Bullish: When Is It Appropriate To Ask People About Their Jobs? (Ladies Say: INSTANTLY)

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Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice weekly on TheGloss. Here is an archive, and here is an archive of Bullish columns from our sister site TheGrindstone.

Around 2006, I’m out at a bar with my new guy. His friends have just arrived, so everyone stands in a circle while he makes introductions.

“This is Joe. He’s a designer. This is Mason. He’s also a designer.” Five or six designers later (I guess they hang out together?): “This is Jennifer.”

That was it. Because being female is job enough! (Might as well just change your name to Mrs. Boyfriend!)

When I pointed it out later, my guy was mortified. He explained that I had a lot of jobs (see Bullish: How to Do Many Things at Once). I explained that, since I had so many, it should have been even easier to recall one of them.

(See Bullish: Picking a Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Hold Back Your Career or Bank Account.)

Just last week, I heard an even more astounding version of this from a twentysomething woman I know who runs an art book publishing house (I’ve had to anonymize this story a bit) with several full-time employees.

She was sitting at an awards banquet with her boyfriend when a round of introductions was made. All the men were introduced with name and job title. She was introduced as, “And Janelle, whose big accomplishment is being Noah’s girlfriend.” People laughed. Adorbs!

As Janelle was telling this story, all the women listening were aghast. “Did you say anything?!”

“I really couldn’t,” she explained. “Jay-Z was sitting right there.”

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    • Tania

      As ever, I absolutely love this. My job and school are how I spent the vast majority of my time, not just sitting around, being a female, trying to look pretty.

    • Unzipping the Mermaid

      I understand your point but, as a perpetually “aspiring” musician with an unrewarding day job, I would inevitably end up in this conversation:

      Person Who Isn’t Me: So what do you do?

      Me: I work at an insurance company to pay the bills but I’m actually a singer and songwriter.

      Person Who Isn’t Me: What kind of insurance?

      I’m allergic to small talk too, don’t get me wrong, but what I like to ask new people is, “So, what’s your life’s passion?”

    • KM

      I’m British, and no one has ever said there was a rule against asking what people do! That’s always the first thing I ask people, or am asked by others. “Etiquette” rules always seem to be invented by American…

      • maruja de lujo

        Yes, I thought that “stuffy old British” bit was a silly cliché. It was in London that someone asked me what I did, then turned his back on me when I said I was a shop assistant.

    • travis

      Hmm… This writer seems to have issues with men (i’ve read some of her medium posts as well). It doesn’t seem that she is that confident in herself and is projecting insecurities. In reference to the situation where “everyone” is introduced as a designer and she is “just” introduced as Jennifer… If she really felt that this was an issue and it bothered her, she should have spoken up about it in them moment rather than hold off to tell her boyfriend later. Rather than taking on the situation, she seems to have allowed herself to play a role of “victim”. Also, she then forces her boyfriend to explain( or more so incriminate) himself and when he does, she doesn’t accept his answer, but rather breaks it down further and basically says… that’s not an acceptable reason, you should have chosen one and went with it! So, as the boyfriend, what happens if he choses one and she’s then not satisfied with which one he chose to say…? as if it would misrepresent what she does as a whole.

      I guess my question for the writer is: Why does introducing you as “just” Jennifer equate to being “just” a woman?

      You must be very self-conscious for your first thoughts to this type of situation is: “It’s because I’m a woman!”

      • jmc@live.ca

        I have a problem with men like you…. Who don’t see the riddiculousness
        all the men are introduced with what they do she is the only person who is not introduced with that…. and its not because she is a female which is the only difference in the situation but its not because he is a woman. Since leaving college/uni I practically never get complimented on anything other than my apperance by men… or men make me feel like my value lies in my appearance and nothing else matters…. or matters less. so save your nonsense for something you understand. peanut brain

    • BB

      A person who has accomplished a lot would be glad to be asked, but a person who has accomplished little wouldn’t be, and therein lies the rub. In America, asking right off the bat what a person does for a living really means this: “How much should I respect you?” It’s an awkward, personal question designed to ferret out your income level, and where I live in Europe to do so is thought of as boorish (and Americans are well known as the only ones who ask, by the way). When asked what one does for a living some answers elicit the response, “Oh! Great!” Most elicit the response: “Hmm. Interesting.” And many elicit the response “Ah. Well…” It’s a poor trend to encourage because it contributes to class consciousness, and prompts people to lie or embellish to increase their stature. I can imagine public spaces one day filled only with successes and wannabes while everyone else stays at home debating suicide. Social interaction shouldn’t be self promotion nor expose what the majority consider to be someone’s inadequacy. It should be fun. I never ask what a person does for a living, and I don’t have to because I’m good at conversation. When I am inevitably asked, if it happens in the normal flow of conversation I answer politely. If it’s among the first questions asked I answer, but add, “But we don’t generally ask that question here, at least not right away. Have you been doing that? I bet you’ve gotten some strange reactions.” That always works as a gentle hint what the question really means, and how we really about about it.

    • Jenny

      NO WAY. I have to say that as a lady, I don’t wish to be asked what I do for work or even what I want to do. I don’t wish to be defined as such. Who else may not wished to be asked that?

      - the person who hates their job (even the most successful people often do)

      - the person who spent 80 hours at their job this week, and wants a break from the topic.

      - the unemployed, the disabled, as well those who never had the opportunity to do what they wanted for work. And no, not everyone wants to network at a party.

      - those who were victims of 2008-2010 who had to take salary cuts and jobs they hate

      - those who see a job as a way to pay bills and not life’s purpose

      - those who have several jobs, or a complex situation to explain

      - the person who does a job that people often resent in some way

      There is a world beyond definition by career, and definition as attached to a man. The former isn’t an advance for woman kind. It’s another (albeit equal), objectification. What else could you ask? How about “what are your hobbies and interests”? People are better defined by their values, passions, talents, virtues, experiences, and how they interact with the world.

    • amanda halm

      I don’t want to be defined by what I do nor do I wish to be defined by the man I am standing next to. I hate the question because it leads to some awkward interchanges. Most people ask you because they want to talk about what they do. It’s like asking someone how his/her weekend went. I lived in Canada for awhile and no one asked me what I did and that was refreshing. I stopped caring about my job title.
      However, as a woman and an accomplished writer, I dislike it when people ask me how my husband’s job is going before they ask about mine. Or when they never ask about mine.