Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Do you Do?

In describing how she became a comedienne, Sarah Silverman is fond of questioning: “How exactly do we become what we do? How is he a lawyer? How is she a hooker?” The answer: “As we grow up, we have all of these dysfunctions - they form an individual formula for whatever it is that drives us to be what we are. For comedienne’s, its humiliation... I was raped by a Dr. which is bitter-sweet for a jewish girl.”

So how is it that we become what we do? Or to be philosophical, how is it that what we do becomes who we are? And I guess more importantly what is it that we do exactly, beyond push paper, respond to emails and sign emails with multi-word titles such as: Assistant Manager, so and so Division.

The question of what it is that you do, sadly comes up a lot in life. Sometimes I take issue with it, “I can’t believe so and so asked me that. Does my career define me?” But just as I am quick to judge its usage you’ll probably find me standing awkwardly at a cocktail party and asking a newfound friend the rather boorish: “so what is it that you do exactly?” And worse of all, I am probably prone to judge the answer, “Did you here what so and so does?” Then again we’re all prone to dismissive introductions: meet my friend Josh, he’s a litigation lawyer, or have you met Dan, he works in private equity?

“So what do you do?” may be just the most banal and yet most popular conversation starter out there. While question has become a rather ubiquitous crutch in today’s society it is quite frankly something that our ancestors would have frowned upon our frequent usage of. While hanging out at a friends farm on a rainy sunday I ended up leafing through: Book on Etiquette (published in 1923). Funnily enough the topic of employment rarely comes up, even amongst such chapters such as “how to treat the servants” and “correct napkin placements”. What does come up time and time again in 1920’s etiquette, however, was the importance of Cards. As the book notes: “On a man's business cards the title "Mr." is omitted, the name of his firm, their business, and address, being engraved in the lower left-hand corner.” No need to ask what one does, the Card is always handy, “On entering at a reception, or afternoon tea, one leaves a card in the salver offered by the butler or attendant who opens the door.”

Conclusively the etiquette book declares: “A man appears in society simply as an ordinary individual, to win favor and position by force of his personality, or to lose it thereby.” As the book notes: “honorary titles are omitted. There should be no pretense in regard to social position, as pretense is easy and futile.” How novel of a concept, non?

Of course such social cues were probably related to that fact that in “polite society” people didn’t really work, they uhm went to social gatherings and hung out at society clubs. Those in the chattering classes either had money (family money) or they didn’t. I suspect this wasn’t just 1920’s gilded age excess. Think about it, what does Darcy do in Pride and Prejudice? Homeboy doesn’t have a job. He has rank and family money. You think people are all like, “so Darcy where you working these days?” Bitch, please.

Today of course, such a question comes up again and again in polite society because we spend a significant time doing exactly what we do. If we didn’t work... well, what exactly would we do?

And therein lies the rub. We may let work define us even as we itch to make it not. I was out for dinner a couple of weeks ago which an interesting group of people all of whom bemoaned their lack of time work on charitable endeavors because of their paying job. One sort of facetiously and sort of truthfully admitted that she’d love to be able to concentrate full time on her philanthropy. If only she were independently wealthy... the charities she would start!

I begged to differ. The most interesting people I know are so because they want to ensure that their work does not yet define them. The drive to go beyond work and into the arts, or philanthropy is mutually supportive.

Besides if we didn’t work what would we do? Sit around and judge each other’s business cards?

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