A Better Question

We meet someone at a cocktail party, and one of our first questions is apt to be “What do you do?” By that, we usually mean, “Where do you work?” and “What’s your job?” Whether the answer is accountant or domestic goddess, we tend to make certain assumptions about that person. Aha, we say, the accountant must be good with numbers and probably makes a good living. Secretly, we wonder, though, if he might be a bit… well, boring. And that domestic goddess? Apparently, she can afford to stay home with her kids. Who can do that anymore? Her husband’s probably a corporate executive and they live in a McMansion in the suburbs.

Of course, our assumptions and stereotypes are often dead wrong. Finding out what someone does, or doesn’t have to do, to pay the bills gives you remarkably little information about what they’re really like. But we keep asking anyway. It’s simply the American way. We tend to evaluate folks by how prestigious their jobs are, and how much money they make.

If we actually want to get to know someone, however, a much more useful question is what they do when they’re not working to pay the bills. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Manhattan. My grandbaby’s nanny’s son was visiting from Trinidad. He was a shy, gentle young man who told me he had a decent job in IT back home. The economy is good there, he said, especially for jobs in technology. It was only when his mom broke into the conversation and said that he was an aspiring musician and composer that his face lit up with excitement. Gone was any sign of shyness. Soon he was playing his lush dance music for me on his I-Pod and showing me pictures of his impressive music studio. This, I realized, is who he really is—a young man passionate about making music, blessed with a supportive and encouraging mom. (Of course, he did decline his mom’s and my offer to be backup singers on one of his demo recordings. Personally, I thought we would have been fabulous.)

A few days later, I took a cab with a friendly driver, Davidson Garrett. He told me he’d been in the city for 44 years and had driven a cab for 37 of them. Wow, I thought, this is the trouble with having no education. You get stuck in a dead end job and have no life. But as we continued talking, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. First off, he came to New York at the age of nineteen to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and had spent years acting, all the while driving a cab to supplement his income. Then he returned to school for another degree in education and spent seven years teaching until he realized he was never going to be a big fan of children and went back to driving to pay the bills. Currently, he writes poetry and fiction. He seemed pleased to discover a fellow writer in his cab. We exchanged information about our books on Amazon. His is called King Lear of the Taxi: Musings of a New York City Actor/Taxi Driver.  I bought it. It’s really good.

So I’ve resolved to change my ways. I love meeting people and getting to know them, but I’m going to stop asking them what they do for a living. Instead, I’m going to ask them what they love doing—regardless of whether it pays the bills.


  1. Marty Stiffler on February 25, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    This is, as always, beautifully written. It also suggests a novel approach that makes a ton of sense! Thanks, Lynn.

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