9.02.2014

what i do, what i miss, and what are they thinking: answers to the question, "what do you do?"

When we moved to Canada (nine years plus a few days ago), I wondered what, if anything, I would miss about the US. Who would have guessed it would be watching "Baseball Tonight"? Yup, the only thing I miss about living in that crazy country is watching a baseball-highlights show on ESPN. Not bad!

In a similar vein, what do I miss about being a writer? A strange sound that I can't quite decipher.

When people would ask that inevitable question, "What do you do?", and I would answer, "I'm a writer," invariably, I would get this reaction: "Ooooo..." Their eyes would go wide, their lips would form an O, and out would come a sing-song sound of amazement. I don't know why this was. I don't know what it meant. But it would always happen!

Except in New York. No one "Oooos" over anyone's work in New York, and certainly not over writers. Writers in New York are more common than tourists in Times Square, or rats on the subway tracks.

But everywhere else, when I said I was a writer, I would get this "Oooo..." response.

Who would have known I would miss it?

I do miss writing professionally. I miss the writing life. When Allan and I talk about his next book project, about his research and his process, I miss it. A lot.

At the same time, I'm very aware that what I'm missing had become quite rare in my life. I'm missing when it was going well: when I was working on absorbing assignments that paid decently and would be published and distributed. And if that had been a more common occurrence, I would have stayed with my original intent for library school: a job as a part-time librarian, to replace my day-job, while I continued my (part-time) writing life.

But that wasn't the case. Good writing jobs had become far too scarce, and I got excited about librarianship, and so it goes.

But who would have guessed how I would miss the sound of that "Ooooo..."! It's the silliest thing, especially since I don't even know what they were Ooooing about, what romantic misconception about writing was at work there. But it was fun. I'd say I was a writer, the other person would Oooo, and it gave me a little buzz.

So how do people react when I say I'm a librarian?

They either reply with a tight little, "Oh, that's interesting," kind of like you would say, "What's that smell?" Or else they say one of these seven things, collected (with GIFs) by Ellyssa Kroski, the iLibrarian blogger (and Director of IT at the New York Law Institute).
1) “Do people still even go to the library now that there’s Google?”

It’s amazing how many people respond this way when I tell them I’m a librarian. I assure them however, that we are somehow soldiering on in the library field, along with all of the doctors who are still attempting to stay relevant in spite of WebMD.

2) “So, are you like, a volunteer?” Usually followed up with “What? You need to have a Master’s degree to be a librarian?!!”

Nearly everyone I’ve ever met has been astounded that librarians hold advanced degrees.

3) “But isn’t print dead at this point?”

Yes, this is still a thing people are saying.
Click through to read the other four. I've been working as a librarian for only 14 months and I've heard all of these multiple times.

17 comments:

James Redekop said...

If it helps any, I still Ooo over librarians. After information technology and teaching, librarian is the most common profession in my circle of friends and relatives...

John F said...

Regarding #7, do any of your patrons also have a theory about the brontosaurus?

John F said...

Hmmm. My clever comment.link doesn't appear to be working. Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=771E0aOFS4Q

James Redekop said...

Members of my family tend to spontaneously go into Miss Anne Elk mode when people around us mention having theories...

laura k said...

If it helps any, I still Ooo over librarians.

Then you are my hero. :)

laura k said...

Uh-oh, I'm in danger of falling down the Python on YouTube hole...

impudent strumpet said...

Least Important Thing: I don't know if it's the same "Oooo", but I most often get an interested response and follow-up questions when I tell people I'm a translator.

One day I met a lady who's a chef, and after the "What do you do?" "What do you do?" we both kind of stopped and looked at each other expectantly.

And I realized that we were both accustomed to getting follow-up questions after saying what our job is, so we were both expecting the other person to gush over our job. I was genuinely interested in her job, and I completely lost the rhythm of taking that conversational opening because I'm so used to the other person being more interested in my job.

laura k said...

I can totally see that! Being a translator and being a chef are both really interesting jobs. Both would give rise to a whole spate of questions.

Not sure this qualifies as LeastImportantThing, though. Try again? :)

James Redekop said...

In the most recent episode of the Still Untitled, The Adam Savage Project podcast, Adam Savage (from Mythbusters) commented that, as he's been travelling more, he's come to realize that this "So, what do you do?" small-talk is not as universal as people over here assume -- not everyone defines themselves in terms of their employment to the degree we do.

He's taken to asking, "So, what do you make?" instead (as he's usually travelling to speak at Maker Fairs or fan conventions).

laura k said...

as he's been travelling more, he's come to realize that this "So, what do you do?" small-talk is not as universal as people over here assume -- not everyone defines themselves in terms of their employment to the degree we do.

That's a really interesting observation, and one I've experienced personally, too. I always used to find that once I left NYC, the "what do you do?" question would come much later on, if ever.

I had decided a very long time ago to answer "I'm a writer", long before that was how I earned any money. I decided "What do you do?" is different from "How do you pay your bills?" - that it meant "Who are you?"

When I met Allan, he tended to ask, "What music do you listen to?" Think of the difference in conversation that makes.

impudent strumpet said...

When I met Allan, he tended to ask, "What music do you listen to?" Think of the difference in conversation that makes.

That's interesting, because I couldn't make a conversation out of that at all. I literally couldn't think of anything to say or ask in response to any answer they might give. And if someone asked me, I can't think of any answer I might give that would lead to conversation

laura k said...

That's interesting, because I couldn't make a conversation out of that at all.

It's not the most socially adept question, for sure. And I don't think it works very well with mature adults.

laura k said...

(Oops, didn't mean to post that yet.)

But there should be, ought to be, some conversation starters or general ways of finding out about a person that aren't tied to how we earn our livings.

allan said...

Well, at the time, I was neither socially adept nor a mature adult, so there you go.

laura k said...

Well, at the time, I was neither socially adept nor a mature adult,

Yup.

impudent strumpet said...

What I find useful about "What do you do?" as a conversation-starter is that it's likely (or, at least, more likely than any other question I can think of) to point to areas where their knowledge and expertise overlaps my genuine curiosity. I can ask them to explain their job to me if I don't understand it, I can ask them about thing I've wondered the fall within their area of expertise, I can ask them about how their corner of the world works.

For someone with my imperfect social skills at least, conversation is easier when I have genuine interest. The problem is I often don't have genuine interest in a person (especially a person I've just met), and when I do it can't always be expressed in conversation-making questions that are appropriate to context and relationship. But I do always have genuine interest in how the world works, and delving into their job allows me to ask questions from that place of genuine interest and sets the other person up to be the smart and knowledgeable one and generally look good.

So what we need is other questions that achieve these things - expressing genuine interest from the asker and making the answerer look good. And without being too personal or otherwise rude for the answerer (e.g. "Oh, you're transgender? So do you have a penis?" might come from a place of genuine interest, but it's a wee bit personal) and without sending the conversation in a direction where the asker doesn't want it to go (e.g. If the asker asks "So what about that Rob Ford?" and the answerer replies "I'm his biggest fan!" and then it's no longer a pleasant conversation but rather a desperate political debate for the very future of one's city.)

All of which is to say I don't have a solution, but I've narrowed the problem.

laura k said...

Classic Imp Strump analysis.

"What do you do?" works for all those reasons, and it's reasonable to assume the person does do something, whether it's paid employment, school, volunteering, whatever. It would be good if there was a way to disconnect "what do you do" from "what do you do for a living," in a socially recognized way. ("What do you make?" is not that.)

Or maybe small talk is so limited in scope and function that it doesn't matter.