As adults, when we meet new people the first minutes of the conversation usually include “what do you do?” It feels like an easy and safe thing to inquire about, but it can be a pretty loaded question. Perhaps the person on the other side recently left a job that was having a really negative effect on their mental health and personal life – very common in today’s Great Resignation. Or maybe they are currently in a negative work situation, and they really don’t want to talk about it outside working hours. They may enjoy their job but had a rough work week and just not up for work talk over the weekend, either. The list goes on. In the U.S., work is such a central part of our adult identities, which makes it a huge challenge to separate it from conversation across environments and times.
One of the lessons people are taking from this pandemic is the importance of balance, and this involves seeing ourselves as multi-dimensional – as more than our job. This can be particularly tough for early career professionals who are putting in their all to prove themselves. Many of these individuals do not have another built in identity as a parent or partner, so finding ways to define themselves beyond a job can be tough. In college they may have been an athlete or student organization leader which gave other dimensions to their identities, but without the structure school provides paired with the time demands of a full-time job, it is much harder to get involved with activities.
This brings us to the question, how else can we define ourselves beyond titles? Analyst, program coordinator, banker, counselor, engineer, nurse, parent, partner, husband, wife, treasurer, athlete – these are all words that describe what people do. But do they really tell us about who people are? They don’t reveal that someone is funny, caring, creative, thoughtful, hard-working, strategic, courageous, or community-oriented. These words are a much better representation of who someone is. Arguably, it is also more likely we will find commonalities with words that represent a person’s values and what they care about than with titles, and therefore the development of an authentic relationship is a great possibility. Brené Brown starts her podcasts asking her guests to tell their story. It’s a loaded question, but it eliminates the stilted introduction and gives space for something authentic to occur right away. Perhaps a bit much when meeting new people, but shifting to the more open-ended questions of “Tell me about you,” “I want to learn about you” or “Let’s hear about you” at least gives the person on the receiving end the opportunity to define themselves in a way that feels right at that moment. Give it a try and share how it went in the comments!