Yesterday I ran into an old friend of a friend in Starbucks. I had ordered my standard Trenta iced coffee because I needed to write a dissertation and motivation is only as cheap as a Trenta, and so then I waited by the counter. I scanned the café, noticed a guy staring at me from over his laptop, and so I continued moving my eyes because that’s awkward. Then it hit me, He looks sorta familiar. OMG, I think we’re Facebook friends.
My eyes swiveled back. He had not dropped his gaze. And then he approached me, hand outstretched. “Cazey?”
Me: “Ken? I haven’t seen you since Charleston.” Which was in 2012, but we follow each other on Instagram, so I knew he’s from the area. But I don’t add that. At least I don’t think I do? “What’re you doing here?”
Ken: “I actually got a job here, and…” Insert some generic LinkedIn bio. “What about you? What’re you up to?”
I already felt ill prepared in this encounter since I was in sweat clothes in the middle of a weekday because grad school life and this guy was at least wearing Polo. And now he was asking what I was up to.
I considered my answers:
- “Just ordering coffee.”
- “Not much. I’m just in grad school.”
- “Not much. I’m in grad school, I run a blog, I’m also president of the student government at my school, I’ve recently taken up traveling to foreign countries for four days or less, and I’m contemplating running a marathon in November.”
- “Uhh. My cells are respiring?”
For the longest time I have struggled with the question, What do you do? or any of its invariants. I’m asked it almost as frequently as “When do you finish your PhD?” In both cases, I don’t have a great answer, or at least one I’m confident in.
The issue is being both honest, not bragging, and not being a cliché. And moving the conversation forward.
Who remembers the inane AIM conversations of the early 2000s? (“Hey, what’s up?” “Nm. Hbu?” “Nm either.” “Gotta go. Mom needs to get on the computer.” “Bye<3.”). GAH. I hate small talk like that.
Honest is me mentioning I’m a grad student – but I also want to downplay this because people become far too interested in talking about my research, and it’s the last thing I want to revisit once I leave my desk. I know, I’m not your stereotypical PhD student; I have hobbies outside of mathematical modeling. Stop telling me you once took a class in stochastic processes. I. Don’t. Care.
This leads me to revealing my hobbies (“What do you do for fun?” in dating terms). Here, I could say I enjoy working out, reading (not so much while in grad school), and traveling. In other words, I enjoy piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.
What does this really tell you about me? A lot of people enjoy those things. And I’m not best friends with those people, nor are we soulmates.
To get deeper, I could disclose I enjoy choosing the perfect Instagram filter, lifting weights and doing sun salutations without the breath work (more specific than “working out”), and being productive.
For better or for worse, I am someone who judges myself by my productivity. (I know. Counseling friends are frowning and scribbling notes.) A lot of my life is dictated by work I’ve committed to. I run a blog with Sara that we’ve turned into an LLC. We coordinated a huge philanthropic event (Richmond Brunch Weekend). I headed the student government on my campus this past year. I went to a meeting almost every night.
However, I feel narcissistic in a Lena Dunham way saying all that. “Look, here’s my CV!” While I’m proud of what I do, I’m also not conceited. Or, at the very least, I don’t want to come across that way. (I’ve always wondered if it’s narcissistic to be concerned if you come across as narcissistic. Is it?)
I would say I’m overthinking this whole thing (okay, I will say that; I am overthinking it), but what you say you do or are “up to” does carry consequences.
A few months ago, while out at a bar with Sara and some others, we met two guys. Sara and our other friend asked them what they did. This was after Sara, our friend, and I myself had already revealed ourselves as a digital media specialist, a nurse, and a graduate student. These two guys subsequently refused to give an answer to what they did.
Friend: “What do you mean you won’t tell us what you do?”
The guys explained that by telling someone what you do, you immediately offer yourself up for the judging. You are more than the sum of your job, they argued (which no, duh), and the moment you tell someone what you do, i.e. where you work, you become a paycheck.
(I more think these guys were trying to be reverse feminists, because no one at this bar was talking to them because they saw a potential stack of Benjamin Franklins. My friends generally have full-time jobs with benefits. And if these guys were so worried about being seen as a pay stub, maybe don’t wear Vineyard Vines fleece vests over Ralph Lauren button-downs.)
Sara offered the opposing viewpoint: What you do, at least in terms of career, is what you spend the bulk of your day doing. Theoretically, you should enjoy this work. (Theoretically. Let’s pause on that one. Or maybe just PhD students should.) By sharing this passion, it reveals a lot about a person.
So what do I do?
I just don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have made eye contact with that acquaintance in Starbucks.