A few years ago I was walking home from a book club meeting in Oslo with a new friend, Victoria, discussing our experiences as expats, as travelers, and sometimes-trailing spouses. As we left the bus stop and walked underground to the T-Bane station, we talked about the tendency of our cultures (she is English, I’m American) to focus on career as the most crucial part of identity, this tendency shown most obviously and most commonly by the fact that when you meet someone new it is almost guaranteed that after exchanging names the next question will be “What do you do?” What do you do…for work. For a living. What do you DO?
As a trailing spouse in a foreign country, this line of questioning can make for a quick turn into awkward territory. Depending on my mood, I would answer differently. On days when I felt bitter or stressed or annoyed, I’d just say ‘Nothing. I do nothing of value to the misogynist capitalist machine’ and this would lead to a silence followed by the other person backing away slowly. Or quickly. If I felt like being very literal, I would say ‘I’m a social worker by trade, but right now that is on hold since it is impossible to do while Dave plays hockey’ and this left the conversation a little more open, though most people would grab onto the bone I threw and ask more about social work, what I used to do, what I’d like to do later. I’d indulge this, for polite conversational purposes, but the truth is I don’t identify as a social worker in a professional sense anymore and I don’t know if I will in the future. If I was feeling very honest and open I’d say ‘It’s really complicated. But at the moment, I don’t work.’
When I became a mother, my answer to this line of questioning became simpler and more complicated. On the one hand, I could always just answer ‘I’m a mom’ and people kind of accept that as a valid exception to the define-yourself-by-your-paid-work rule of life. But it isn’t actually an answer to to the intended meaning of this question. If I had a full-time job, I’d still be a mother. When V is grown and gone, I’ll still be a mother. And anyway, even if I use this as an answer there’s about a 62% chance the other person will follow-up with ‘But what did you DO…before that.’ Sigh.
As Victoria and I talked, I realized that this question was probably frustrating to more than just partners of professional hockey players and trailing spouses of expats. This question would be annoying to many stay-at-home parents. To anyone unable to work physical or mental reasons. Anyone unemployed or underemployed. Anyone who has a job but doesn’t like that job or consider it to be an accurate indicator regarding their identity. If life is good to us, we get to experience the adventure of meeting new people often, and this fixation on employment as self can be a hindrance to these encounters from the start. And that’s no good.
Victoria had solved this problem before we even finished the conversation. A wiser woman than I, she said simply:
Wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be more interesting, wouldn’t it be more encompassing if we started conversations with ‘what are you INTERESTED in?’ instead of ‘what do you DO?’
Yes, it would be great. This question doesn’t exclude anyone who isn’t in the paid workforce, voluntarily or involuntarily, and doesn’t lead to anyone giving complex explanations with personal information about their employment status. This question includes everyone, and leaves an opening for those who are so lucky that they would answer the question ‘what are your interests?’ with a description of their job or career. Brilliant, Victoria.
Get you answers ready, because when we meet I’m bound to ask you ‘What are your interests?’