I went out with a friend last night that I hadn’t seen in a while. We met up downtown, went to a jazz club, had a bite to eat and “caught up”. We yakked about all sorts of things…music, mutual friends, and our respective neighbourhoods. But there was one topic that came up only briefly…work. And you know what? It was refreshing.
People who know me might not believe this, but I’m not always the most sociable person in the world. I don’t particularly care for big social events, which is why you’ll only ever see me at a handful of them. One of the reasons is because of what has long been a pet peeve of mine…the “What are you up to?” question.
It’s not so much the question itself that bugs me, it’s the implication of it. When asked that question, most of us feel obligated to launch into a big speech about our jobs, how busy we are, how many clients we have. To make matters worse, once the can of worms is open, the asker of the question, with only the best of intentions, usually wants more details. “What kind of projects are you doing?” “Tell me more about what you’re actually teaching in that class!” Then the conversation sometimes turns judgmental: “You’re so busy, be careful you don’t overdo it!” “Do you really think you can sustain a business in this economy?” “I don’t know how you find the time to stay so active online…when do you get any real work done?” and my favourite one “Must be nice to be able to do what you love. You’re so lucky.” (All of these are actual things people have said to me at social events at one time or another.)
The problem with the “what are you up to?” question is that most of us are answering it incorrectly, because we tend to be completely defined by our work. If we don’t launch into our big speech about how busy our work is, we are certain the other person is going to think, “Gosh, when I asked what was new, he didn’t mention his business. Maybe things aren’t going so well”. So we over-compensate.
But caring about other peoples’ perception of our “success” is only part of it. The other part (and I think for many people, a big part), is that we use our professional lives as a sort of protective barrier. If we focus on talking mostly about work in our conversations, then we don’t leave ourselves vulnerable to ever getting too “personal”.
What I’m learning, and I think the reason I’ve been feeling so irked by this lately, is that I am craving more personal conversations. Like most people, I work many hours every week. I spend much of my time nose deep in running a business and teaching. So, when I’m on social time, sometimes the last thing I want to do is continue to talk about my job. I don’t want to explain the details of my latest video project because I’ve just spent the whole day with it. I don’t want to talk about the topics of my courses because I’ve just spent the whole day talking about it. And frankly, I don’t only want to hear your stories from the trenches either.
Maybe I just want to hear a story about YOU.
In the online world, it’s easy to get wrapped up in all-business, all the time. It’s easier to make your social media accounts “professional”, because that way you’re less vulnerable. But you know what? Just like with in-person interactions, people who talk about work continuously can get pretty boring after a while. If your social accounts are intended to be “just professional”, then I’m never getting the chance to see who YOU are. You are defining yourself by what you do for a living.
Here are two things to try. First, the next time you meet up with people in a social situation, make an effort to not discuss work. If someone asks you what you’re up to, say something like “I’ve started doing 30 minutes of yoga every morning, and now I can almost touch my toes!”. Or, “You’ll never believe what happened when I was walking the dog today!” Also avoid asking your friends about their work. Instead, ask them what great movie they’ve seen lately, or how their Mom is doing.
Second, in the online world, consider dropping your “business only” philosophy. Try sharing some links to other things you’re interested in, like gardening, or a great band. Have a light hearted chit chat with someone on Twitter. Or (gasp) actually post what you had for lunch. Amazing conversations and connections come out of lunch talk.
But most of all, stop defining yourself by what you do for a living. That doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about it or love what you do. But become more aware that underneath that great project, and underneath your expertise and long hours, is who you really are.
That’s the person I want to know.
Photo by Kaptain Kobold