When I was in graduate school I began to be subjected to work as a core conversational topic. What department you were in, what research you were doing and when you planned to finish became regular banter topics. This pattern was actually an unwitting form of systematic humiliation; almost no graduate student finishes as quickly as they like nor are as pleased with the content of their work as they hoped. I sum it up with a strip from PhD Comics:
In school this game took on a sort of existential purpose, filling the space of polite discussion but at the same time lacking any significant meaning. None of us were all that concerned with other people’s work, and with the rampant impostor syndrome infecting our subculture, we didn’t want to face our own work either. It was a bit like the joke that “in Communism we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Put more simply, it also meant that we had run out of genuinely interesting things to talk about.
It was a perverse sort of prisoner’s dilemma, we all had an incentive to confederate in propping up what bit of meaning the system could provide us, and you couldn’t afford to defect unless you were guaranteed to compensate for the loss of social cachet (in effect, the only option was leaving school entirely where your collegial social value no longer mattered); meanwhile you along with everyone else knew everybody was doing it wrong.
When I left grad school and entered the working world, I was disappointed to find that the “what do you do” question had taken on a whole new level of conversational meaning in afternoon happy hours and genteel dinner parties. It was no longer a mutual backscratching, a collective acquiescence to the shared ennui; rather it was more likely a passive aggressive invitation to show your cards early, laced with the air of cutthroat competition and status jockeying, of subtle plays to one’s superior income or “juice” (social proximity to important figures).
Fortunately, when still in school I had formulated a simple personal policy to deal with the situation: don’t talk about work. It was very simple and easy to implement; once on a ride to a picnic with a student group, another student turned to me and opened conversation with “so what are you doing for your research?” I told him on the spot that I was sorry but I had to go to sleep, and instantly napped it up with my head against the window.
DON’T TALK ABOUT WORK
When you’re out meeting people or flexing your game against the ladies about town, work discussions are a sure way to get put in the “cubicle drone” box instead of the “mysterious dashing fellow” box.
If someone drops in the “so what do you do,” they’ve probably run out of interesting things to talk about and have decided to play a beta-bait “let’s get to know each other” script. However, don’t sleep on the other, more nefarious purpose of interrogating you about your work: to investigate your social status and probable income. You can see where I’m going with this, that with what seems like an innocent question, a crafty woman might be asking you to save her the effort by disqualifying yourself from her potential mating pool.
Fortunately, you don’t have to assume the worst to motivate yourself to find other conversation topics. You just have to realize that talking about work is boring, and lends itself to an encyclopedic discourse that is either value-neutral or negative.
Besides, you shouldn’t want to discuss it at length; if you’ve been doing it right, you work your workday so you can go home and enjoy yourself, unburdened by the stresses of the day until you come back to the office in the morning.
In the same way that you avoid paying for women’s dinners by not going on dinner dates, the key factor here is to, quite simply, not talk about work. This can be easier said than done, and when you find someone who is REALLY concerned about what you “do,” you’ve got someone you’re better off walking away from. If it’s a deep concern of hers on the first meeting, you can be damn sure that you’ll be subjected to an unbroken sequence of lifestyle fitness testing and status pressures throughout the life of whatever relationship is possible with someone with that kind of either rocket-powered hypergamy or (conversely) strictly work-based life values.
Anyway, the best way to deal with this question is to treat it like a fitness test, and respond innocently with an answer so ridiculous and over-the-top they can’t help but tingle.
Give them a bullshit job title and description. Remain in character as long as possible. Options to riff on include:
- You’re an agent in a semipro midget football league (talk about how hard it is to find enough talented players to fill rosters)
- You’re in a Gordon Lightfoot cover band (talk about the difficulty of maintaining authenticity over decades of changing vocals and styles)
- You’re a security consultant for Wolfgang Puck restaurants (discuss the challenges of keeping the recipes safe from wannabe-Slugworths who slip into the kitchen offices on the way to the bathroom)
- You were involved in constructing the world’s largest guitar (“luckily we found someone who could play it, but on condition of absolute secrecy”)
You want to channel Owen Wilson’s dinner speech in Wedding Crashers where he convinces Christopher Walken and the rest of the well-to-do hosts that he and Vince Vaughan operated a charity where homeless people spun yarn into thread for other homeless people to make marketable garments out of.
(Notice the fitness-test trap question: “so is it just about the money?” Also does anybody else think this scene was ab libbed?)
If bold mendacity doesn’t get people off the scent, provide a concise, unapologetic description of your work, without expecting anyone to be impressed by it, and then change the subject. You don’t want to get on the topic long enough for people to ask follow up questions or to start poking fun at you and put you on the defensive.
Notice that I haven’t said anything about whether your job is cool or not. That’s because it’s immaterial to whether you should talk about it or not. If your job is menial, boring or low-status (let’s not kid ourselves; most jobs, even well-paying ones, are at least one of these), you definitely don’t want to lay that out in social company. In close friend groups or more intimate moments, sure. But even if your job is cool, you don’t want to lead with high status and value first. You can cultivate a mysterious edge and be different, the guy who DOESN’T want to talk about his job; and then when people find out you really are a badass, the effects of the understatement will ripple through the group like a shockwave.
DON’T ASK DIRECT QUESTIONS
Going again in the direction of providing the emotional adventure: you don’t want to get in the position of being asked interrogative questions (see above), and you certainly don’t want to be the one asking said questions. Nothing can dry up somebody’s social juices like the feeling she’s on the spot.
Here are some questions that can get you started. (I keep a few of these phrases ready in my mental pocket in case the conversation lags and I need to jump-start it.)
- When did you last sing to yourself?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
My high school English teacher was all about “assertions” in our essays. “Don’t just write facts down on the page, make assertions, and use facts to support them!” She taught me, after much roughness, how to stick to a point and make the argument not just in the topic sentence or the thesis statement but in every phrase in the work.
Likewise, you don’t want to be in a “conversation” that is like a mutual information drop. Instead you want to be leading someone through your affective assertions, with soft leading questions instead of direct pointed ones. Don’t stay on one topic too long, and don’t apologize for changing the subject. Factual exchange is not the aim (nor is coming out right in an argument), it’s the opening of interpersonal boundaries - using little nuggets of her own personality as anchors, as markers on the path through a vibrant, sensual trail.
You are ROAMING all over, taking her on an adventure. In this world, there is no need to finish thoughts or draw conclusions. There is only need to EXPERIENCE. You’re grabbing her hand and running with her down an infinite, labyrinthine alleyway with no end, laughing and letting your fingers glide on the cobblestone walls along the way.
When you can make her feel something, the piddly details of your job or what neighborhood you live in fade to the background – you occupy a pole position in giving her that most distinctive experience, an emotional rush.