Wednesday, 22 October 2014

And What Do You Do?

This is a post written for today's synchroblog on "othering" at SheLoves emagazine

Friendly strangers at parties or conferences frequently stump me with this icebreaker question, “And what do you do?” 
I panic every time. I feel instantly “othered”. If I could reply with a clear, familiar answer like “doctor, teacher or lawyer”, the conversation would be a cinch. As it is, I stutter and mumble until the poor stranger sidles away. 
The question has a narrower focus, of course, than its wording describes. I’m actually being asked what the world pays me to do. I confess that on occasion I’ve grunted, “Nothing”. You can imagine the reaction that provokes. As a blogger I could now reply that I’m a writer, but the next question would be about publication, another hurdle to clear.

Who am I in our culture if I’m not employed in some recognizable and respected work?

 I’ve never had a job that could be called a career. I’ve been unemployed by choice for most of my life, maintaining the home front while my husband’s executive position in finance provided our income. I spent my younger years raising children, fighting depression and migraines, volunteering at schools and churches, and doing graduate studies (okay, mostly self-taught) in theology, marriage, parenting, and gender issues. How could any stranger respond to an answer like that? 

I’ve heard about cultures where such a question would be considered intrusive and rude, too personal for strangers to discuss, but that’s not the case in middle-class North America. 

Even now, as an elder, the casual question bothers me.  My peers might reply by saying, “I’m retired” but the follow-up would be, “What did you used to do?” Ugh. And even so, “retired” often equates to “old”. In our society that word is a slur implying dim, feeble, and boring. Who wants to identify as a “Little old lady” or a “Stupid old man”? But ageism is  another whole version of othering.

If I were to describe what I “do” now, my best bragging would be: I join political protests, attend lectio divina prayer groups, write encouraging emails, gaze in awe at ancient oak trees, and blog in the most basic of ways. In fact, lots of my time is spent reading books and watching screens, with a sideline of adoring my grandchildren.

Compared to the fraught “otherings” of gender bias and racial prejudice, being identified primarily by our employment is a minor way of distancing, but we can do better at building two-way bridges.