangers. INCE I ar­rived in France al­most a month ago, I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times I’ve been asked, “What do you do?” al­most as soon as I’ve met some­one. Com­plete strangers have wob­bled up to me at a gath­er­ing, a glass of wine in one hand and an hors d’oeu­vre in the other, and wanted to know how I pay my bills ev­ery month.

Although I’m a fairly con­fi­dent per­son, I’m not very good at small talk. Ask me for my opinion on, say, the state of the Malaysian econ­omy, or Pe­nang’s woe­ful pub­lic trans­port sys­tem, or Don­ald Trump’s hair (he must be caus­ing ir­repara­ble dam­age to the ozone layer with all the hair­spray he uses to keep it in place), and I will be able to hold my own with the best of con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists. But throw me into a room full of strangers and ask me to be sparkling and witty while I talk about my­self, and I’ll prob­a­bly be­gin mum­bling in­co­her­ently and head for the near­est loo.

I love my work, but when I be­gin talk­ing about it in de­tail, I some­times no­tice the eyes of the per­son stand­ing op­po­site me be­gin­ning to glaze over. For ex­am­ple, the other day, I wrote a story about sea cu­cum­bers and how they are dwin­dling in num­ber around the coast of Viet­nam. And it so hap­pened that af­ter I’d fin­ished the story, I at­tended a cock­tail party with my part­ner, and the first per­son I was in­tro­duced to, upon find­ing out that I am a writer, wanted to know what I’d been writ­ing about that day. “Sea cu­cum­bers,” I said. “You’re jok­ing aren’t you?” he said. Then he laughed.

“It’s ac­tu­ally quiet se­ri­ous,” I said, be­fore go­ing on to tell him how Viet­namese fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties have been catch­ing the cu­cum­bers in large numbers and sell­ing them to China, where they are con­sid­ered an aphro­disiac.

He laughed again. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the no­tion that some­thing as soft and slug­gish as a sea cu­cum­ber could make a man feel any­thing but soft and slug­gish.

Ten sec­onds later, I could tell that he wasn’t in­ter­ested in cu­cum­bers of any sort. In fact, I could tell by the way his eyes were dart­ing here and there that he wasn’t in­ter­ested in any­thing I had to say. So I did what any­one else would have done un­der the same cir­cum­stances. I pressed a small red but­ton on the side of a nearby ta­ble and he went shoot­ing through the ceil­ing and into or­bit around the earth. At least, that’s what I felt like do­ing. I’m now so re­luc­tant to talk about my work that if you were to rouse me from a deep slum­ber in the mid­dle of the night and ask me about it, I would prob­a­bly tell you that I’m An­gelina Jolie’s stunt dou­ble, just to have some­thing ex­cit­ing to talk about.

In any case, as a child, I was taught that it’s bad man­ners to ask a stranger what they do – at least, im­me­di­ately upon meet­ing them. As such, I usu­ally won’t ask any­one I’m in­tro­duced to what they do for a liv­ing, un­less they make a com­ment that de­mands that I find out. For ex­am­ple, if I was in­tro­duced to a man with one arm at a party and he told me that he’d lost the other arm at work, I would be cu­ri­ous to know more. In fact, it would be al­most rude of me not to ask him.

I think the main prob­lem with the ‘what do you do?’ ques­tion is that it makes many peo­ple feel that they are be­ing as­sessed and cat­e­gorised. Some peo­ple are keen to find out where you stand so­cially, and the quick­est way to do this is by find­ing out what you do.

If you’re a highly suc­cess­ful di­vorce at­tor­ney with an im­pres­sive client list, peo­ple will prob­a­bly want to know more about you – or pos­si­bly more about your clients. But if you’re an un­em­ployed garbage col­lec­tor, some peo­ple might brand you a loser and look for ex­cuses to ex­tri­cate them­selves from your com­pany. You could be witty, charm­ing, in­tel­li­gent and in­sight­ful, and it won’t make the least bit of a dif­fer­ence.

I think the “what do you do?” ques­tion should be banned from all con­ver­sa­tions with strangers. I mean to say, how dif­fi­cult is it to come up with more in­ter­est­ing ques­tions to start a con­ver­sa­tion?

Like, do you think Don­ald Trump eats sea cu­cum­bers? n Check out Mary on Face­book at www. face­book.com/mary.sch­nei­der.writer. Reader re­sponse can be di­rected to star2@thes­tar.com. my.

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