Getting to know you
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?
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