In New York City, you will be asked “what do you do” within forty-five seconds of meeting anyone. New Yorkers ask this question for several reasons; some of them are pernicious and some of them are not. A New Yorker may ask this question because of a failure of imagination; the questioner, ignoring the vast complexity of beauty of reality chooses to focus the discussion on one of the most mundane aspects of our existence: what we do for substance, which is often tragically mistaken with our raison d’être. And then there is the pernicious reason. With so many people in the city, there has to be some kind of filter used to determine whether someone is worth your limited time. “Worth” often comes down to a two-part inquiry: what any New Yorker wants to know upon meeting someone is “can this person benefit me sexually or financially.” New Yorkers determine the latter criterion by looking at you, and the former by asking “what do you do?”
Because everyone is in on it, this question obviously engenders imaginative responses: the intern charged merely with getting coffee for her boss undergoes a transformation into an “vice-president in charge of logistics in the New York City region.” The data entry clerk who shifts numbers from one place on a spreadsheet to another becomes a “financial derivative bond analyst,” which, with the help of his expensive suit, conjures images of private jets and flights to Beijing where the reality is a cubicle. But, like a currency that experiences rampant inflation forcing store owners to raise their prices, New Yorkers have merely raised their expectations in response to the proliferation of exaggerative stories and lies.
I refuse to give a straightforward answer to this question, and it’s not because I don’t have a good response. All I have to say is “I’m a lawyer” and the inquiry for almost everyone will end there (a depressing aspect of existence). From that point on I am presumed to be worthwhile, unless I prove otherwise. My problem with this “what do you do” conversation is that, as I wrote above, I’m either being tested for worth, or my interlocutor and I are engaging in a mutual capitulation and instead of having a real conversation we are instead choosing our “what I do” scripts.
This phenomenon is a good example of what Adorno writes about in the passage pasted below. Since there is “no difference between a person and that person’s economic fate,” asking what someone does is tantamount to asking who they are or what they are. This is regrettable. I feel bad for anyone who seeks fulfillment or meaning through their job. While there may be occasional exceptions, jobs are by their nature repetitive and often degrading since when it comes down to it, in one way or another we are being forced to do something even if it is what we love. We are performing tasks on someone else’s terms.
It’s not always easy to talk to a complete stranger, and often these tried and true questions will at least get us somewhere. But we should always strive in talking to other people to keep our conversation original and to stay off the script.