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Why I Stopped Asking People What They Do

Gayatri posted on 9th October

By Gayatri Singh Dahiya

Hipster, Corporate Yuppie, Eclectic NGO Worker, Ballsy Entrepreneur, Perpetually Stoned Arty-Type Ad Agency Guy, Schmoozing Restaurant Owner, Overworked-Jet setting Consultant, Broke and Romantic Writer/Blogger type…

Ironically, the more we consciously move away from being slotted under a “type” so lovingly prefixed with a set of adjectives, or struggle to retain a sense of being highly individualistic by means of what we do – the more we get sucked in to being classified under these very labels.

Just the other day, I was watching one of the first few episodes of ‘Girls’ {yes, some of us did see that show!}, where Jessa, the eternal boho, is babysitting and ends up chilling with the kids’ father when he gets home. A drink or two later, she asks what he does for a living, and he quips, “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that it’s rude to ask someone that?”

That got me thinking: Is ‘what do you do?’ the new ‘what’s your sign?’ or is it more? {Forgive the analogy, I found no better.} Is it what will colour your entire impression on who asked? Or is it, in fact, your passport to ready acceptance in a world that is increasingly obsessed with easy-to-identify labels? Especially, in a city that boasts of power, money, family legacies, and the “right” addresses, it’s hard to not want to stand out on the basis of what you earn, where you earn it, and just how.

While work is truly the defining factor for a lot of us {if not all of us}, I fear we’ve been drawn into believing there can be nothing else to need or want to know about someone beyond the purview of what he/she does for a living.

If you find yourself disagreeing, allow me to take you through this long winding thought process I find myself in, and I should clarify at the onset that this stems entirely from my own realization that I ought to have stopped asking people what they do.

I was at a party recently, and I couldn’t help but notice how every conversation was struck up with the perennial favourite – “So what do you do?  Where do you work?”

In the 50 odd minutes I spent there, all I discussed or saw being discussed around me went something like “Oh you’re a blogger? That’s awesome! So do you get paid for it? Oh you worked with a wine magazine? That’s so cool! Yeah, I’m a consultant/lawyer/running my family business/Trainee; that’s all I do. No free time. Yeah, I know someone who blogs too. {!!} That’s so cool. So you must go to fancy wine events? Your life is like Sex and the City! {WTF?!!} I wish I could do {insert cool job here} too but I just crunch numbers/do research/file drafts/slave in office/make presentations/make X amount of insane money a month.”

This wasn’t a single conversation, but the gist of many that I had that night. It all sounded the same, and it was fairly apparent by the end of the night that it seems we are only as good or worthy of someone’s attention as what we do between the hours of 9-5 {or 9-3 am in the world of an “overworked” corporate employee, or 24/7 for someone running their own business}.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against people who take their careers seriously, and can spend every waking minute being devoted to it. Kudos to you and it is a matter of pride to be successful in one’s own way and be willing to share that story. But the point to ponder is somewhere between the lines, much like where our true personalities lie when we’re busy discussing jobs—are we coming to be defined by what we do for a living? Are we, as educated adults, born and raised in cities, incapable of going beyond the leanings of what one does for work? Has the rat race consumed each of us in a way that it’s downright unthinkable and impossible to actually know someone closely and yet not know what job they hold?

Not that I’m one to sit on a moral high ground- I’ve been there, and done that too. I spent a larger part of my {really} early 20s attempting to hash and rehash every aspect of what it is they do for a living. Today, there are definitely some people I may have had the lengthiest conversations with, but beyond their name, number, job profile, employer, and FB profile {in some cases}, I know nothing substantial about them. I didn’t care to ask what excited them, their favourite food in the world, whether they’d pick NYC or Mumbai, or what they aspire to do with their lives. What a waste! Here’s when I realised the futility of it all..

I took a gap year after completing college to see the world {well, sort of}, explore interests, chill out, grow up, and learn a few hard lessons that the books couldn’t manage and the job won’t get to soon enough. By the age of 20, I had: climbed Everest Base Camp with two other sprightly, awesome women; gotten drunk in a shady bar in Thamel and won a free Carlsberg tee {for being Indian and a woman, I’d reckon?!}; shed a silent tear in the gas chamber of a concentration camp in Germany; tried to steal a piece of the Berlin wall before I got yelled at in Deutsch by a security guard nearby; taken a wine tour after drinking wine the entire night before, getting hungover, and then remarked how every wine tasted “rich and fruity, with balanced bouquets” at a vineyard in Nashik; heard an old, proud woman’s tale of how she lost her mountaineer daughter at K2; danced along at the Nepalese equivalent of the Hemis festival up at 11,000 feet; met some of the most interesting people, who’ve left everlasting impressions on my mind, and yet, till this day I haven’t the slightest clue what any of them did/do for a living; visited Goa for the first time, polished off bottles of tequila each night, and fallen head over heels in love with a man, and 3 years down – I know that’s the best thing I ever did.

But the beauty in all of this is – anyone I met at the time would only ask me what I did/was doing, and once I ran out of witty, colourful responses and regaling people with the what/how/where of my travels and conquests {as modest as they were, but seemed awfully brag-worthy at the time}, I resorted to just shrugging my shoulders and auto-answering such queries with a disinterested “Nothing much, I’m taking a gap year..what about you?.”  Somehow, that seemed to satisfy their curiosity just fine, and often even elicited a few jokes of their own along the lines of “Doing absolutely nothing myself, I just twiddle my thumbs!* sheepish laughter*

Today though, most people have me reduced to the easy-fit-labels of freelance writer/”wine-something..sommelier”{??!}/unemployed {yes, I’ve had people judge me endlessly for not having a ‘real’ job}/great marketing person/PR person.

I’m none of these things, really. They may be a minute part of what I do, or have done for a certain fraction of my time, but this is NOT what defines me or will ever give you a much clearer insight into what makes me tick.

From this point on, I wish NO ONE ever asks me what I do, unless they’re offering me an alternate job within the first 15 minutes of posing that query. Instead, feel free to ask me if I think the British Monarchy ought to lighten up and release a once-in-a-lifetime edition flipbook of all the nude and controversial shots of the family over the years, or if I believe green tea flavoured yogurt is a waste of good yogurt {I do}, or if I’ve read an interesting book recently that I might recommend {the Jaya Illustrated Mahabharata by Devdutt Patnaik}, or if I prefer a Merlot to a beer {both}, or where I’d live if given a choice to relocate, or what language I’d speak if I could be perfectly fluent at it in no time, or just about anything under the sun.

Try and know someone by what they want to do, what they like, where they’ve been, what they aspire to, or what they would do if it weren’t for the money. If you really must—judge ambition, not a job.

“It is a convention among travellers that you tend not to ask each other what you do for a living.  As a result you become extremely curious, trying to extrapolate back from how they are now to what they do or did back home.” – Geoff Dyer, ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.’