You’re sitting in a waiting room, on an airplane, at a reception, and there’s an empty seat beside you. Eventually, someone comes along and inquires: “Is this seat taken?”
He or she sits down and pretty soon the two of you are engaged in what my Aunt Pam calls “polite conversation.” Eventually, your seatmate asks:
“So, what do you do?”
An innocent-enough question, but one you have come to dread.
I always wish I could answer by saying: “I’m an astronaut!” Or “ice cream taste tester” or “inventor of Google” or “Victoria’s Secret photographer.” Those are jobs that could only be greeted with the response, “Cool!”
My wife is lucky. When someone turns to her and asks, “What do you do?” and she replies, “I’m an accountant,” the person’s reaction usually is: “Oh.” After a short pause, he or she turns to the next person and asks the same question. As often as not, the person next to my wife is me.
And when the answer to “What do you do?” is “I’m a journalist,” sometimes the best response you can hope for is: “Oh, I don’t have time to read any more.” A few people have good things to say, but you also get the stereotypes about “the liberal media,” observations about trashy TV news, or hear about the time 20 years ago he or she was incorrectly quoted by a reporter you don’t know in a newspaper you’ve never heard of.
My reply to any of that usually is: “Boy, I could go for a cup of coffee right now! Be right back.”
The professions associated with institutions — government, the media, the church — must provoke some of the most interesting responses.
Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ minister in Illinois, recently wrote a challenging piece about one of the frequent reactions she receives when she tells new acquaintances she is a member of the clergy. It’s titled: “Spiritual but not religious? Please stop boring me,” published at www.ucc.org.
Most Americans do not attend church regularly, but there they are, on a plane or at a party, sitting next to someone whose life and career centers on the church. So, they go to great lengths to explain to Daniel how they are inwardly spiritual, just not religious. It’s easy to see how hearing this over and over would be tiresome.
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” Daniel writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
Reading her essay last week made me wonder: What reaction do you get when you tell someone your occupation? And how do you respond?
If you’re a highway engineer, do you get complaints about potholes and snarled traffic, rather than compliments on the majority of roads that are smooth and clear?
If you’re a dentist, do people who have avoided dental care for 20 years suddenly try to talk to you while hiding their teeth with their lips?
If you’re an English teacher, do you hear about residual childhood trauma from having to diagram sentences on the chalkboard in front of the class?
If you’re a cable installer, do people sarcastically ask you if you own a wristwatch?
If you’re a doctor or lawyer or car mechanic or financial planner, do seatmates try to work you over for a little free advice?
Send me an email with the reaction you get when you answer the question, “So, what do you do?” And be sure to include the polite or clever or humorous ways you answer. Maybe I’ll include the responses in a future column.
In the meantime, if someone asks me what I do for a living, I’m going to lie and say, “I’m a UPS man!” Everyone loves the UPS man. And I do look good in brown.
Contact John Gladden at email@example.com or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.