Shefaly Yogendra

"What do you do?"

by Shefaly on November 23, 2007

Four more treacherously loaded words are never spoken in the modern times. It is not a question to which one can say “yes” or “no”. Nor can one escape answering it in a social gathering, pretending that it is directed at someone else in the group.

Some social gatherings are coming up and since I am almost stripped of my ‘I am a doctoral student’ line, this issue is back in consideration with me.

In a social setting, the four words can determine whether you spend the evening surrounded by interesting people, or feeling like a leper who also has tuberculosis thrown in for good measure. Why? Because the answer to the question is used to assess a person’s worth, not his or her intrinsic worth, just the worth that the formal employment market may be putting on him or her, never mind the person’s choices or preferences.

You do not agree? Well if you are brave enough, try these vague replies I have given in the past or make up some of your own.

I smile and say “Why do you want to know?“. Sometimes I say, “Shh.. don’t tell anyone but I am the host’s coke dealer!” When a person naïvely persists, re-frames, and asks again, usually in a louder voice, “No, I mean what do you do for a living?”, I pretend not to understand and say “Well, I breathe to live, but tell me, do you do something else?“. I have some worse – or better, depending on your perspective – lines up my sleeve which are due to get an outing soon.

The banality of the question “What do you do?” is only matched by the predictability of the asker’s expectation that the answer will be “I work with (mega-corp)” and the asker’s all-too transparent disappointment when the answer does not turn out to be as expected. After all, what am I doing with all my advanced degrees if I do not work for a mega-corp? Tut-tut!

What I find more mind-numbing is the expectation that I shall in return ask them the same question. Some are visibly disappointed when I do not, thereby depriving them of the chance of waxing eloquent about their job. Some manage to twist the conversation somehow to their jobs anyway for which their efforts must be lauded, even if laughable.

It reminds me of a childhood joke. It was about a child who committed to rote a composition about a cow for his English examination at school. He walked to school repeating over and over again in his head: “The cow is a domestic animal of great use to man…“. However when he saw the examination paper, he realised he had to write a composition about a car. He panicked, recovered, and started writing: “A car is a means of transportation with four wheels. Now four is an interesting number, because four is exactly the number of legs a cow has. The cow, as we know, is a domestic animal of great use to man…“. In other words, to a hammer, everything is a nail.

All this aside, I continue to wonder why people continue to use this unimaginative query in social settings.

Is it just an ice-breaker, however unoriginal, uncreative and mind-numbingly boring?

Is it that naming popular companies gives us instant conversation fodder? Not always, and definitely not if you work in a company nobody has heard of. Try, for instance, Rentokil Initial next time, and watch people fumble to guess what they do. Or a start-up, which nobody has heard of, although if you say “oh, we are in stealth mode“, you may find yourself dodging questions about it all evening.

Or is my original hunch on the ball? The question is not dissimilar to other classification and labelling exercises we perform daily to slot people before we determine how and whether, to continue interacting with them.

This being festive season and all, let me be benign and assume that the query is meant to be a harmless ice-breaker. But can we try a bit harder to be more interesting?

In any kind of social situation, not just in dating, surely it is more fun, if somewhat, quirky to ask about someone’s favourite pizza toppings or more controversial, but far more lively to bring up some current event such as the drama surrounding Taslima Nasrin in India or some other drama familiar to the person. If life really is short, is this not a better way to engage with a human being and determine more fundamentally whether we wish to continue chatting with a person? If they do not run away, who knows what conversations, connections and conclusions serendipity may bring?

Some acquaintances have told me off for being too intense. They also happen to be the ones who dismiss many things saying they have no time or life is too short; that is their justification for having such reductionist views on things that I always end up recalling my undergraduate class on logic gates, where reducing the circuit down was my favourite part of the design assignments. By asking questions, that enable me a short-cut to an approximation of the ‘real’ person, am I not deploying the same reductionist weltanschauung, or really practising ‘life is too short’? Or is that too complicated a line of logic?

With the silly season social gatherings coming up, this year, I am having to improvise. After some consideration, I have settled on two possible answers to this question.

The first one is: ‘Oh I am writing a book‘. More often that not, I find that most people can carry this line of conversation. If they read anything, they will talk about the books they have read recently or they will discuss books under consideration. Even those who do not read can find something to say about controversies, award short-lists and such.

But I could also play the game others play and ask a person where he or she works and when they reply, I shall be genuine and say, ‘Oh good, I am looking for my next job‘. Then, already wisened up by past experience, as I watch people evaporate faster than mist clearing on the car screen with a blast of hot air, I shall settle to enjoy my canapés in peace. Years of experience have taught me that the uniformed roving servers are more likely to bring a new tray of fresh canapés to a person standing alone, nursing a drink than to a hungry-looking pack.

À votre santé! And this festive season, let’s try and be more imaginative.

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