When meeting people for the first time, whether at a social gathering or at the post office, I’ve been trying to avoid asking the kinds of questions that would make it easy for me to put the person in a box of my expectations. I don’t ask anymore “what do you do?”, ” where are you from?” or “do you have kids?”- all the usual defaults. The excerpt shared below follows my story of being a careerist, a larger discussion of where we derive our worth, and how common social norms reinforce that “we are what we do”. At the end of the excerpt are some questions we might ask instead.
An excerpt from Indivisible:
“Why do we label people? What is the nature of a person, and can we see each other in our wholeness?
At a party, the first thing people often ask is “What do you do?” At best, this is a shorthand way to connect. At worst, it’s a way to quickly judge whether to embrace or dismiss a person, or to assess whether they are potentially useful. For example: To me, you’re a taxpayer. To me, you’re a widget maker. To me, you’re a consumer. This is a utilitarian mindset: Do you have utility to me?
By reducing people to a job and encapsulating them, we gain perceived control and utility over others. Non-control is frightening. It’s as if we need to say, “I know and understand this object or this person. I have leverage over them. Because I am weaker than the bigness of the universe, I need a way to feel that others are small enough for me to encompass.”
This belief allows us to treat others as utility objects, to be used for our own ends. It can lead to dominance hierarchies rather than respectful ecosystems of equals. Dominance and separation attitudes towards others are a breeding ground for all forms of abuse.
For example, we’ve accepted for many generations that people deserve to live or die based on how closely their ideology matches our own. Ideologies that proffer righteous positions and hold onto them up to the brink of death are passed from person to person like a virus. Whether it’s “socialism” or “Catholicism” or “Islam” or “capitalism”—there have been so many persecutions in the name of the “ism”! Philosopher Dan Dennett says the “ism” is the most deadly virus on the planet, killing more people than any form of bacteria. Maybe “isms” are more like coronary disease, the true heart disease of our planet. Idealogy-based simplification of the others identity lets us hurt them because they are different from us – we only see that one label.
The tendency to label, describe, or box people in misses the real connection, the real seeing of all people we encounter. Social taxonomy ignores human beings’ broad gifts and truths, whether in school, the workplace or a country club.
A person is not an economic unit to be mined for resources; every person is intrinsically valuable and deserves to be treated in a way that will maximize his or her happiness and immersive experience of being alive. A whole person is whole in mind, body, and spirit. A whole person has multifaceted interests and relationships. A whole person has others she serves or is responsible to, people she cares for and is intertwined with. A whole person has lifespans and phases, and is not the same person from start to finish. She or he has different priorities and gifts in each age.
Not only do we do oversimplify other people, we do it to ourselves. When we meet people, we often present a consumable front, to offer a clear place for the other to “plug in”. By presenting one aspect, rather than the whole, it makes it easy to “pitch” ourselves.
Each person is a basket of amalgamations—we can’t be put into a library under a classification system. However, taking the time to see someone as an all-around human may be, in part, a function of intimacy and community size. A large community, a corporation, a bureaucracy, a boardroom could never do this; it would not be efficient. And we’re steeped in a culture that places tremendous value on efficiency.
The richer version of the party talk, the inquiry, the move to connection, might have this intention: “What do you do? And let me clarify that I don’t mean ‘what’s your job?’ I want to know: how do you spend your time? Does it matter to you? Or what does matter to you? What do you see and what do you think deeply about when you are not doing other ‘stuff’? Is it even possible, in your opinion, to not be doing ‘stuff’? I want a true sense of who I’m speaking to. So, what do you do?”
By saying, “I intend to connect to the real person in front of me, to the whole person in front of me, and to make my life about these genuine connections,” we can take a step in refuting reductionism, in refuting utilitarianism, and in breaking down the paradigm of widgets and isolated elements.
Think of examples from real life: a young man who is politically liberal, hunts deer, and loves poetry. A woman who is both devoutly Christian and deeply sensual—practices that aren’t often paired together in stereotypes. If you accept one-dimensional labeling, then you turn people into flat, cartoon-like objects.
This is how I became an “American” in the eyes of Iranian revolutionaries, instead of Christine.
I’ve found it a lot more time consuming to walk around in the world trying to be truly present to the people we meet in their wholeness. It’s a constant practice of being aware of our prejudices and instantaneous judgments, our compulsion to turn people into the “other.” To make the effort to really meet others on a regular basis, we really have to care about the outcome.”
Not from the Book, but some bonus alternatives to asking WDYD?
- A simple, “so, what did you do today?” is often a gentle way to get someone talking about the actual things going on their lives, and usually opens multiple points of entry for further conversation.
- “What did you see today that was beautiful?” or the infinite variations on this such as “What made you smile (or laugh, or wonder) today?” usually create a shared moment of appreciation, and a positive moment of connection, plus provide some insight into what your new acquaintance values.
- Depending on the context, I might lead with a more challenging question: “What new idea have you heard lately that intrigued you?” of “what have you read (or seen or listened to) lately that you would recommend?” but this makes people think, and can sometimes feel like pressure.
- My friend Tony Deifell asks WDYDWYD? or Why do you do what you do?, which is always a more interesting answer than the what.
- I don’t do more socially challenging questions, things that demand some deeper reveal early on, but there’s a whole host of questions I might ask later, in a more bonded relationship, such as what’s keeping you up at night? what or who do you love? or, what do you truly desire?
Sometimes a shared experience beats any abstract question, here’s an example: Once at an event in someone’s rambling backyard, I was having a moment of amazement at the scale and variety of the plants in their garden, and I gestured to another woman near me, exclaiming: “Have you seen these artichoke flowers, I mean really looked at them? They are so amazing and intricate.” We spent a good 20 minutes examining the details of how various kinds of flowerheads were constructed, discussing the best way to arrange flowers for a little surprise and texture and the greenhouse gas impact and morality of the cut flower industry. This connection turned into a good long friendship, where I eventually did learn all the answers to the ‘usual suspect’ questions- but first I got to know her joy and curiosity through shared experience. Just looking together- at a piece of art or photography or at the space around you- provides the chance to share what you see, what you think about what you see, why you think that.
Finally, if there’s a good energy, I might just smile big and introduce myself and see where things go and let them lead.