On a recent trip to Manhattan this past week, at around 4:30am, in a dark and dank and overly musty basement bar in the East Village, I found myself confronted with a small yet odd little moral quandary. My friend, who will go unnamed, was approached by a man that she had gotten into an argument with just the night before -- neither one of them seemed delighted in the least to see each other again; but since the man was now with someone who appeared to be his girlfriend, he tried to reduce the redness on his face but just a few hues and made an attempt at cordiality.
"This jerk." My female friend hissed, her eyes narrowing into his as if an invisible scope and crosshairs were in front of her, at the ready.
As the man and his girlfriend sat down it soon became clear that any attempt at light conversation would simply not come to pass: within about two minutes, they were back at each other's throats. What happened was this: the night previous, the two of them had just been introduced, and were enjoying each other's conversation for a few solid minutes, when, at a brief point in the chat where the words dried up for a second, my friend took a pause and asked the man, "So, what do you do?"
The man flew into an offended rage, and chastised my friend for "having spent too much time in LA." My friend, who had in fact spent a great chunk of time in Los Angeles, was equally offended at being judged so harshly for, in her mind at least, asking a seemingly innocent question (and I hope, as an LA native, her offense wasn't simply being associated with LA), and from there the animosity between them grew exponentially.
The man's argument I could understand: it was sort of similar to the old joke about the beautiful woman at an LA party shaking your hand and then asking what kind of car you drove, when answered with the ill judged reply of "A used Pinto with no windshield" was promptly met with a sudden turning of the female's back to the other, more "enriching" directions of the party. It illustrates the point of judging a book by its cover, or stereotyping people according to what they do: the man then argued that he never asks someone what they do -- one should have the originality of mind to relate to someone irrespective of their "do-ings," and that, to his dealings, anything less was really undisguised elitism at worst, and lazy conversation at best.
My friend's argument I also understood: she simply had come to a dry spot in the conversation, and rather than talk about the weather or the paint on the bar's wall or the average rainfall in Kenya for the past six years, she opted for a simple and direct question, which could easily split the chat into a variety of different threads to knit.
The man didn't yield an inch of his argument. He said, albeit in a bitter manner, which I couldn't tell if it was caused by acquiescing to her question in the first place, or to his actual answer to it, that he was a musician and also a waiter. I actually felt a little bad after hearing his case against the "what do you do" question, to actually hear what he did. I have to say. It was as if he insisted on a world where when strangers interact they aren't limited by their jobs or titles or details into their past -- it strangely reminded me of Marlon Brando's character Paul in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris, a man who insisted that he and his lover, Maria Schneider's character in the film, never call or come to know each other's names or talk about details of their past -- he just wanted a pure human connection devoid of any kind of societal responsibility or tradition or expectation.
I defended my friend though, partly because I'm just that kind of guy, but also because I felt slightly ashamed, as not only am I from LA, but I had a huge interest in her being right -- because I knew I was guilty a thousand times over for asking this very question, and had never once questioned the validity of it, at least morally or in regards to even good manners. To me, asking what one did was always a logical question that gave me insight into what someone most likely spent the majority of their time doing, or at least what their interest of pursuit in life was or might be.
But maybe that's just too optimistic of a defense -- I confess, on more than one occasion, I have asked the question and heard back "I party, man!" and instantly felt less inclined to prolong the conversation. Yet oppositely, I have heard "rocket scientist" in reply to the question and my fascination with the person has only doubled. Note: A really interesting answer would have been "I love to party, but I'm a rocket scientist." And a non sequitur version would have been "I party like a rocket scientist!"
Is there really that much of a gap of conversation etiquette or philosophy between the East and West coast? The question of "So, what do you do" to me also wasn't the same as "How much money do you make," because the person under questioning could easily be well within their rights of the question to answer that they study in school, or possess a love of hiking, or baking cookies, or milking cows, etc.
When does it become appropriate in a conversation to inquire as to what the person you are talking to does with the bulk of his or her time? Ever? Or should the person simply disclose the information on their own time -- although, if this were the case, you would probably be slightly more at risk for fraternizing with criminals and professional Dungeons and Dragons players more than you might feel comfortable with. Most will tend to excuse themselves from saying "I like to deal meth out of my mom's basement," or "I like to hustle knights in my mom's basement" when asked the question.
The man's perturbed attitude also made me suspect something else: that he was unhappy with his job as a waiter, and regretted not being at the level of success musically that perhaps he wished. Ironically, most waiters I've met are a lot more pleasant than most of the rock stars I've met (not all, and not many), so the very fact that he took issue with the question if he didn't actually value the answer, and the implications of it, more than someone in LA, who usually just chucks out "I'm a bartender, but I really do music" or "Yeah. I bar tend, but I'm really an actor -- gotta pay those bills."
Is there a right answer to the question? I'm not so sure -- some of the best conversations I can quickly recall have spawned at least partially from discovering someone's "So, what do you do" question, and all the flowering aftermath that it entails -- the most salient of which relates directly to the "I'm a rocket scientist" answer, where I was given a very interesting rundown of how much some rocket scientists really do seem to procrastinate. And by knowing what someone does, is that really the equivalent of judging a book by its cover? To judge from their physical appearances, yes, but when it comes to what they actually do, isn't that approaching opening the book and looking at, at very the least, some of the pages?
The man and my friend never made up, or even upgraded their mutual dislike for one another, yet I had much respect for both of them and their positions, even as he swigged his beer in annoyance, and lumbered off.
"I guess you asked him the right question, after all" I said to her. It was the most thought provoking debate I had witnessed that night at that dank little booze well.
But maybe I'm just too damn LA.