Though I often enjoy perusing the “Age of Dissonance” column in the Sunday Style section of the Times, it’s rare I relate to the social dilemmas described by Bob Morris. I can’t even fit a dining table in my apartment, much less host a dinner party, and as for the Hamptons — not my milieu. But on this week’s issue I am in wholehearted agreement: asking people what they do for a living makes for boring, lazy conversation.
In Europe, where as far back as the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne wrote about conversation as a pleasurable sport, discussing work in social situations is always eschewed. Ideas, politics, travel and culture are all better topics than one’s job.
Here, where social stature is all about career, we use the expression “to work a party” with the glee that only a nation snookered by Donald Trump would understand.
This is especially frustrating when what one does to pay the bills differs from what one wants to do, or is working towards doing, for a living.
In New York, Washington and Los Angeles, where ambition runs at a fever pitch, people are particularly intent on reducing you to your job. And heaven forbid you have one that isn’t as attention-grabbing as Anderson Cooper’s. The only thing worse is not having one at all. An unemployed neighbor has a pre-emptive answer when asked about her career. “I just say that I’m busy settling the family estate,” she said. [Ed. note: I’m totally stealing that line, or some variation thereof.]
I’ve had this debate with my friend Jenna many times, and we’ve both come to the conclusion that what we’ve done outside of “work” is way more interesting a discussion that what we’ve done to pay the bills. (While I’ve had some unique employment in the past, it’s usually the story of the situation rather than the actual mechanics of said job that yields the most value.)
Morris sums it up succinctly with his closing line: “Maybe the problem with ‘What do you do?’ isn’t the question. It’s the answer. ”
Labor Talks [NYT]