“What do you do?”
It’s a standard question.
(If you’re from the agrarian South it may also be accompanied by two other standard questions: “Where do you go to Church?” and “What does your daddy do?”)
Strangers ask this standard question of one another when they meet. While nothing is inherently condescending in the question, and it might just be a polite inquiry meant to open up conversation to meaningless small talk, it does help file people into neat little categories.
(The other two standard Southern questions are a bit more inherently condescending. The first is trying to file you into acceptable categories like Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist or the not-so-acceptable and borderline scandalous “Other”… The second is just trying to determine if you come from old money.)
The person asking the question is probably looking for an easy answer. When they ask the question, generally they are looking for a job description or career choice.
The standard answer to the standard question might be “I’m a teacher” or “I sell insurance” or “I’m a doctor, lawyer, car salesman, tattoo artist, cashier, student, nurse, mechanic, bum-on-the-street”—the list goes on and on and on.
The standard answers to the standard question might help the listener neatly compartmentalize people by income, education, social status and relative perceived value to society, but it doesn’t adequately answer the question.
I hate the question.
Or, at least, I hate the standard and expected answers to the question.
Maybe it’s because I’m a little sensitive to being easily compartmentalized. Maybe it’s because I don’t identify my worth based on what I do to generate income. Maybe it’s because I am so very busy “doing” things that have nothing to do with a career.
Maybe it’s because when I answer the standard question with the expected answer, I don’t like the way I am so easily disregarded as irrelevant. Maybe it’s because I don’t have my identity or my self-worth completely wrapped up in what I am currently employed doing.
It’s what I do to make money. It buys groceries and pays bills. It helps keep a roof over my children’s heads and shoes on their feet (when they choose to actually wear shoes, that is—which admittedly isn’t very often).
With that answer, people tend to automatically file me away into a neat little preconceived category that really doesn’t define me.
Because being a waitress isn’t what I do, at least not with most of my time and energy.
If I were to honestly answer the question, “What do you do?” the answer would look more like this:
“What do I do?…I sort laundry, walk the dog, practice karate, teach my kids, lose my patience, cook dinner, read books, waste time on Facebook.
I write a blog, compete in archery tournaments, make snarky comments, laugh, sleep, make love, breathe, run. I bite my nails, take hot showers, obsess over grey hairs, worry about my children’s futures. I think—sometimes I over-think.
I sweep floors, clean the litter box, drink coffee, eat chocolate. Sometimes I go camping, take long walks, go hunting, look at the stars…and for about 21 hours each week, I smile and make people happy at a really top-rate restaurant.”
What I do to make money is such a small fraction of what I actually do. It doesn’t define me.
Perhaps, as a society, we place too much value on what people do to generate money. There is so much more that we, as human beings, do with our time and our talents and our energy.
To me, how a person is living his or her life is far more important than how they might be earning a living. I want to hear about dreams and hobbies.
I want to hear about what they love, what they fear, what they hope for.
I want to know if they sing in the shower or call their mother every Sunday night.
I want to know what keeps them awake at night and what gets them out of bed in the morning. I want to know how they like their eggs and how they take their coffee. I want to know if they return their shopping cart to the corral in the parking lot when they are finished unloading their groceries (because you have got to be an evil person if you don’t—how do those people live with themselves?).
There is so very much more to who a person is than what they do to make money. There is more life than what is being lived at a job.
And there is more worth to a person than what is filed annually with the IRS. A person’s income does not equal their value.
Who a person is, the composition of their character, should have more value than their career choice or how much money they make. After all, we are human beings, not human doings.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Alice Jones Webb
Apprentice Editor: Keeley Milne/Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Shane Gorski/Flickr