I was responding to the ol' "what do you do for a living?" question the other night at some soiree when I stopped myself mid-sentence. It wasn't the crab puff lodged in my throat that made me come to a grinding halt. It was my dependable little friend, intuition. I sometimes ignore her, but she was trying to tell me that I was making the gentleman across from me feel peon-like by listing how many places I had been to in the last four years.
Maybe I got a bit carried away, but I can't help it. I think I have an interesting job and people usually want to know about it. In fact, there was another woman in our circle who kept peppering me with questions about what it is like being an emergency aid worker. "It's like being in a James Bond movie," I said, jokingly. But I do get to travel to places like Swat Valley, ride on helicopters and sleep in tents, so people are naturally a bit curious.
But during this part of the conversation, the guy seemed to sort of shrivel and stand uncomfortably. I can take a hint, so I switched the subject of the conversation to him. What did he do? "I'm a web programmer," he replied in a thick French accent. I don't really know what that means, but I'm sure it's an equally important job. Not wanting to perpetuate his insecurity, or whatever it was, I asked him as many questions as I could think of about his work to display my keen interest. After all, I do use the web a lot, yet I don't really feel like I understand the beast. E.g., Who really "owns" the Internet? How come when I Google myself my website doesn't show up? Is it possible for someone to find out how many times I have checked his Facebook profile?
He replied in a smug, acrimonious way. To make friends, I even considered telling him I had always wished I was a French person, specifically a sexy French woman who was able to tie one of those little Hermes scarves properly around her neck like Brigitte Bardot, but then I decided he wasn't nice enough to be privy to my little fantasy.
These days, however, I rarely ask a man what he does for a living at the very start of the conversation because it sounds so gold-diggerish, especially in New York. But you can only tiptoe around the subject for so long before you run out of things to say. You can only comment on the weather once per conversation, for example, unless you're in England. Then maybe twice. But at some point, you will likely talk about what you do all day long. And your job is likely what you spend most of your time doing (unless, of course, you don't have a job).
In fact, I tried the simple yet direct "are you employed?" question the other day with a man who came up to me at a restaurant. I asked it as kind of a joke, only after we had dodged the what do you do for a living question long enough. Besides, he had invited me to do something in the middle of the day on Wednesday, when most people are working. He laughed and said yes. We then started talking about our jobs, but I noticed some hesitancy on my part, as if I subconsciously wanted to downplay what I do for a living. Perhaps it was my experience the other night which made me feel that some men are intimidated by a woman's success or ambition.
So let me now throw out a contentious question: Should women be dumbing themselves down?
The instinctive answer is: of course not. Who would want to be with a man who didn't want to be with an intelligent woman? Who didn't want his life partner to be actively pursuing her full potential?
Yet it was my great aunt who first got this idea into my head. It was years ago, but I've been thinking about it lately. When I was getting ready to go to graduate school, she said: "Well. You have chosen a career over having a family." I gasped. "No, I haven't -- we can have both! We can have it all!" Of course, she was from an older generation, but she did manage to impart the following bit of advice: "Never let a man know you're smarter than him. He won't want to marry you."
I never followed that advice, and I am not married. But then again, that's probably because I've been too busy and haven't really found anyone I want to marry, not because I blew every man in my midst away with my searing intellect (note: sarcasm).
Thing is, as much as I hear men say they want a smart woman with a career, sometimes I wonder how much they really do. Do they really? I hope they do, but sometimes I feel they'd rather have a sweet, ginger-haired woman who makes Rice Krispie treats and has modest career aspirations, if any.
I guess some men still want to see themselves as the breadwinner and may feel uncomfortable being in the shadow of woman who has made greater career strides, or who would outshine him at a dinner party. What is it they say about man and his ego? Self-importance is man's greatest enemy?
If we flipped the old adage to: behind every great woman, there is a man, I wonder how the 21st century man would feel. Would he be a proud admirer and promoter of his lady's accomplishments or would he stew in bitter discontent? Yet clearly, a man who is intimidated by a smart woman is the wrong kind of man. Isn't it all about "power couples" these days, anyway?
The best life partner is obviously the one who will encourage you to do your best, be your best, bring out your best in you and tell you to reach for the stars. He will also forgive you and love you even more if, on an extremely rare occasion, you do end up asking something dumb like: "How does a carburetor work?"
Because of course, you already know.