The One With the Job Titles

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.

Cocktail hour

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?”

guacamole

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! 

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47 comments

  1. I would’ve felt just the same way, Jackie! I would never introduce myself as a novelist (and would blanche if someone else did) even though I’ve written four novels (in the drawer!!), and I can barely introduce myself as a writer (I’ve been a freelance writer for twenty years). As you say, people make assumptions and judgments based on a job title. I’m guilty of that myself. These days if/when people ask, I tend to just say I work at home and let people draw their own conclusions — that I do nothing except maybe watch TV all day. It’s a good reason for this INFJ not to go to parties.

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    1. I wonder if writers have this internal debate more than other professions, especially fiction writers. It takes quite a while to finish a novel (or memoir) and then get it into the world. In many other professions you become that job title from day one. For writers, it’s a labor of love… and identity. Even more so for us INFJ-ers. 🙂

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  2. What an interesting difference—“What do you LIKE to do?” That’s really effective and I bet it stops people in their tracks. I still say introducing people to each other–even with “Bob is an accountant” is better than no introduction. It’s my pet peeve when the person who knows both people fails to do any intro!

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    1. That question opens up a whole host of conversational possibilities — and feel-good conversational possibilities at that. It definitely caught me off guard, in a good way. Within moments we were talking about a variety of topics, none of which had to do with “work.”

      I agree — a simple introduction is better than no introduction at all.

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  3. What do I like to do? What are you, some kind of stalker?!?
    Supposedly this “what do you do?” thing is an American obsession but I probably heard that from one of those people who’s been to one other country and won’t shut up about it.
    I STILL have a hard time saying I’m a novelist. A little more comfortable saying writer these days. But that only took 8 years of writing at work and three published books. I prefer international man of mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is a very interesting post!!! I think it is easy when one is “working” to identify yourself with a job title. Now when people ask me what I do I say that I am a blogger and that I am the go to person —if family needs something—I go. If friends need something—-I go. If the hubby needs something—I go. It still feels odd to not have a “job” title to say I do but I am getting over it and wouldn’t change my life for anything. Well….I might change the having to live apart from my husband part of it while I try to sell the house but…..
    So—inquiring minds want to know. Did you get a subscription to Graze yet? 🙂

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    1. Love that, Beth Ann. The “go to” person sounds like what we used to call the “honey do” person in my household. As in, “honey, can you do this?” 🙂

      I hope your house sale goes quickly and smoothly! Are you going to Chicago?

      I did get a subscription to Graze. I’m waiting on my first delivery, and I think I’m going to place an order for holiday gifts as well. What a great idea.

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  5. Great post, Jackie. I am glad someone else feels the same way I do. It’s the jockeying for power and status that bothers me the most when people introduce themselves as “the lawyer” or “the doctor.” Among writers I think the status quotient is: (from low to high) 1. a writer, 2. an author., 3. tied for the top place: a published author and novelist. I think your new guacamole pal has the right idea. What we do for a living and what we like to do are often very different!–Patti

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    1. Oh, that is so true, Patti. The status (or lack thereof) of certain professions puts people in a box limited by our own definitions. The question “What do you like to do?” offers so many possibilities, and puts a positive spin on the age-old icebreaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think that the manuscripts in the drawer image is not what we want to stain the reputation when we are toiling at our chosen vocation in hopes of success. If you are identified as a novelist, it suggests at least one novel published, whereas identifying yourself as a poet will garner disdain and incredulity whether or not you have published. Writer is easiest to claim because it is almost like an action that the beginners, emerging and established share. My mother scolded me once in my thirties for asking someone what she did for a living, which was supposedly impolite. (Why not tell me earlier if it was so scandalous?) What do you like to do is way better because it encourages conversation about the personality.

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  7. I could so identify with this. I’m an INFJ too. : )Isn’t it something like 8% of the population? I wonder how many others of us WP bloggers are?
    I feel, have always felt, that I’m waiting to find out what “I am” Everything so far has felt like I’m just passing through, kind of what I imagine rotations in med school would be like. I keep telling myself someday I’ll find something that I’m really good at, everything will click in place and I will become that. (Ha. Right.) In the meantime, I’m just an observer and what half assed writing I do stems from wanting to record what I see.

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    1. Last time I took a very informal poll, there are a lot of us INFJ-ers in these parts. 🙂
      I read an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert who suggested that people follow their curiosity, rather than trying to find their passion. I’d never heard that advice before and it sounds solid to me. Following your curiosity leads to finding out what you like which at the very least helps to answer that question at the guacamole platter. 😉

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  8. It’s a tricky one, this. Sometimes I say that I’m a writer. That is, after all, how I make my living. People instantly think “novels”, and ask what books I’ve written. “Uhm… none,” I have to respond. So, I usually stick to “I write articles”. It’s all about expectation management 😉

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    1. Expectation management — that’s a great way to put it.

      I hope your article writing is going well. 🙂 Any new articles that you’ll be sharing with us soon? I enjoyed the last one you linked to.

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  9. Oh, Jackie, I LOVE the addition of that one word. It’s perfect! I’m adopting that phrase starting right now.
    The thing about using our jobs to label us is that so many of us perhaps really don’t even like our jobs, they are just the work we do for a living. In that case the inclusion of the qualifier ‘like’ lets the person off the hook of having to talk about their day job, and opens the door to something they might be more excited to share.
    This was a brilliantly written post, btw. The flow of thought was flawless and your language skills are so lovely and clean.

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    1. What a difference a word makes! But then as writers (novelists?) we already knew that. 🙂

      It’s been a long time since anyone has asked me what I like to do. So long, in fact, I was caught off guard. It was wonderful to consider and a nice gift to be given.

      Thank you so much, Cynthia. It really makes my day to read your kind words

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  10. This is a very interesting post, I’m definitely going to ask people what they like to do from now on. I was messing about with my LinkedIn profile recently and changed my occupation to ‘Writer’. I then accidentally invited everyone I’ve ever had contact with to link up with me. I was mortified that all these people would think I was conceited enough to call myself a writer, without actually ever having published anything. But, stuff ’em. I’ve finished a novel, got another on the way and plenty of short stories under my belt, so, yes, I’m a writer 🙂

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    1. Yes, you are! The journey of being a writer can be long from conception to finished product. So maybe that’s why it takes longer for us to “feel” like writers. I’m glad that you kept writer as your occupation on your profile.
      Good luck on finishing your current WIP.

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  11. I dread this question because I’ve carved a professional niche for myself that’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, with a dash of something else.

    I would be proud to claim any of these as my “profession,” but it would be disingenuous to do so, even in the noble effort to not bore the questioner to tears because I (unfortunately) tend toward hearing Jackson Browne singing “The Late Show,” (. . . “Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing
    ‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care. . .”)
    .

    “What do you like to do?” is a good question.

    I like to guard the guacamole. Meet you there. 🙂

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    1. I heard that Jackson Browne song recently! I can’t remember where I heard it, but it became an earworm for me for a few days. (The little harmonies in the background.)

      I typically only eat guacamole when I’m with close friends. I tend to go, um, overboard. It’s embarrassing.

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  12. Oh, I like that alternative too. Much more interesting than “What do you do ?” I used to ask the latter until a Frenchman told me it was considered very rude in his country. Now I avoid it like the plague.
    I also feel funny saying I’m a photographer, even though I’ve sold quite a few prints. Maybe because I’m self-taught and my degree was in something else? You, on the other hand, have every right to call yourself a novelist. If you’re not comfortable with that, go with “writer.”

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    1. Oh, you definitely are a photographer in my book. I’m happy to hear that you’ve sold a few prints. Maybe some of the prints from your trip to Russia will sell also. Those were quite stunning. (Though I always enjoy the seaside photos of San Diego. 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Your post made me realize how rarely I’m in social situations that require introducing people to each other or being introduced. That said, this weekend was an exception – a friend introduced me as a “speech scientist,” which was kinda fun. I’ve never been introduced that way before.

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    1. Speech scientist! That’s terrific and unique. I bet it got the conversation flowing. Your comment also made me think about how we can introduce friends with a quality that you like about that person. “Sally, this is Don. He makes the best guacamole you’ve ever had.” (In which case, Don would be my new best friend.)

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  14. This is such an interesting post! I always found that having a quick title I could throw out a way of maintaining my privacy. Not having worked fulltime for several years (because of health issues), I can’t rely on the quick “I’m a computer programmer” when people ask me what I do. So what do I say? If I tell people I’m not working, they often want to know all the details about things I really don’t want to discuss.

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    1. Great point, Lisa. Asking the “what do you do” question can be a sensitive topic for someone. Maybe Engaging someone in things they enjoy allows the person to offer information on whatever they feel comfortable sharing. Hope you’re well as you head into summer!

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  15. Like the others here, I think the term writer is always the better one. In general, I prefer to introduce myself just by my name but if they ask what I do then I prefer to say I teach or I write or I walk my dog (haha!) rather than the more formal titles. We’re more defined by our activities than our titles anyway, right?

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    1. What a great idea to offer a humorous response to the age-old “what do you do” question! Saying “I walk my dog” gives people a chance to smile and ask a follow-up question. Oh? What kind of dog do you have? I’m going to use that one next time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Great post, Jackie. Wow – indeed, that one little word made ALL the difference, didn’t it? Hmm… for me this is interesting. I write for a living and have done so for 20+ years (15 of those full-time freelance), so when people ask what I do, I don’t hesitate to say that I’m a writer. That leads to: what do you write? And this is where it becomes interesting. I don’t hesitate to rattle off my educational, nonprofit, for-profit, science and medical clients as well as my magazine projects. But the thing I DO keep in the drawer is the fact that I write fiction. For me, personally, I won’t feel comfortable saying I’m an author until I publish traditionally. That’s just ME, of course. I’ve always needed external validation, so traditional publication is ‘that’ validation even though self-published writers are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, authors, to me. Why I can’t apply this same ‘naming’ methodology to myself seems silly, yet… It just is…

    So I like your guac friend’s introduction technique MUCH better: what do you LIKE to do? My response, “Well, how much time do you have?”

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    1. I don’t think you’re alone, Melissa. I get the sense that a lot of us writers are hesitant to describe ourselves that way until we’ve reached some kind of “success” (however you define that for yourself). I often wonder why that is. Do you think it’s the pay issue? As in, if you’re not making a living at it, then you can’t claim that as “what you do?”
      I would introduce you as “caretaker of saguaros.” 🙂

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  17. Another risk of the “What do you do?” question is if the person is unemployed.

    I like “What do you like to do?” better than the variations of “How do you spend your time?” that I use. I’m switching. Thanks.

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    1. Yes, the “what do you do” question can be a sensitive topic for a number of reasons, including unemployment. Or if the person doesn’t like their job, they might begin to feel down.

      Let me know if you get any good responses from asking “what do you like to do?”
      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I hate the question, “What do you do?” Talk about being put on the spot. Maybe I will start saying I’m an accountant. But with my luck the person asking will be one and then I’ll really look like an idiot since I can’t add 2 and 2. I like to hide by the guacamole bowl as well.

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  19. I’m guilty of falling into that conversational trap so now I just avoid it by never leaving the house. 🙂 Unless there’s going to be guacamole, of course.

    Seriously, I love your alternative because it is so much more interesting and provides a way to really get to know a person. As a woman who self-identified by my job it has been a long, slow process to accept myself any other way but still makes for awkward pauses in social situations.

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    1. That’s my usual M.O. 🙂

      Your comment also brought to mind that this seemingly simple question can start to redefine the way we see ourselves. And you’re right — it opens up a much more dynamic conversation. Thanks for helping me think about yet another benefit to rephrasing the standard “what do you do” question.

      Now, where is that bowl of guacamole?

      Like

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