“What do you do?” was a dreaded question for a client who had recently lost her job. Sally, as I’ll call her, was embarrassed that she lacked what she thought would be an acceptable response and consequently avoided most social gatherings.
Wanting to come out of hiding, she asked me for ideas about how to address these awkward situations that brought to light a larger issue with deep roots in our culture.
I thought about how this phenomenon is prevalent in our country, but not in others.
Having spent over 30 years traveling in France, I could not recall a time when I was asked, or when I thought it appropriate to ask, about a person's "métier" or work at our first introduction.
In France, it's often the case that a person is introduced and immediately identified in terms of their connection to another person (e.g. Roger's aunt, or the cousin of the banker). It’s not part of the French culture to be so bold or personal as to ask, “What do you do?” especially in the first meeting.
Yet, in the U. S., most of us don't hesitate to broach the subject of someone’s profession as soon as we know their name. In doing this, we act as though there is no boundary between who we are and what we do.
Our culture's implicit connection between work and identity can have a damaging impact on a person's self esteem when they lose their job or when they decide to take time out from the workplace to raise children.
While it is natural to experience loss when an aspect of our life ends, it is not healthy to believe we are without value or worth when we find ourselves without a job. Yet, this is a common feeling for people who are not working.
While the experience of being without a job has its particular difficulties, it also has rich opportunities for growth and increased self-awareness. When a person can no longer look to the superficial contexts of job title, employer, or salary for their identity, they are more likely to discover the deeper, more meaningful aspects of who they truly are.