I enjoy a good quiz show as much as the next person (probably a bit more than them), but only if there was a threat to life* would you find me on one as a contestant. For one thing, there would be the horror of my enlarged HD face appearing on 42″ television screens across the land, then there’s the likely humiliation of me doing a giant blankface at the easiest of questions (worse would be answering confidently but being oh-so-wrong) – but the major deterrent right now is the fear of being publicly asked: ‘So, what do you do?’
I breathe, I sleep, I eat, I brush my teeth twice a day. I am capable of making a variety of noises, intentionally and unintentionally.
That’s not what the question’s about, of course. When someone asks that question, what they usually want to know is ‘How do you make money?’ Because the answer gives an indication (not necessarily accurate) of your education, your financial status and how much like them you are. It’s also something people ask when they can’t think of what else to say.
Finding out what you ‘do’ is unlikely to tell them how you treat your friends and family, whether you’re kind, funny or loyal. Those are only things they’ll find out over time. That person who has worked the checkout at Asda for 17 years may be extremely generous and creative, but we won’t know that from their job title.
I’m not criticising people who have ‘What do you do?’ as part of their small talk canon. It can open up fertile ground for conversation. And in some cases, what people do for a living is an important part of who they are and something they’re passionate about.
But what if they’re in a job they’re unhappy in, that doesn’t allow them to use their talents. What if it’s just a means of paying the rent and nothing more? Or what if, for whatever reason, they don’t have paid work? Or, it’s just a bit complicated. You could be opening up a big box of Awkward.
I resigned from my job a year ago in order to try and pursue a career in writing (fear not, I am supporting myself and not relying on The State). And I have written. Loads. Some has even been published online (in places other than this blog), but because I’ve not (yet) been paid for it, I’m loath to describe myself as a writer. I know all the articles say that ‘if you write, you’re a writer’, but I’m too indoctrinated in the belief that it’s only if you’re paid to do something that you can claim it as the thing you ‘do’. To call myself a writer sounds somehow deluded.
So, that’s the reason I don’t like the question ‘What do you do?’ It’s a pathetic pride thing. I don’t want people to judge me or pity me. I need to retain some dignity in this period of multiple rejections and roaring indifference. (I am grateful that you’re reading this, by the way. You’re nice.)
But I do think we need alternatives to this stock small talk question. Something that gives people the opportunity to share their work if they choose to but allows enough room to avoid talking about it if they don’t want to.
I knew someone who would ask something along the lines of: ‘So, how did you spend your week?’ You could answer: ‘Designing a town’ or ‘Stacking shelves’ or ‘Watching Big Brother’ or ‘On holiday in Devon’ – whatever you felt comfortable sharing.
At some point, if you want the relationship to grow, you’re going to have to open up and be willing to be vulnerable. But that’s not likely to happen on a teatime TV quiz show.
Anyway, how did you spend your week?
*I retain the right to change my mind on this should the need arise.