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Job Titles: What to Do When No One Has a Clue

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We may not have jobs, but we have titles!

You can be a Registered Polarity Practitioner. A Professional Proxy Bride. A Principal Human Factors Engineer. You can call yourself an Eventiste, like one celebrity wedding planner. You can choose a title as tantalizing as your specialty: the Professional Name Consultant, the Usability Specialist, the Ritz-Carlton Tanning Butler, the Netrepreneur, the Color Director. And, thank God, there's even a Social Computing Evangelist.

Everyone is an expert. And we can all be doctors -- with or without benefit of medical school. Our lawns have doctors. Our dreams have doctors -- "based on the world's largest database of dreams." Our furniture has doctors. (Dr. Sofa the Furniture Surgeon promises to squeeze the most over-sized items into your home, and probably makes more money than many physicians.)

Sometimes just the title isn't enough. Dr. Hakimi, a Manhattan dentist, introduces himself as the creator of "The Art of Oral Harmony." His website says that "Each patient is my honored guest," making you wonder whether a bill will be presented when your "visit" is over.

As titles for the entitled proliferate, we are in danger of becoming a nation of all chiefs and no Indians. (Or Native Americans, the preferred title.) At the annual GEL Conference, which explores good experiences of all kinds in business, art, technology, and life you can share the experience with a Chief Experience Officer, a Chief Empathy Officer, a Chief Storyteller and a Chief Visionary.

The question remains, while a creative/unusual/incomprehensible title can be a real ice-breaker at networking parties, will it help you get -- or keep -- the job?

SITUATION: You exchange business cards and see that the other person's title is "Director of Whitespace Investigations." Does having a simple title like Editor or Sales Manager shout your age louder than gray hair?

The 20-something perspective: "You can assume a hipster factor in any company with cool job titles, but it can actually interfere with productivity," says a 26-year-old woman in a Boston-based startup. "I'm an 'Implementation Specialist,' which confuses all of my customers. They ask what I do, and I say, 'I'm a project manager.' That always brings a flash of comprehension and a relieved, 'oh, right!'"

The Senior Perspective: "These days non-traditional job titles are so common they are becoming -- perish the thought -- traditional," says Nancy Graham, editor of AARP The Magazine. "Chief Risk Officers and VPs of Emerging Media are everywhere. The rush to sound younger and hipper has the potential for a new game show: 'What's My Title?' Chief Wisdom Officer? (for the CEO) Customer Experience Agent? (Flight Attendant) Manager of Futuring and Innovation Based Strategies? Who knows, but the American Cancer Society reportedly has one. The question is: Do these titles make companies and their employees seem more youthful and with it, or just desperate to be cool? The answer: Probably a little bit of both. Yes, Freelance Writer sounds more dated than Virtual World Bureau Chief, but at least people know what the heck you do, which means you are more likely to get hired. Employers reading resumes know what's legitimate and what's not -- which means you are more likely to be earning money. In a job market that is harsh on young and old alike, it doesn't get any cooler than that."

SITUATION: Should you expand the title on your business cards (Writer/Editor/Copywriter/Marketing Guru) to expand your employment options?

"Personally, I think it's a huge mistake," says Vicky Oliver, career development expert and author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions and Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots. "It screams 'jack of all trades, master of none' and raises doubts about the person's ability to follow through. Having schizophrenic business cards can't be smart unless your name happens to be Sybil. And as for whether or not traditional titles shout one's age louder than gray hair, put it this way: the newfangled, multi-tasking, multi-titled, schizophrenic business cards shout purple hair, and purple is NOT the new blonde."

SITUATION: You're at a party where a grandmotherly woman introduces herself as a Radical Feminist Separatist Lesbian, and another guest declines the duck mousse pate, explaining she's an Aspiring Vegan. Is it enough for you to say, "Hi, I'm Pam. I sell lamps?"

"It's a store. I'm the owner. Simple objects and useful design speak for themselves. Why can't people do the same?" asks Alta Tingle, founder and owner of The Gardener in Berkeley, California, a hugely successful store which has gotten rave reviews in every leading shelter magazine.