'What do you do' is often an opening gambit when meeting a stranger. It's deemed to be a safe, fairly neutral way of starting a conversation and getting to know someone. But how influenced are we by someone's reply, how much difference does it make if they say they're a brain surgeon, nuclear scientist, cleaner or supermarket worker? How impressed are we by their answer?
Interestingly many job titles have changed over recent years, presumably to deliver greater importance and gravitas to the roles: the use of ambiguous words like consultant, operative and adviser are now used liberally in job descriptions. Sometimes it's impossible to guess how powerful or senior the role is and some businesses prefer to keep it that way, wanting to maintain a more level playing field, with less apparent hierarchy. I know of at least one multi-millionaire businessman who refers to himself as a grocer!
And then there are those less common, perhaps more unusual jobs. If someone says they're a taxidermist, funeral director or even a hypnotherapist it can cause others to pause and be unsure as to whether they're impressed or not!
Discovering what someone does typically results in us digesting that information and forming an opinion. For example, if someone's says they're a stay-at-home parent do we automatically reflect on their circumstances, presuming them to be wealthy, privileged or lazy? Or if someone starts a cleaning job do 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 each job, each role is a contribution to the overall running of a business, home or group. Different tiers in any organisation bring different levels of investment in its setup and smooth operation, with specific tasks designed to keep things moving. From management to maintenance to day-to-day operations, each has to pull together and appreciate the other's role and value.
The surgeon needs a clean, well-maintained operating theatre in which to work. Then there's transport to and from the hospital, perhaps a morning coffee. Yes highly qualified professionals are necessary but so too are the tradespeople, the joiners, electricians as well as the filing clerks, administrators and organisers.
We may be impressed by someone's education, their commitment to their career, their status and wealth, but let's not forget that there's a back story to those who both have and haven't achieved dizzy heights professionally.
Opportunity is a significant factor in education and career options. Where we're born has a massive bearing on the opportunities open to us; from a supportive, stable family background, neighbourhood, to the right levels of teaching and encouragement. Family values and income levels are a factor. In some families gender is of significance, with a boys education being deemed more relevant than a girls.
Also, what else is going on in someone's life, what juggling acts are they required to perform each day? Remember their reasons for how they fill their time are their business, not ours. We simply see the public face, the surface, not the level of difficulty required for them simply to get out of their front door.
Their circumstances may mean that they need a flexible job due to childcare issues, or have elderly relatives who require a lot of attention. They may be in recovery for personal reasons, need a low stress, low responsibility job as their first stepping-stone on the way back to real life, taking things slowly as they improve their confidence levels.
Or they may be new to an area, have had a massive change in circumstances, domestic arrangements, finances and are coming out of an especially tough time. Work may be less about money and status and more about getting out and meeting people, making social connections, almost a rehab, gently edging into a new routine, having somewhere to be.
Sometimes a job may simply suit us, we're happy to drift along. We're taking care of ourselves, don't need stress and responsibility, may have even left a more high-powered role and that's fine. Work provides a reason to get up, wash, dress, turn up somewhere on time, meet people and earn a little money.
There's more to work than simply a job title. It's provides a purpose, order to life, being part of a team, maybe with others relying on your being there, all hopefully helping with confidence and job satisfaction. As Martin Luther King said, if you're going to a road sweeper be the very best road sweeper you can be and take a pride in what you do.
One final note. We've all on occasion found a fantastic cleaner, handyman, gardener; they're worth their weight in gold. So much so that we scarcely dare recommend them to our friends for fear that we'll never be able to get them back! With that in mind, won't it be interesting next time you ask someone, what do you do!