About ten years ago, after living in New York for three decades, I took a short vacation at Kvikne’s Hotel in Balestrand, right on the Sognefjord. Kaiser Wilhelm II summered there before World War I, and fittingly, the hotel felt very casually regal, or should I say kaiserish. Before dinner the first evening, overlooking the long deep placid fjord through which Kaiser Wilhelm must once have arrived with his entourage, we ended up having drinks with a couple from England. But, as the hour progressed, I grew increasingly perplexed by the conversation. Early on, I had volunteered what I did for a living, but my volunteering was not reciprocated: the gentleman of the couple never once mentioned what he “did.” I kept waiting for him to identify himself, feeling puzzled at his avoidance of the topic. Eventually, I asked him point blank: “What do you do?” He turned out to be an interesting fellow: he lived somewhere in southern England and made a living taking people on guided fly-fishing and grouse-hunting tours, and had, he said, recently hosted President George Bush père in just that activity.
(Deutsche Übersetzung: Gespräche in New York und anderswo)
At dinner, when we were no longer sitting with the English couple, my wife pointed out my faux pas, telling me how un-European it was to tell them what I “did” and to insist on finding out what they “did.” I had lived in America for so long that I had forgotten that people in other parts of the world don’t always do that. I thought I had simply been describing what I did, but perhaps it was really an unrequested unveiling.
Like most things American, I suspect this habit will go global.
Why is what one “does” so important?
In New York, you are what you do. There’s something harsh and pragmatic about that; when you don’t have some classy category to fit into, you may feel uninteresting and defensive. People take a brief moment to classify you as a success or a loser, and then decide how much time to waste on you. New York is a life-long cocktail party, where everyone who talks to you is simultaneously looking over your shoulder to see if they spy someone they can move up a notch to, and you’re lucky if you can find a quiet corner where you and your friend-of-the-moment can talk without having to compete.
The one-dimensionality of this metric isn’t totally bad — being judged by who you are rather than by who your family is, or once was, has some sociological advantages. In New York, and in America, your background pales into insignificance compared to what you “do” and of course how much money you make. When I was in France once an East European hotel check-in clerk confided to me how she felt she didn’t fit in at all. That doesn’t happen in New York. Everyone’s a foreigner, and being one is interesting to other people.
It’s not a bad thing to have one’s past be irrelevant.
Why indeed, does the simple word “do” — as in “What do you do?”— refer so unquestionably to career? Why is what one “does” so important? And why did I want the English grouse-hunting gentleman to “identify” himself, as though [identity] = [job description]? Why can’t one talk to people about life and situations without needing them to fill in their background, status, achievements?
Logically, if you are meeting people for the first time, it would be more interesting to hear their views without prejudging their authority, without knowing who they are and how much their views confirm or deny those you expect from their background.
If you think of people as novels, it’s better not to know the author’s biography before you read his book. Once you’ve read it, if you like it or hate it sufficiently, then it becomes interesting to learn more about him or her.
If you think of people as movies, it’s better not to read the reviews until after you’ve seen them. Better to find some critic whose taste you trust, see merely whether they like the movie, and if so, go see it. Some of the movies I’ve enjoyed most — Jackie Brown, My Dinner with Andre — were great unexpected pleasures because they were seen with no advance knowledge of their plot.