As questions go, it seems innocent enough. But I've always resented it: I imagine I'm talking to someone who knows my entire life history and finds it disappointing, and I'm about to get hit up with "You know, if you'd ..." The proper response to such people is to deck them, quickly and unmercifully.
It was easier to deal with this when I was in the Army; it was sufficient to rattle off my MOS, or the official description thereof. I was a 75C, a Personnel Management Specialist. (Translation: If you've just received orders, or are waiting for some, at some point in the chain they've passed my desk.) Then again, I had no patience with anyone who ran down the standard list of oxymorons and paused for effect at "Military Intelligence." That was my branch, goddamn it, and if I didn't do much of anything close to being classified, well, I had to have the same background check as the Serious Spooks, and they didn't give me grief, because there's always the chance of a slip of the lip. Training and discipline, discipline and training. Some people these days can't be bothered with such concepts.
On the surface, asking someone "What do you do?" seems perfectly innocent. It embeds a seemingly benevolent assumption: most specifically, that you do something rather than camp all day long before the television with the remote control in one hand and a Tribal Ingathering Size bag of Cheetos® in the other. But there are persons who dislike to speak of their trades, because those trades are treated with disdain by others with "better" occupations. Indeed, there are persons, including some in very highly paid positions, who resent the suggestion that their trades are the most important things about them.
My particular problem is that I no longer have a specialty that boils down to a simple code: I sweep through several different tasks each and every day, and no one word, no concise phrase, describes it all. "Server farmhand" is my usual Terse Response, and it's true enough: there is a server, it sits just across the room from me — the room has its own separate cooling system, just in case everything else in the complex fails — and I must tend to both machine and support gadgets on a regular basis. I've been doing much the same thing for a quarter of a century. But I don't consider it the be-all and end-all of my existence; if I'm there for nine hours a day, that leaves a mere 123 hours a week when I'm not. I wouldn't consider myself "very highly paid": I make enough to live on, and a little extra to pass around to those who need it.
Quoting FWP further:
"What do you do?" sounds so harmless! But were the answer to be "Well, I play with my kids, I make birdhouses and landscapes for model train layouts, I practice with my weapons, I read a lot of fantasy novels, and I spend a damnable fraction of my weekends unclogging the toilet in our master bathroom," it might be just as true and far more relevant than the citation of one's work for wages. Yet to ask "What's most important to you?" of a brand new acquaintance is considered insensitive and intrusive. There's a moral in there, somewhere.
And what matters to me, during those 123 "free" hours, is what you're reading here: there's a reason, and a perfectly obvious one at that, why it's numbered one thousand fourteen. Once I pull out of the corporate parking lot, I exchange that salt mine for this salt mine. It doesn't pay as well — hell, it doesn't pay at all — but I suspect it defines me and "what I do" better than anything on my W-2 form.
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