“What are you doing?” It is often an initial tactic when meeting a stranger. It is considered a safe and fairly neutral way to start a conversation and get to know someone.
But how influenced are we by someone’s answer, what difference does it make if they say they are neurosurgeons, nuclear scientists, cleaners or supermarket workers? How impressed are we with your response?
Interestingly, many job titles have changed in recent years, presumably to give roles greater importance and seriousness – the use of ambiguous words like consultant, operative, and advisor are now loosely used in job descriptions.
Sometimes it is impossible to guess how powerful or senior the role is and some companies prefer to keep it that way, wanting to maintain a more level playing field, with a less apparent hierarchy. I know at least one billionaire businessman who refers to himself as a grocer!
And then there are the less common, perhaps more unusual jobs. If someone says they are a taxidermist, a funeral director, or even a hypnotherapist, it can make others stop and not sure if they are impressed or not.
Finding out what someone normally does makes us digest that information and form an opinion. For example, if someone says they are a stay-at-home parent, do we automatically reflect on their circumstances, assuming they are rich, privileged, or lazy? Or if someone starts a cleaning job, we speculate that they must be desperately trying to make ends meet, a comment I read on social media, prompting the writing of this article.
But every job, every function is a contribution to the overall functioning of a company, home or group. Different levels in any organization bring different levels of investment in its smooth setup and operation, with specific tasks designed to keep things moving. From administration to maintenance to day-to-day operations, each must work together and appreciate the role and value of the other.
The surgeon needs a clean and well-maintained operating room in which to work. Then there’s transportation to and from the hospital, maybe a morning coffee. Yes, highly skilled professionals are needed, but so are tradesmen, carpenters, electricians, as well as filing cabinets, administrators, and organizers.
We may be impressed by someone’s education, their commitment to their career, their status and wealth, but let’s not forget that there is a backstory for those who have and have not reached dizzying heights professionally.
Opportunity is an important factor in education and career options. The place where we are born greatly influences the opportunities that are presented to us; from a stable and supportive family environment, a neighborhood, to the appropriate levels of teaching and encouragement. Family values and income levels are a factor. In some families, gender is important, and the education of boys is considered more relevant than that of girls.
Also, what else is going on in someone’s life, what juggling acts should they perform each day? Remember that the reasons they take up your time are your business, not ours. We simply see the audience’s face, the surface, not the level of difficulty required for them to simply walk out the front door.
Their circumstances may mean that they need flexible work due to childcare problems or that they have elderly relatives who require a lot of attention. They may be in recovery for personal reasons, need a low-responsibility, low-stress job as their first stepping stone on the way back to real life, taking it easy as their confidence levels improve.
Or they may be new to an area, have had a massive change in circumstances, household arrangements, finances, and are coming out of a particularly difficult time. Work can be less about money and status and more about getting out and meeting people, making social connections, almost rehab, gently entering a new routine, having a place to be.
Sometimes a job just suits us, we are happy to drift away. We are taking care of ourselves, we do not need stress or responsibility, we may have even left a more powerful role and that is fine. Work provides a reason to get up, wash, get dressed, get somewhere on time, meet people, and earn a little money.
There is more to work on than just a job title. It provides purpose, order in life, being part of a team, perhaps with others who trust you to be there, all hopefully to help with confidence and job satisfaction. As Martin Luther King said, if you go to a road sweeper, be the best road sweeper you can be and take pride in what you do.
One final note. We have all encountered a fantastic cleaner, handyman, gardener at times; they are worth their weight in gold. So much so that we hardly dare to recommend them to our friends for fear of never being able to get them back! With that in mind, won’t it be interesting the next time you ask someone what you do?
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