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Why I wish you’d stop asking what I do for a living

Kalila Borghini

When meeting someone for the first time, how often do you ask, “So what kind of work do you do?”

I would guess that happens often. We tend to evaluate whether or not we can relate to someone, or want to get to know them, based on their professions. This information may also be used as a barometer of financial success competitively, as in: “Well, I’m better,” or “I’m not as good.”

As someone who is currently “on sabbatical” — as I like to call it (I had to give it a name because I’m not retired or retiring, just taking a much-needed break) — I think about how much of my identity is connected to what I have done for a living. I’m a psychotherapist — which, unless I am divinely inspired during my sabbatical, will be what I do when I’m ready to go back to work.

My research into what happens to people who do actually retire or are downsized or fired has been equivocal. For some, retirement is a plus, allowing them to enjoy the fruits of a lifelong labor. They thrive physically and emotionally. For others, it can lead to feelings of worthlessness and uselessness. Some are at risk for depression.

Being fired or downsized is a bit different. More of a narcissistic injury than a choice, some individuals sink into despair and hopelessness, rather than thinking of it as one door closing so that another may open. Financial stress can add to the mix, especially if it’s tinged with regret about not saving more for that “rainy day.”

I personally would prefer to be asked about what I do when I’m not working or taking care of other people. I like to talk about my love of hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing; reading mysteries; and streaming movies and watching TV series on Netflix. Finding out what other people do with their time, other than working, is inspiring to me. I learn about good yoga classes, restaurants, new hiking trails, recipes, their pets and so on.

So, next time you meet someone new, or even reconnect with someone you already know, instead of asking, “What kind of work do you do?” Or, “How’s work?” Find out what the person did for fun recently, places the person visited or his/her last vacation. Did the person have any great meals lately or has the person learned something new?

I guarantee the conversation will be more interesting and a much better indicator of compatibility than his/her profession.

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