There’s an adage that Americans begin conversations by asking what you do for a living, while people from other, presumably more sophisticated countries (France, Italy, even my home country of Australia, according to a recent article by New York Times columnist Bari Weiss) ask you where your family’s from, where you like to go on vacation, or your favorite condiment to add to your avocado toast.
This tendency, we are supposed to think, is a symptom of a lack of imagination. To speak first about work is to reduce a person to their economic status, to say that what we do to earn a living is more important than what we do for leisure.
And to some degree, I get it. I too hate being asked “what I do” - as a self-employed person juggling multiple roles and projects, I lack the easy shorthand of a title and job description that clearly and quickly answers the question.
But I LOVE talking about work. More, perhaps, than anything else.
Talking about work isn’t inherently unimaginative or superficial. At their best, conversations about work can be a form of rich interpersonal engagement, a way of asking someone: What do you care about? What are you doing to make the world better, more beautiful, or more interesting? What are you finding difficult about making that happen? How are you working through those challenges? And what are you learning about yourself and others in the process?
These are the conversations that have formed the foundations of many of my closest friendships, and they are the types of questions that form the basis of every Powerbitches event: be it a group conversation about money, an intimate dinner with a leading artist and musician, or an evening spent brainstorming our way through the challenges our members are facing in the projects they’re working on.
These conversations aren’t just more interesting than the standard “what do you do” conversation. They also build a greater depth of connection and understanding. So, how do we have more of them?
One answer is to get more specific. To go beyond the easy shorthand of the one- or two-word answer (a relief for people like me, who don’t have one) to explain what we actually do, and to be curious enough to encourage others to do the same. Another is to be more expansive in our definition of what work is - “I’m a designer/lawyer/babysitter, but what I’m really excited about is...”
Finally, we can move beyond the “what” of our work to the “why.” Why do you do what you do? What contribution do you want to make? And if your current job isn’t the best vehicle through which to make that contribution, where else could you make it?
Talking about work doesn’t have to be meaningless small talk. It can be the basis of some of the most meaningful and exciting conversations we have.