I shall start with a quotation of René Decartes, the father of modern philosophy. "Cogito ergo sum" is Descartes answer to his question what about we can be sure of ourselves. I think, (thus) I am. The essential property of our being ourselves is the capability to be conscious, to think. Without thinking, we would cease to exist.
These very existential questions still seem relevant to today's international organization or company workforce, although uttered differently. "Where do you work?" is a question I am asked frequently in social venues and I am growing increasingly tired of. What shocks is how much people seem to define themselves in terms of their work, instead of who they are. I wonder what people would talk about if they lost their work and who they would themselves consider to be?
A typical example of such a conversation took place the other night. Having chatted nicely about this and that in a picknique in Parc la Grange, I was approached by one of the other pickniquers. "Hi my name is Rachel".. and without stopping, on she went "where do you work?", sending shivers down my back and rage into my throat. I froze and the conversation ended after some meaningless exchanges about the workplace.
I would like to know how to behave in such situations. The w-phrase is clearly asked with no evil intentions as a common point or reference. Admittedly most people in Geneva have moved here for work. It seems fair to make this highly likely common point the starter in a conversation. It also reflects the general feeling of uncertainty in the international labour market, where self-marketing is essential for obtaining the next short-term contract. As a matter of fact the w-question will duly be followed by an extended elevator-speech about your opponents work situation. Each social gathering is turned into a potential recruiting event. Having listened to experts in the art of casual self-promotion I have been amazed for how long it can drag on and how much experts in it seem to be enjoying themselves doing it. Over the course of a party I have witnessed this going on for the better part of an hour, the obligatory final appointment for lunch (to do more of the same) included.
I suspect what makes me react in such a negative way to this seemingly innocent behaviour is that fact that clearly I will be judged by the answer and thus in terms of my usefulness for my counterparts work ambitions. Laboro ergo sum.
I have considered three possible answers to the w-question.
A friend has suggested to tackle the issue upfront and to answer along the lines of "I wipe the WCs at WIPO", which has the advantage of straightforwardly pointing out the potential danger of making the unbeknown work situation of your opposite side subject of conversation, (some may remember a related pitfall consisting in asking, as there were no thing more natural "what do you study?"). The onus of saving the day is put on the initial culprit who can do this by admitting mistake or remaining in ignorance. Expect embarrassment though as most people will be confused and find you rude.
Another option is to bite your tongue and to go along. After all your aversion is clearly just another cultural difference, such questions are the order of the day in Anglo-Saxon culture. Maybe you will actually learn something interesting by stepping out of the ignorance of your own culture centric behaviour. In a way it might also help to get real about your own situation.. you are most likely to have moved here for work anyway, one day you will have to come to terms with this fact. And you might even find a better job. On the other hand there is a risk of boredom, especially on a Friday evening.
Lastly, the precious diplomatic middle-ground would combine the virtue of the previous two approaches. Supposed you do not want to talk about work or think that there are more interesting things in the world but not embarrass your counterpart you could briefly answer and change topic. This has the advantage of maybe getting to know an interesting person as well as in the process subtly showing that there are matters more worth being discussed.
I shall, depending on the mood put options one and three to a test, with, conscious of the potential for ennui, Descartes' Meditations being the aim to lead the conversation of option three to.