Stranahan strives to be loving, open, respectful, accepting
and nonjudgmental. The legacy she hopes to leave is that
those whose paths crossed hers found that she brought a
smile to their face, or their load was lightened, or they
learned a new way to think about themselves and their lives
that brought them peace and serenity.
do you do?"
most of my life, I have dreaded that question. I have generally
interpreted it as meaning, "What work do you get paid to
do?" It seems to show up everywhere: in the occupation line
on tax returns, on doctor's office forms, even on
New York Times
web site when I want to look up an article.
That's not so bad-after all, I can fill those out in privacy-but
when it shows up in social situations, it presents a challenge.
More Than Money Journal
discussion group pointed
out, the question is distinctly American. In many other
cultures, to ask such a question is considered a breach
of etiquette, akin to inquiring about someone's net worth.
But in the United States, we ask it of people we've just
met-at parties, meetings, even on airplanes. When it is
asked of me, I often feel as if the questioner is using
my answer to make judgments about my value to society or
to them. Do I make a lot of money? Am I powerful? Am I somebody
they want to talk to? Am I important enough? Am I successful
by their standards? Those are the questions I suspect they
asking me when they say, "What do you
do?" I know that some people, at least, make assumptions
about me based on my answers because sometimes I do it,
know I'm not the only one for whom the question is uncomfortable.
It's uncomfortable for many: inheritors who, like me, don't
need to work for a living and who don't have a "regular
job;" those whose jobs obviously don't pay for their lifestyles;
sometimes homemakers or early retirees; people in low-status
jobs who feel they may be discounted as insignificant based
on their answer; even people whose work is illegal or may
be considered immoral.
many of us who don't have a paying job that explains what
we do with our time or how we acquire the money we live
on-or who don't want our worth judged by what we are paid
to do-the question leads us to feel shame. We figure out
ways to spin our answers ("I'm in the hotel industry" instead
of "I'm a housekeeper at the Hilton") and we feel uncomfortable
about the assumptions we believe people may make about our
answers. ("Was he downsized?" "Her children are grown; she
must be lazy not to be working.") My own fears over the
years about the judgments I have imagined that others were
making led me to dread the ubiquitous question. After I
left my job in banking (easy answer: "I'm a trust officer"),
I "did some consulting" until I decided to go to graduate
school. While I could answer
getting a doctorate in psychology," the unasked question
was, "How do you live alone in a fourbedroom house in an
expensive zip code if you are a graduate student?"
those years, a friend (who I'm sure was curious about how
I supported myself) told me that her children-who had volunteered
as subjects for various psychological tests I was learning
to administer, and who I sometimes employed to paint the
fence or mow the lawn-asked her, "What does Ms. Stranahan
do? Is she in the witness protection program?" I still laugh
when I think of it. It points out the assumptions people
can make when we don't explain ourselves-and the innocent
curiosity people have about how others make the money to
support their lifestyles, how they occupy their time, what
they care about, and what they know about.
, we have also talked about the importance
of trying to figure out what the
is. What does this person
want to know? So
I began to try an experiment. I stopped assuming that people
are asking me what I do so that they can judge how much
value I have as a person. Instead, I substitute the belief
that they are curious about me and want to know what I do
with my time, what is important to me, what we might have
in common, and how we might connect. This shift in perspective
has produced a wonderful result: I no longer feel my self-esteem
being threatened by the question.
I have a variety of answers I give to the question, and
I am developing more. Because I have a degree in psychology,
I can answer, "I'm a psychologist" -but it often leads to
follow-up questions. The good news is that the next question
can give me a clue about the underlying reason for the inquiry.
If the follow-up is "Are you in private practice?" or "What
kind of practice do you have?" I conclude that they may
be interested in knowing whether I might be a resource for
them or someone they know. Or perhaps they just want to
find out more about my areas of interest.
I perceive that the underlying question is about how I spend
my time, I may talk about whatever project I am excited
about at the time, or some activity of mine that I think
might interest the questioner. I might say that I spend
a lot of time as a volunteer for a family foundation, or
that I co-create a fourday program for inheritors of wealth
for the Summer Institute.
foundation answer often leads to "What do you fund?" So
then I talk about community organizing for social change
or about investing our endowment in alignment with our mission
it becomes clear that the underlying question is, "How do
you support the lifestyle you lead?" (although people rarely
ask that directly). I am becoming more comfortable saying
that I was lucky enough to inherit enough money not to have
to work to support myself. I see that conversation as an
opportunity to break down stereotypes about inheritors and
people with wealth. I've found that by getting to know people
who are from a category of people about whom we have made
judgments, we begin to see that they are not so different
my true self in this way has improved my self-esteem and
increased the connections I make with people. I'm working
on not feeling ashamed that I don't get paid for what I
do, but being proud of myself and my work (which includes
enjoying my life).
when I hear the question "What do you do?" I no longer assume
that I have to prove myself worthy of the questioner's interest
or explain how I support my lifestyle. I think of the question
as a sign of their interest in me, or, more generally, in
what people do with their time. I also see it as an opportunity
to share who I am and what I care about. And it is a chance
to educate people about alternative choices-choices that
affirm that our lives aren't defined by what we "do."
lately begun to think about other questions we
be asking-questions that would help us know each other better,
connect with one another, and discover the things we really
want to know about each other.
What do you want to contribute
to the world? How do you spend your time? What is your passion?
These are a few I've thought of. What question do you wish
people would ask
? How can you answer the question
they are used to asking (
What do you do?
) with the
answer to the question you would like to be asked?
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