12 July 2015

Pigeonholing

"What do you do?"

This is a question that often surfaces soon after being introduced to new people - at parties and other social events. But for years it is a question that I have deliberately refrained from asking. I am of the opinion that knowing what somebody does for a living is not of prime importance.I don't wish to define my fellow human beings by the jobs they do.

It may be unintentional but asking the question, "What do you do?" is surely a way of  pigeonholing people. If they reply, "I'm a butcher" or "I'm in insurance" or "I'm a surgeon", the cogs in the questioner's brain will whirl instantly as presumptions are silently logged. Presumptions about income and education. That kind of thing. And the questioner will be subconsciously rank ordering - assessing your position in the vocational pecking order.

If somebody asks me "What do you do?", I  am often deliberately obtuse. "Oh I like walking and photography - that kind of thing and I am quite keen on cookery. Do you like cooking yourself?" I have also been known to respond, "Why? What do you want to know that for?" which can induce dropped jaws and awkward silences.

For most of us, work is something we do to make money that pays the bills. We can't all be Pablo Picassos or Saul Bellows and what the vast majority of us end up doing is usually an accident of upbringing and circumstance. It shouldn't define us.

I used to rage inside when I heard people making sweeping generalisations about teachers and usually felt like yelling back, "But that's not me!" I was always more than that person at the front of a classroom, teaching lessons and marking books. This was only what I did for a living. It wasn't me.

In my philosophy, road sweepers are equal to magistrates, captains of industry are equal to the cleaners who vacuum their offices and celebrities are no better than the unknown.

Of course, in the passage of time, information about what somebody does for a living will emerge naturally. It's knowledge you can pursue or not but I will never be the first to ask, "What do you do?"

25 comments:

  1. I agree with you about this. I hate people defining others' worth by what they do for a living. And I believe an honest day's work is a credit to anybody, regardless of what that work happens to be.

    I remember meeting a doctor friend of my husband's for the first time. He and his wife immigrated here from India where they had had an arranged marriage. I was shocked and a bit upset at first when the husband asked me what my FATHER did for a living---I was 31 years old, a grown woman! But later after I thought about it I realized he didn't mean to be offensive. In his culture I suppose it would have been a perfectly legitimate question.

    Some years later, it's clear we will never be close friends with this couple. They obviously don't consider us in the same social class as them. I will always be grateful to them because the husband made sure my Gregg got wonderful medical care when he had cancer.....we owe them respect for that.....but I was a bit hurt when I realized that we will never be people they will consider their equals.

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    1. I am glad that this post resonated with you Jennifer. Some people are hooked on status to such an extent that they become blind to the qualities of those who are located at very different points on the socio-economic scale.

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  2. I have to agree with you on this . It often seems to be a way to place people in a certain socio economic position . There is another bizarre question often asked in certain parts here " what do you know" . Whenever I have been asked that it had left me speechless. How do you answer that !

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    1. What do you know?
      I know that people who ask "What do you know?" haven't considered the implications of asking that question and are simply following a conversational fashion.

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  3. I usually answer - "As little as possible!" :)

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    1. Another option - I go on virtual walks with Yorkshire Pudding and consume virtual drinks in pubs I shall never visit in reality.

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    2. That response certainly would put confused looks on their faces and make them shut up! lol

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  4. You are wise not to ask because it colors your thinking. As you say when you are asked , you throw in a little fiction and really mess somebody up. I like what you do for n answer to a dumb question.

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    1. You are a fair-minded man Red and so your supportive reaction to this post pleases me.

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  5. Most of the time, I guess when people ask this question it is merely what they consider to be a polite entry into conversation. I don't mind at all anyone asking this; I am proud of my work and really enjoy it, as I have done with all the other jobs I've done before, beginning with Librarian School. Often at events where I know hardly anyone, it seems to be an icebreaker as good as any, and I have had very interesting conversations arise from my own answer and their answers when I asked the return question.
    Like you, I do not think anyone is inferior to anyone else simply because of their job. On the contrary, I think that most of the "lower" jobs are absolutely essential to the functioning of our society, while those in the higher ranks... well, the world would still go round without them, maybe even better so! Just imagine nobody would work as cleaners or cooks anymore. Our world would become incredibly dirty and disgusting within a day or two, and what would we be eating when not at home?

    To an extent, I actually do think that our work defines us. It is, after all, what we spend a lot - if not most - of our awake time with. Maybe it is less the actual job than the job's "soft factors" that make a difference. For instance, someone who is used to dealing with a lot of people day in, day out at their job (no matter whether they are working as a sales clerk, teacher or politician) will certainly have a different approach to people in his/her private life than someone who works behind closed doors, seeing nobody but him/herself and their desk or lab.
    People who travel a lot on their jobs maybe will adapt easier to different circumstances than someone whose only excursions are once a year on a holiday.
    Yes, I am sure we ARE defined by what we do - to an extent - but of course we are, as you said, so much more than that.
    And we certainly should not be sorted into a kind of ranking order based on our jobs. Being rich and "important" has never made anyone a better person.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response Ambassador. It is probably true that how we spend our work time will impact on our social behaviour. This is one of the downsides of teaching children. Teachers speak clearly and at a higher volume than normal and they are used to telling kids what to do. Those habits will impact on adult relationships. If you are not a teacher, knowing one can be slightly disconcerting because those old work habits die hard. "Meike! Stand there and explain to me what you were doing standing in a field like scarecrow! And stop fidgeting young lady!"

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  6. Yes YP, we shouldn't classify people in such ways........I am not a monarchist or celebrity idolizer and don't believe that wealth and power make for better people.

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    1. ...And yet we seem to be surrounded by people who have swallowed that nonsense.

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  7. What do I do? As little as possible and I thoroughly enjoy it. I also read a few select blogs and generally annoy the blue blazes out of people.

    That should stop any further questions donch'ya think?

    Ms Soup

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    1. I heard that The Soup Dragon is back in a remake of "The Clangers".

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  8. This is the stereotypical introductory question at any New York City party. And probably many London parties as well. (I've been to fewer of those!)

    Please don't be offended that I removed your clever beer comment from my blog -- but I'm not sure all my readers would appreciate your double entendre. I, however, thought it was quite artfully composed.

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    1. Regular visitors to this blog are used to my cunning employment of the double entendre and all they need to know is that the beer in question was produced by a company based in Beavertown!

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  9. For the last 7 years, going on 8 now, the answer from me has been: "I'm just an old fart on the street. How about you?"

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    1. Yes. Not what they would be expecting at all KCD. Nice one.

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  10. The first question I used to be asked when I came to Lewis 4 decades ago was "How old are you" Because I had not been born here and therefore not gone to school here the question was irrelevant because it didn't place me in a recognisable slot vis a vis the questioner's schooldays or those of his family members. Another question was 'where are you from?'. None ever asked what you did because everyone knew what you did. That was the least of their interests. I think that it is that mentality which made me fall in love with life in the Islands. What you did or how much money you had were irrelevant. One of the bridge players in the club was an Island lawyer with his own plane whose golf partner (and another superb bridge player) was a fork lift truck driver. I couldn't see that happening in England.

    All in all I would endorse what Meike has said too. In a place where people are all anonymous what you do is a very good starting off point for conversation. I always used to say that I was a bureaucrat (until I became a potter). It always left people bemused. Was I a lawyer? A clerk? An accountant? A director of education (and thus, heaven forbid, in the old days a former teacher). People so often have preconceived ideas but so rarely actually know what other people may do simply because they have a job description.

    I could go on but I'll spare you that (as you'll be the only one who will get this far in my comment anyway).

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    1. Of course I read all the comment and would happily have read more Graham. I am pleased that my post sparked this interesting reflection.

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  11. I am an artist trapped in a working woman's body.
    That usually stuns people to the point that they don't ask anything else!
    In America, you really are defined by your job. It seems that way to me anyway.

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    1. American people need to start looking beyond the job. Mind you, I wouldn;t mind being trapped in a working woman;s body for half an hour.

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  12. Oh, Mr. Pudding. You and I are so alike in so many ways. And in this, of course. I would much rather people ask me, "Who are you?" "What do you think"? "What makes you come alive?" "Are you a person who lives in the moment or in the past or in the future?" I would never ask a person what job they have or had. That is not who they are or what they think. Who a person is is what a person feels and thinks. I think you know me and I think I know you, Mr. Pudding and we would never, ever think of voicing this to each other. Although, because of your caring, sensitive nature, I am thankful that you were/are a teacher of young people.

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    1. I believe that I have always been a hard person to pigeonhole Mama Thyme. For one reason or another I was a fish that refused to swim with the shoal and in this I know that we are quite similar. But other people can feel disconcerted. Pigeonholing brings comfort through order.

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.