What are you Doing with Yourself?

I’ve got a new job, friends.

I haven’t mentioned “unemployment” here over the last few months. Partially because given my particular set of circumstances I didn’t see myself as unemployed. Partially because I was embarrassed that people would think of me as unemployed. Most importantly though, because it wasn’t relevant to my writing or opinions.

It also hasn’t been particularly relevant to my life. In many ways, over the last few months I’ve done and learnt more than I did in my fours years of university. I won’t necessarily get a line on my CV from it, but I will live a better life for it. I’ve written here and elsewhere on the internet (Gaelick, Siren, broadsheet.ie) and begun a creative writing course, reawakening a huge interest that had lain largely dormant in recent years. I travelled to Italy, Scotland, London, Sweden and New York. I volunteered with a great organisation called Fighting Words. I cooked good food and drank good wine. I’ve read widely, watched good films, and gone to plays. I’m learning to kick-box, a very long-held ambition of mine.

And yet, throughout this time I’ve been filled with dread at the prospect of going to parties and events, and running into friends and acquaintances. I was massively intimidated by the inevitable question: “so, what are you doing with yourself these days?”

Now, I’ve always disliked this question. I don’t think people are or should be defined by their jobs, nor do I think work is often a fun topic to discuss at parties. However, in the last few years I have come to think of the prevalence of the question in all of our lives as rather cruel and unusual. In “these recessionary times” there are just too many people for whom this question is intrusive, uncomfortable, or even humiliating. Of course, the friend we previously thought of as interesting and intelligent isn’t less so because he or she doesn’t happen to have a job or be in college. But the pitying, understanding nods make it feel that way.

I have lied outright in response to this question. I’ve pretended to be a student or English teacher. I’ve exaggerated the small amount of paid writing that I’ve done (because somehow I believe that getting money for writing generic internet content is more impressive than writing news or opinion for its own sake.) Or I’ve just talked about the future.

“Well, I’m planning on starting a Masters in September”.

“Ah”, people nod in relief. “Learning in a narrow field for which you will be rewarded with a piece of paper? Good for you”.

I have often been tempted to defiantly spit back “Actually, I’m doing loads, LOADS. What are you doing? Hmmm? Skipping lectures and boozing?” Unfortunately, there’s only so confrontational you can afford to get over bad wine and biscuits. I’m also entirely aware that the people asking have no negative intention, are usually genuinely interested and are probably not judging me nearly as much as I think, if at all. I was largely projecting my own insecurities about what I’ve been doing. But I doubt I’m alone in that insecurity, so the principle remains the same.

Eventually, I came up with a reasonably effective strategy. When someone asked what I was doing I replied with the most interesting thing I’d done/was going to do that week. “I’m reading a lot of existentialist philosophy”, “my band is playing a gig this weekend*”, “I’m going to the Irish Craft Beer Festival later on”, “I’ve become very interested in Arctic exploration.”  Most often those kinds of answers spark a much more interesting conversation. And even if they don’t, no one with the slightest inclination towards good manners can follow up and say “actually, with that question I was hoping to ascertain your employment status…”

Now, even though I’m employed, I’m pledging to continue answering like this. Even though there’s a part of me that wants to say “Me? Funny you should ask. I have a JOB!” My answer might sometimes relate to my job, if I’ve done something particularly interesting in work that week,  but otherwise if you ask the question you can look forward to enthusiastic responses about researching feminist rock, training for the mini-marathon and eating awesome Hindu food in Govindas.

I can only hope that I’ll hear some of the same kinds of stories from other people too. Because I’ve never yet found a person who isn’t incredibly interesting in his or her way, and it’s a shame to waste all that on tick-the-box conversations on jobs or the lack thereof.

*I don’t have a band, but a girl can dream.


3 thoughts on “What are you Doing with Yourself?

  1. I couldn’t help when reading this but think of my training weekend in Carphone Warehouse where I got to meet 14 co workers all for the first time and found it rather difficult to spark up conversation because I already knew exactly where they worked, if you had to find a way of answering that question I need to find a new social crutch or preferably no social crutch at all (but lets not get a head of ourselves).

    It’s a question I never had a problem answering until very recently, even during my incredibly humbling 11 week stint on the dole I was always comfortable answering it until I started making friends with western people in Lilongwe, and I am one of the youngest around and one of the very few without a masters, and everyone I meet is like an economist in the department of health, working on justice for the UN managing large Irish government aid projects and suddenly ‘working in a school in the middle of nowhere’ just seems a bit inadequate, even though I’m very proud and happy with what I’m doing, and everyone I met was really just interested to hear what it was like living in such minimal conditions, I found it quite difficult and totally get what you mean.
    While I think you’re probably right it is true to say that what we are studying and where we are working or whether we are just taking time to recover or take a broad education does help you get to know a person.

    I also can’t help but think of the guy in about a boy when he explains that “I’m on a break from taking a break”

    So you didn’t say, what are you doing at the moment? (no just kidding you don’t have to answer, but you do owe me an email)

    • Ah, not at all! I absolutely understand that people ask of of genuine and positive interest – I do it myself. I just think we might all benefit from a bit of a change. Wait until everyone you know is an accountant or consultant and you’ll be a big fan of the miscellaneous chat 🙂

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