So what do you do?

June 7, 2016

"In a world that values the primacy of work,  
the most common question that we ask and get asked is
"What do you do?"
Brene Brown "The Gifts of Imperfection"

Recently I had the delightful experience of having a postdoc introduce himself to me as the spouse of an MIT spouse. I love how they turned the usual introductions into something infused with fun and self awareness. This was probably  the first time that this couple had been in a situation that they weren't seen as professional "equals" and to me, his introduction acknowledged his wife's discomfort with being identified solely as someone's spouse, as well as his awareness that he was in the minority at a MIT Spouses & Partners Connect event (probably an unusual situation for him at MIT).

So how are you going to answer the "what do you do?" or "why did you move to Boston?" questions?

"I used to wince every time someone asked me this question.  
I felt like my choices were to reduce myself to an easily digestible
sound bite or to confuse the hell out of people."  Brene Brown

Someone asks you what you do and the words start tumbling out of your mouth. You're not sure what to say first; what your previous job was? why you're in Boston? What you are hoping to do now? You're trying to introduce yourself, and it's a big jumbled mess, and you see the confusion in the other person's eyes and they are starting to back away slowly, trying to get out of the conversation. And on top of everything else, you're doing this in a language that's not your own, and you're mortified by the number of times you say "um" or use the wrong verb tense.

You might also be trying to figure out whether you want to say that you are here because of your spouse. There is nothing like mentioning MIT that takes the spotlight right off of you and puts it squarely on your spouse or partner. You have many roles and identities, but suddenly you have been reduced to that one role, that one relationship. And maybe it's the role you promised yourself you would never define yourself by.

If you are feeling unsettled or ambivalent about your situation or confused about your options, it makes it that much harder to figure out how to tell your story.  

How misunderstood you can feel, having to come up with a simple answer to a complicated question, an answer that feels at best incomplete, at worst false.

These seemingly innocent questions are unavoidable and maddening.

So... what should you say? How much to say? What do you want to say?

You have a lot of choices here - you can talk about your past, your current activities, your hopes for the future. You can keep it strictly professional or share something personal. You can mention your spouse or not.

First of all, if you are feeling ambivalent or angry about being in Boston, seek to make peace with your new situation. Can you take pride in the fact that you took an enormous leap of faith to leave your friends, job, network and family behind to follow the person you love? So many people would never have the courage, curiosity and adaptability to go on this adventure, and some are probably envious of your ability to move across the world and start your life over from scratch.  I would argue that you took a bigger risk than your spouse by coming to MIT- you jumped without a safety net. Tap into that courage and pride when speaking about why you are here and what you hope to gain from the experience.

Whatever you decide to say, the advice you'll get time and time again from networking experts, as well as from the speakers in our Career Connect series, is to keep your message short and simple, "an easily digestible sound bite" as Brene Brown describes it.

Someone in our group describes her time at MIT as a "sabbatical" - that is a real conversation starter. I would certainly be curious to learn more about what she is doing. If someone tells me they moved to Boston for love or an adventure, I want to know more. For better or worse Americans prefer a positive and optimistic outlook on life, so they might not want to engage with a person they just met if their story focuses on how they are lonely or they have nothing to do or they hate the weather and they are struggling to find a job. That may be the honest truth, but is it the first thing you want people to know about you?

In her book "The Friendship Crisis", author Marla Paul cautions against trying to justify your new status by introducing yourself like this "I used to be a director of an advertising agency, but I had to resign from my job to follow my spouse to Boston." You will probably get a more positive response by saying "I just moved to Boston and I'm having fun getting to know the city while exploring career options in marketing and communications."

In other words, fake it til you make it. Show a confidence and positivity that you may not feel. Your openness and enthusiasm will be infectious and make a positive impression on whomever you are speaking. It is much easier to talk with people when you are very passionate and excited about the subject, whether it's your career aspirations, your hobby or the new restaurant you just discovered.  

Are some of you going to have to go way outside of your comfort zone, the place where things are familiar and you feel competent and at ease, to be able to talk about yourself in this new way? Absolutely! To some of you, this attitude of projecting confidence and enthusiasm will not come naturally. It may actually feel false and superficial to you. I would you encourage you to try it, but in the end, it’s up to you to decide what American attitudes and behaviors you can adapt.

Feeling comfortable answering the "what do you do?" questions is also going to require some practice. It may take a couple of awkward introductions before you find the message that feels right for you.

"Now my answer to "What do you do?" is, "How much time do you have?" Brene Brown

Of course different environments require different types of introductions - it's not one-size-fits-all, and it's going to require some experimentation. How you introduce yourself and how you tell your story will depend on the situation. Are you at an MIT Spouses & Partners Connect meeting? A social gathering of people from your spouse's lab? A professional networking event?

Most importantly it will depend on the person to whom you are speaking. In any context, you may find people who are interested in hearing your whole story, however complicated it is. And others will always be glancing at their phones and just waiting to talk about themselves.

As I say to my 5 year old daughter (and as I often have to remind myself), you can't control what other people think or do. Unfortunately some people are going to ignore or dismiss you when they find out that you are not working or you are underemployed. It only reflects on their lack of social skills, empathy and interest in other human beings, as well as the stigma people face when they are unemployed in the US. But you can control your own actions. You have complete control about how you introduce yourself and how you tell your story.

"Most of us have complicated answers to this question. For example,
I'm a mom, partner, researcher, writer, storyteller, sister, friend,
daughter, and teacher. All of these things make up who I am,
so I never know how to answer that question. And to be honest with you,
I'm tired of choosing to make it easier on the person who asked." Brene Brown

With some of the people you will meet, you'll only have one unsatisfying conversation with them. Others, over time, may become your closest friends, and as you get to know them better, you will be able to share your full and complicated story, one that has equal parts joys and struggles. We need to hear your complicated story, with all of its ups and downs and twists and turns, so we can have the opportunity to get to know your whole wonderful self and the gifts you bring. And we will all be luckier for it.