What do you do?
A friend and musical collaborator recently noted, “It’s funny that we don’t talk about music very much when we hang out.” I realized it was true, and actually I kind of like that music isn’t always the focus of conversation. In fact, happy as I am to talk about all things musical, I often make it a point to move conversation away from music when spending time with people in the music world.
In part this is a reaction to the very American question, “So, what do you do?” At least on the East Coast, this is usually the first question asked when meeting new people. It is a “quick and dirty,” though not always accurate or insightful way to define a person. Among communities of artists, the question transforms into, “So what’s going on? What are you working on?” at which point the expectation is often that you will launch into a run down of your latest and/or most interesting and/or impressive activities and/or accomplishments. It’s like being a walking infomercial!
I learned very quickly while living abroad, steeped in a culture that was very much “work to live,” (as opposed to the “live to work” sensibility common in parts of the U.S.) that most people would prefer to talk about pretty much anything other than what they “do,” in the career-oriented sense of the phrase. Rather, the “doing” involved things like what books were being read, thoughts about assorted political situations around the globe, the latest museum exhibits, goings on within the family, or maybe plans for the next weekend getaway. Work was work, and while that was most certainly the main focus of attention while it was happening, once the work was finished, it was time for the really important stuff—life.
As much as I have tried to hang on to this more balanced approach to daily existence, I have definitely slipped back into those old what-are-you-doing ways, and I try to be conscious of that when I am spending time with people from any profession. Although it is totally interesting to know what people are up to within their chosen fields, the more gratifying aspect of time spent with friends and colleagues is learning about the contexts in which the work happens for them; about the personalities and the lives framing those activities.