My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Who Are You?

Hello I am Professor, Consultant, and Occasional Bookstore Employee. Please feel free to call me Brian.

We’ve all been at some event where some random personal will saunter up, start a conversation, and immediately drop the question “So what do you do?”. My guess is that they think that it’s just a harmless question, but it never is. You know that your answer will be openly judged. If you say, “I’m a homemaker” or “I am the CEO of XYZ Company” the person will immediately fit you into their predefined social niches and deem you worthy of certain conversations. I see this more in the US than anywhere else, and no where else is it more obvious than in politics. Below is from the book Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway and it describes the employment social ladder perfectly:

When I got to Washington I discovered that even among young people, being a good guy was not the key thing: The key thing was your position on the great Washington totem pole of status. Way up at the top of this pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, and other power players, holding thousands of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances that only Washingtonians are capable of grasping.

For example, Washingtonians know whether a person whose title is "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary" is more or less important than a person whose title is "Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Principal Deputy to Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Deputy to the Deputy Secretary," or "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary," or "Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary." (All of these are real federal job titles.)

Everybody in Washington always seems to know exactly how much status everybody else has. I don’t know how they do it. Maybe they all get together in some secret location and sniff one another’s rear ends.

We always seem to judge one another by the way that we earn a paycheck. And we do it in the smallest of ways. Think about how you introduce someone. Doesn’t it usually come out as something like, “This is Jim, and he works in Accounts Receivable at Schwab”? Jim could easily be an accomplished pianist, or the world record holder for dwarf juggling, or the father of sextuplets, but you would still introduce him as the Accounts Receivable Guy.

We even do it to ourselves. We introduce our job almost directly after our name. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Hey, the most important thing to me in life is my job and I would like to be defined by it, Thankyouverymuch.”

Why? Why do we do this?

And what is the alternative?

For a while I thought that there might be other conversational examples in similar countries, but remembering my time traveling and living abroad killed that notion. My Canadian friends and colleagues did the same, with the British either openly introduced themselves and their employment or following the proper British custom of not ever omitting anything personal. That phenomenon is described well In Kate Fox’s book Watching the English. She states that under no account should a British person volunteer their own name or ask a direct question to establish the identity of the person that they are you speaking to. Now I’ve had conversations like these with some British colleagues and it is painful. So this approach is also out do to, what I at least perceive to be, general rudeness. Not telling your life story upon meeting a new person is just fine, but you at least need to give the person enough information about your tastes, likes, and dislikes to kindle a conversation.

Surely most of us just work to live and do not live to work -- so let’s find a way to express that in our own introductions. And his is where I need your help. What is the alternative to announcing, or asking for, someone’s job title shortly after their name? How do you introduce yourself without immediately bringing up what you do to earn money so that you can live the rest of your life? Why do we feel the need to describe who we are by the work that we do?

No comments: