A few years ago, I was at an event hosted by Poets & Writers magazine. The cocktail hour was coming to a close, and I was just about to congratulate myself on escaping without having to make small talk.
Then a friend appeared with someone in tow, and before I knew it I was introduced as a novelist to a published author of some prominence. I could feel myself blanche, wanting to crawl under the buffet table with a martini and a plate of those little crudités the waiters were passing around. It wasn’t because I was anxious meeting said author. I felt (you writers know where I’m going with this) self-conscious to be introduced as a novelist. I don’t feel like a novelist and all that it implies, certainly not in the presence of someone who has won awards for that very thing.
When is it that one becomes the description of themselves? The lawyer. The plumber. The vice president of corporate relations. Is it when you pass an exam, or when someone else confers that designation upon you? Is it after you feel you’ve reached a certain level of competence?
Some descriptions happen instantly, even if you’re not fully ready for them. You cross a threshold of no return. You’re a mom or a dad in the blink of an eye, with no prior experience. Same goes for wife or husband. Or retiree. With that one you have to switch to past tense (I was a…) and look to redefine yourself.
I wasn’t upset with my friend for introducing me as a novelist. He was just reaching for the quickest way to identify me and landed on the one thing the author and I had in common. I’ve done it myself—used someone’s job title or position as kind of shorthand. It happened just this weekend. I was at a friend’s birthday get-together. I was hanging out near the guacamole (the best place to be in my opinion) when someone came up next to me and reached for a chip. We introduced ourselves and I, apparently already out of witty repartee, said, “So, what do you do?”
At first, I chalked it up to small talk. I’d always thought of the question as an empty one, similar to “How are you?” It’s a shortcut in a culture with a collective attention deficit disorder, but maybe it’s more than that. It’s a way to define someone. I suddenly felt bad for all the times I’d led with the what-do-you-do question or introduced someone with their job title as a name attachment, “Mark, this is Susie. She’s an accountant.” I’ve inadvertently put my friends and acquaintances into a little box. I’d thought I was breaking the ice, trying to make pleasant conversation with someone at an event. What’s a poor INFJ to do?
Really, it’s a conversational dead-end. Unless Mark is an accountant, he and Susie are done talking. Worse, if Mark has a lot of preconceptions about accountants, he’s now making judgments about Susie based on her job title.
My new guacamole friend was already one step ahead of me. Instead of asking me the same question in return, he asked, “What do you like to do?” What a difference one word makes!
How do you introduce friends or introduce yourself to someone new?
Have a great weekend, everyone!