Last week I was a guest at a birthday party where I didn’t know anyone but the hosts. I wondered at first how much I had in common with the other families, but soon had many lovely conversations, ranging from the effect weird weather had on our summer vacations, to restaurants we liked, to the general sassiness of our kids.

It wasn’t until the drive home that I realized there was one thing no one had asked me, which is the thing I’m usually asked within four seconds of meeting new people: “What do you do for a living?” At first it felt weird; that query seems as common as “What’s your name?” these days. It’s also not an issue for me to answer, as I love what I do for a living and am happy to pop off about it to anyone who asks. And almost everybody asks.

But should they?

On this Labor Day, a commemoration dedicated to celebrating the American worker, I wanted to know why work is so central to our identities that it’s often the first detail we pry out of each other. The question is so ubiquitous that there are more than 566 million results to the Google search “Why do Americans ask what you do for a living?” Many of those answers are not only about how people dislike being quizzed about their employment, but how they feel they’re expected to do their own quizzing.

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“Americans have an extremely career-oriented model for life,” Oren Cass, a senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, told The Washington Post in 2019. “It’s like the saying goes: ‘We are living to work instead of working to live.’ ”

Yikes.

Maybe we can find some balance between who we are and what we do if we remember “that it’s not about the actions or activity, but about the impact that we make,” said Kimberly Prescott, of Prescott HR in Columbia, which provides human resources services to small businesses that don’t have their own inner departments.

If anyone was liable to get caught up in work as identity, it might be someone like Khadijah Ali-Coleman, who admits she “has had several jobs.” Ali-Coleman is the founder of the arts group Liberated Muses, the current Poet Laureate of Prince George’s County, the founder of Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars and has been an adjunct teaching at area colleges. Oh, yeah, and she also homeschooled her daughter. I get tired just reading all that. But she’s avoided being defined by her title(s) because of her true focus.

“Someone told me once that my life is my brand, that I show up everywhere as the same person,” she said. “Jobs are just to pay the bills. I do a lot of stuff. I don’t like seeing people identify so much with their jobs that they act inhumanely to other humans. You can’t get indoctrinated. The most important thing I’ve done in my life is my relationship with my daughter. She’s my greatest victory. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

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The pandemic ushered in a new attitude among some employees who, having gotten used to the flexibility and balance that working from home gave them, resolved to never go back to the bad old days of living to work. It’s all well and good to feel that way, but the reality won’t change until the world of work does, Prescott said.

“The education has to be on the employer side. You’re pushing the ball uphill as an employee trying to change things,” she said. “If you don’t fit, you’re not going to get the job. When I talk about culture, it’s about ‘What is the candidate experience? Why do you have to do a test, bring it back, and then meet with eight other people?’ You’re saying that this job is more important. It’s one-sided.”

Prescott thinks the “what do you do” question is more prevalent among those who have careers in the corporate world, “probably the most toxic environment. Other people are deciding your value, whether you’re good enough for the next opportunity. You start to internalize it. You can’t help it. … I knew a man who was over the entire legal department [of a company], until they got tired of him. He saw the writing on the wall. He told me, ‘I don’t know what to do, who I am. I gotta go figure this out.’ It could happen to any of us.”

In contrast, she recently chatted with a gentleman at a baseball game for hours “talking about all sorts of things — about his kids, about his vacation on the Eastern Shore,” when she finally asked what he did. “He actually owns a trash removal company with 30 or 40 employees,” Prescott said. “He has this nice, lucrative, well-established company, but he never talked about it until I asked him.”

Elly Cohen, a senior recruiter, job search and career coach, and veteran HR professional in Burtonsville, said that the employment question isn’t bad on its face and can be “a good conversation-starter, but often it’s a mistake to stop there.” I found that interesting in context with the party I attended where the conversation wasn’t about our jobs. Maybe they were less interested because most of the moms there happened to homeschool their children and worked full-time as educators, or maybe it’s just because there are more interesting things to know about a stranger than where they spend 40 hours a week.

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“It’s crucial to have separation and be fully present during the day when you’re not working, to manage stress and to be refreshed,” Cohen said. “Most importantly, you need this to remind yourself especially that you are not your job [and that] your life is the activities that refresh you, the people you love and the possibilities with the people you may meet.”

That makes sense. I know I still in some way identify with my job, but I try to think of it more like Prescott’s suggestion that we focus more on the impact that the title. I can introduce myself as Leslie Gray Streeter, columnist and author, and be grateful I am able to give my readers something of worth, that makes their lives funnier or more thoughtful.

I contain multitudes. And it’s time we start embracing that.

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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