I was forced to put together a 100-word bio this week. I felt mildly panicked.
You may know the feeling I'm talking about... sometimes it strikes when someone asks you "What do you do?" It's a conflicting concoction of how do I describe myself mixed with my sense of what's expected tossed with my own feelings about how well my job may or may not introduce me.
Oh, am I overthinking it? Probably.
Still, for many folks, the "What do you do?" question is not the best fit. So I've tried to shift my thinking, especially in cross-cultural conversations. Here's why.
Why I Don't Ask "What do you do?"
"What do you do?" is a very American (U.S.) question. We derive a great deal of identity from our jobs, our titles, or our vocations. It's also just a common ice breaker.
Billy and I had been married for several years when I wondered out loud, "Does your family know what I do for a living?" He shrugged and responded, "I think so."
I couldn't really remember having any extended conversation about my work. But it wasn't because of disinterest in me. Instead, I was always asked, "How are your parents... your sister... your nephews?"
Particularly in relationships that also bridge economic divides, questions about work or jobs can be sensitive. Someone may be struggling to find work, may be underemployed, or may feel their employment lacks prestige.
Of course, these questions may also just seem irrelevant since, in my opinion, many other cultures have better boundaries with work. After all, if your job is a means by which to live your life, wouldn't you rather discuss your life?
A Better Question: "How's your mom?"
We've often hear that other cultures are more family-centric, but I think that orientation plays out in important ways in cross-cultural conversations. Instead of work-focused questions, I'm learning to focus on relationships and family.
It's taken some practice for me. Usually, if I'm talking about your mom, I'm making a yo mamma joke.... because I'm an eleven year old boy. One day my kids will truly appreciate these jokes.
But I'm starting to ask "Do you have family in the area?" "How is your family?"
Remembering details about friends' families is good practice all around. But I think this topic is even more appreciated in multicultural contexts.
What questions are your go-to ice breakers? How do you feel when someone asks what you do?