Recently I had the opportunity to escape the deep freeze of Nebraska and enjoy the 80 degree offerings of Tampa, Florida for a few days. It was a last minute work trip with my guy, he got me a plane ticket a day before time to leave, and to say that it was beneficial to my well-being is putting it lightly; it was downright medicinal to feel the intense sun on my shoulders and to be reminded that the sun will come out again back home.
When I travel with my guy for work, I attend business dinners and parties, meeting people from all over the world. This time was no different, there was a dinner party on a boat, so we had time to meet and greet most everyone aboard throughout the night. Three young Chilean men introduced themselves to me early in the night and we chatted for a few minutes, but later in the evening I found myself talking with one of the men, Juan Carlos, more in depth. He had that glow of new love, telling me a good bit about the woman he had recently started to date, after returning to his home in Chile.
Juan Carlos had spent several years in Washington DC, leaving his home for the transportation business in the US. I asked about his impressions of America, and specifically what it was like to work in the Capital city. He told me a story about the first week or so that he had been in town; he was out after work hours, mingling with others his age when he met a man who asked a simple question, “What do you do?”. My new Chilean friend started to talk about how much he enjoys soccer, and was eager to find others to play the sport in the US. The man pressed further, “No, I mean, what do you DO?”. Juan Carlos mentioned other hobbies and things he enjoyed, and the two men quickly realized they were not on the same page, and moved away from the conversation to meet others.
The young man was confused, and when they had left the bar he asked the Americans he had gone there with about the mix up. You can imagine that they laughed, and explained that the man was wondering about his line of work. Juan Carlos was offended, saying that he would never share something like that with a stranger! He quickly realized that he was in a new culture, where prestige rules and people are constantly making judgments of others based on how they spend their workday. He said he also saw that rather than wanting to get to know someone, it was more of an opportunity to see who had what others needed. I used the term networking at this point, and he didn’t seem to appreciate a positive spin on such a negative encounter.
The conversation got me thinking: what if, when we meet someone new, we work very hard not to know what it is that they do for a profession? How would our impressions of that person change? What if we formed our opinions of others based on what they were showing us in the here and now, nothing more? And what if we gave equal weight to the words of someone who works hourly for minimum wage as a CEO? I stayed home raising our children for many years, and any work that I do now is hardly representative of who I am today. So I often ask a woman this question: How do you spend you days? Or what do you do with your time? This can elicit a very different response than the generic question, or it can allow her to tell me about her career.
Two days later I was taking an Uber from the airport back to home after my tropical mini vacation. The driver was chatty, telling me this was his side job, trying to pay off his wedding before the big day. Twice more after that comment, he mentioned his day job. He clearly wanted me to ask about his REAL work. I held off for as long as I could, but I did ask the question, and talk about that pretty much fueled the rest of the drive home. Coming off the heels of my conversation with Juan Carlos, it made me sad to think that he needed to have a ‘respectable’ career in order to justify his current position. I would have really enjoyed knowing more about who he is, and what he does.