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When did ‘How do you do?’ become ‘What do you do?’

My friend has a master's degree. Unhappy with the career she chose, she went back to a job that put her through college – waitressing. She makes more money than her office job paid and works three days a week. She travels the world, owns a house, and doesn't care about who she's friends with on LinkedIn. She is one of the happiest and genuine gals I've ever met. She's a server.

“How do you do?” asked Dorothy to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, upon meeting this straw-stuffed stranger on The Yellow Brick Road. This was my favorite movie growing up. I replayed this on Beta-Max until the tape wore out. (Sigh. Beta-Max.) I would wear my ruby red slippers and cuddle up with my favorite stuffed doggy, Ozzie, whose name became ToTo during the movie. I could recite every line to the movie and belt nonsensical lyrics that only I could understand.

“How do you do?” It’s a greeting that’s so eloquent, so proper. So nice that it was the title to the 1972 song by Mouth and MacNeal. So when did “How do you do?” become “What do you do?” I don’t know exactly where in history this became a socially acceptable icebreaker. This question, from a stranger, to me, is like hearing gunfire off in the distance. I want to duck and run for cover.

As far away as London, I met a fellow Buffalonian on the Tube. He couldn’t quite make it past “Where do you live?” before my most dreaded question rolled off his tongue with such ease… “What do you do?”

I’ve been asked this question so many times that I have a pre-rehearsed response. “For fun? For exercise?” Candidly joking, I wanted to be polite as possible with him getting the drift that I find this question to be something I don’t feel comfortable answering in the first five minutes of an encounter. Couldn’t he have asked me what my name was first?

“No, for work,” he said. I laughed and replied, “Oh, I work in public relations. But it just pays the bills. I’m much more interesting than that and my name is Annalise.'”

He looked puzzled and I dont think he got it. He probably thought I was a bit peculiar, which is a compliment in my book. And I didn’t ask him “what he did.” Frankly, I didn’t care. I just made small talk and bid him adieu when he exited the train. To me, his question is literally equivalent to asking a stranger what kind of car they drive. (B-T-Dubs, there’s a reason why some men leave their car keys on the bar).

In today’s fast moving society, I understand people want to get to the point, and rather quickly. But, why do you care what I do for a living? Why is this such an important bit of knowledge and why must be it obtained so quickly?

Are you trying to start a conversation? Are you trying to find something in common with me? Or are you trying to find out my social status and whether or not we should be friends?

My friend has a master’s degree. Unhappy with the career she chose, she went back to a job that put her through college – waitressing. She makes more money than her office job paid and works three days a week. She travels the world, owns a house, and doesn’t care about who she’s friends with on LinkedIn. She is one of the happiest and most genuine gals I’ve ever met. She’s a server.

Another talented and creative friend of mine, who has a degree from a top university, doesn’t have the luxury of working. Her husband was offered an international position that requires a lot of travel. Never knowing where they may end up, and he could be transferred at any time, many companies won’t sponsor her to work because of this. He makes enough money, but she had to sacrifice her career, at least for now, for her marriage to survive for better or worse. She’s a stay-at-home wife.

And then there’s me. I gave up a great job and transitioned into a different career that would afford me more time to focus on writing my novels. Some people called me crazy, taking a large pay cut. If I don’t finish my books now, will I ever? Will my dreams ever come to fruition? I’m a starving artist.

“What do you do?”  seems a little bit more intrusive, now, doesn’t it? Unless you’re at a trade show, business expo or networking event, I believe there are a lot of other great ways to start a conversation besides the drab “what do you do?” If you’re looking to strike up a conversation with someone, I prefer questions that are more open-ended and less obvious.

  • Oh, you’re from Buffalo. Did you grow up there?
  • Is this your first time in London? What is your favorite thing you’ve seen in London so far?
  • I notice the lapel pin on your blazer. It’s interesting. What does it mean?
  • You look familiar. Have I seen you at an event downtown before?

So what do I do? I paint #SweetBuffaloRocks. I thrift. I write. I do yoga. I attend concerts. I drink sparkling water. I try to support my friends and family unconditionally and show everyone love and kindness. My job title or vocation doesn’t define me.

I define me.

There’s two points of reference where I believe a person can find all answers to life. One is the Bible, but I don’t believe in forcing my beliefs on anyone – live and let live (insert Axl Rose you know you did, you know you did, you know you did). The second is the Dark Side of the Moon album by Pink Floyd.

To this day, I’m amazed that a bunch of young Brits with instruments at Abbey Road Studios could know all about life. So much so that they composed this knowledge into a lyrical and musical philosophical masterpiece. Coincidentally, “How Do You Do” was popular the same year that Pink Floyd started recording “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Anyway…. To quote Pink Floyd:
“For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all your touch and all you see…
Is all your life will ever be”

It may be true that the “Wizard of Oz” days of conversation are long gone and politeness has wained. When I’m feeling nostalgic of simpler, less complicated times, I turn on an old movie like The Wizard of Oz, or put on an old record, like Dark Side of the Moon. Or maybe both together with my ruby red Prada flats. Who knows why I do what I do, but I do it because deep down it brings me joy, happiness and a sense of peace, outside of my job. So, whatever you do, do it with love.

Do what makes YOU happy.

“I shall take the heart,’ returned the Tin Woodman, ‘for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.” L_Frank_Baum OZ: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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