“What do you do?”
There’s no question I’ve come to despise more when I first meet someone. It’s the adult version of “What college are you going to?” when you’re in high school and “What are you going to do now?” when you’re about to graduate college. I understand that these questions are often used as conversation starters. However, it’s basically asking, “What’s your value and worth?” within the first few minutes of meeting someone. You’re instantly in the hot seat. I believe that if you’re willing to build a rapport with someone instead of taking a speed dating approach to making new friends or building contacts, you’ll be much more successful. Discussions about goals, ambitions, and work will flow into the conversation naturally. And honestly, who wants to talk about work when they’re not at work? Even the most successful people don’t want to talk about what they do when they’re not at the office or doing promotional appearances.
So, of course, when one of my best friends, Bill, invited me out for drinks and to meet a couple of his friends, that question came up.
“What do you do?” Bill’s friend asked.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
She stared at me, sipping her drink in the lounge setting.
Five seconds, ten seconds, now twenty seconds passed.
I don’t do well with silence. I’m one of those people who always wants to hear noise, except when I’m sleeping. I know that conversational silence is never as long or as bad as it seems in the moment, but that doesn’t stop my natural inclination to chime in quickly.
“Is something wrong?” I reinitiated the conversation since our eyes were still locked.
“What?” The girl asked.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I wanted to know what went through her mind at that moment. “Is it a problem that I’m a writer?”
It’s taken me a long time to finally say, “I’m a writer” when someone asks me what I do for a living. I’ve been a paid, published writer from the age of 17-years-old, co-wrote a musical that premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and have reported on sporting events such as the Olympic Games in Beijing and the US Open in New York. Yet, I’m still extremely hesitant about telling people that I’m a writer and that it’s my profession.
It’s not that I’m embarrassed about what I do for a living. I love writing and wouldn’t want to spend my days doing anything else, at least right now. It’s the reaction people have after I tell them I’m a writer that bothers me. Usually, the first question after you say you’re a writer is an accusatory, “What have you written?” or “How do you support yourself?”
Sure, both statements seem innocuous, but it’s the tone, body language, and way in which the words are said that cause the uneasy feelings as if I’m on the witness stand at a murder trial and I’m being reminded that I’m under oath. The person you meet is basically saying, “Really? You must not be that good if I don’t know who you are.”
This happens with all professions, not just artistic ones, even though it seems that people are much more prone to “advise” and give creative types a helpful nudge in the right direction since they feel they are (or one day will be) in the public eye, so they should get used to criticism. When you tell people you first meet you’re a writer, at least one person in the group will tell you reasons why you haven’t “made it yet.” They’ll then continue, “People want funny. I’ve got good stories. If you want to write, talk to me. My life should really be a book or a reality show.”
Say you’re a painter or photographer and people will want to know, “What galleries have you exhibited in?” Doctors and lawyers have to deal with, “What Medical/Law School did you attend?” and “What firm do you work for or hospitals are you affiliated with?” Even accountants are looked down upon unless they’re working at one of the “Big Four” firms or run their own company. Musicians have to deal with, “How many views does your music video have on YouTube? Most pop stars are found on Vine today. Do you have that app? You should get it!” These questions and statements would be fine if the people asking were truly interested or sincerely trying to help you, but often it is that person’s way of making himself/herself feel better at your expense.
Intentionally direct questions, intended to karate chop you in the back of the neck when you least expect it, say more about the person asking than the one answering. Handling these questions with class proves challenging, occasionally. My parents engrained in me the mindset, “Let your work do all the talking.” Sometimes I want to speed up the process and just say, “I’ve been written about in the New York Times. Look up the article, read it, and then I’ll consider letting you buy me a drink. Until then, you know where to go.” But then I’ve allowed myself to sink to the despicable level of the questioner. So, I usually channel my inner Taylor Swift and “Shake It Off.”
The people who are asking the questions with the most disdain are the ones who want to be the writers, artists, doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but haven’t figured out a way to succeed yet. So, they’re trying to discover: Why is this person working in a field that I want to work in, but I can’t figure out how to break in?
The woman looked on, prying for more information. Slightly inebriated me assumed the worst.
“Why are you looking at me like that? What do you want to know? Ask questions and I’ll answer.” I knew I came off as rude, but didn’t care.
“What types of things do you write?”
Of course, I thought. She just put me on the witness stand.
“I write articles, and am also working on a screenplay and a TV pilot.”
“What publication do you work for?”
“Thought Catalog right now, but many others in the past.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What topics do you write articles about?”
“I can send you articles I’ve written if you’d like.” I wasn’t going to let this lady win the battle.
“Do you write about cooking, fashion, food, technology or real estate?” she continued.
“No.” Of course she’d ask me if I write about topics that I’ve never written about.
“That’s too bad,” she followed up. “I’m the Director of Editorial Operations” and mentioned her company’s name and all of the magazines/websites that are under its umbrella.
“Oh, that’s really cool!” I said. “I like writing about sports and relationships.”
“Well, we do have a sports site,” she smiled. “Let me give you my card.”
“I would really like that,” I said. “It’s truly a pleasure to meet you.”
Worst recovery ever. Now I’m the one with the chip on my shoulder lashing out.
I finally gathered the courage to stand behind my profession and my official job title and not be timid about my life as a writer. It backfired in the best of ways. A valuable lesson learned, proving not to think the worst of people you just meet.
All I want from people I meet is to not be judged and not be given the stigma that most emerging writers are given, the same way stockbrokers, salespeople, artists, lawyers, and doctors don’t want to deal with stereotypes people have about them. That’s when I realized, while I was sitting somewhere on top of my high horse with my head in the clouds, I couldn’t see that I wasn’t giving others the same courtesy I wanted. And that’s a shame on me. When you allow other people, especially strangers, to influence you and allow them to change your behavior for the worse, that’s when you need to take back control of your own thoughts and actions.
So, next time someone asks me, “What do you?” I promise not to assume that the person has the worst of intentions, even though I’d much prefer if we could talk about the guy making finger guns and pretending to shoot his friends at the other end of the lounge when they’re singing off key to the songs coming out of the player piano.