When I was in India, I found myself being asked the same three questions over and over:
- Are you married?
- How many brothers and sisters do you have?
- What is your job in America?
Now the answer to the first question was of course no (my response usually involved the phrase “haven’t found the right girl”) and my having two younger brothers was simple enough, but how to explain my work to people from an entirely different culture was a whole lot trickier.
In America, when I meet a new person and hear the “What do you do?” question, I judge based on the situation whether the person is interested in my work as a writer or in my Secret Office Day Job, since “What do you do?” sometimes means “What’s the work that you dedicate yourself to?” and other times means “How do you earn money to pay your bills?” In interacting with Americans I’ve gotten pretty good at choosing between the two, but in India I didn’t have anything to base this on.
Fortunately I spent most of my trip with a friend who understood the nuances of the “What do you do?” question well enough to answer for me, and from what I could discern his answer usually involved some combination of the words “English teacher,” “writer,” “novel,” “checking manuscripts,” and [insert Secret Office Day Job title here]. The whole experience got me thinking about a complicated question:
When people ask what you do for a living, what do they really want to know?
Jobs as Indicators of Social Status
I remember back when I first applied to colleges that most of the applications asked me to list what my parents did for a living. At the time this seemed like routine information, and I wrote down “Carpenter” and “Town Clerk” just as easily as I wrote down my own name and address.
In retrospect I now realize that these questions were designed to surreptitiously determine whether I was a first-generation student—which I was. Based on my parents’ job titles, an applications committee could make some basic judgements about their background, level of education, and even their income level, especially compared to applicants whose parents were engineers, college professors, investment bankers, or neurosurgeons. When you hear these other job titles, you kind of get the feeling that you know a little bit about the people who have them, even if you can’t say for sure.
On the flip side, when you hear about people with jobs like pizza delivery guy, convenience store clerk, Burger King employee, Target cashier, or dumpster loader at the town dump, it also evokes something about these people’s backgrounds, level of education, and even their personalities—it’s just kind of a feeling that you get.
This feeling that can be so hard to put your finger on usually goes by the name of social status—or socio-economic status if you read a lot of academic books.
What You Do Doesn’t Define Who You Are
I thought about this a lot when I saw Across the Universe for the first time because up until that point I’d worked a lot of jobs that didn’t feel like they defined me as a person at all: working in a grocery store, cleaning classrooms at a kindergarten, checking boats at a lake, and hauling debris at construction sites, all of which I did because I needed money, not because they embodied some aspect of my identity. Even back then, I knew that while these jobs were working for me at the time and were the only ones I could get, I didn’t quite belong there, even if I couldn’t explain why.
Maybe the reason for these feelings is because we’re taught from an early age that doctors and lawyers make a lot of money and so they’re able to live in nice houses and drive nice cars, while people who work in respectable offices can live respectable middle-class lives with moderately priced houses and cars. Unfortunately, this also means that we see people who work low-skilled jobs like Burger Kind cashier as making less money, possessing less education, living in more squalid conditions, and in general as more disreputable than doctors and office workers—and nobody wants to be associated with an image like that.
Why do we make these kinds of judgements about people we don’t even know? Maybe it’s because the disparity in pay between these jobs is so large and our awareness of that disparity is so obvious that we automatically associate certain jobs with their expected incomes—along with the rewards in lifestyle, living conditions, education, and even health that go along with them.
In that sense, maybe American society isn’t all that different from the Indian caste system or the British aristocracy where people were placed into stratified groups based on their positions in society, with some people at the top and others on the bottom. In nineteenth-century Britain, for example, if you met a nobleman’s son you could tell right away that he was educated, possessed refined manners, owned a lot of land, followed world affairs, and dressed stylishly, while if you met a chimney sweep (or whatever low-class jobs people worked in Britain back then) you knew that he was dirty, poor, illiterate, talked in a lower-class accent, and was overall more disreputable than the nobleman.
Maybe the only difference is that in America we like to pretend that these class differences don’t exist and that everybody’s perfectly equal, since we don’t have a lot of the labels and definitions for socio-economic status that other societies have. (For example, when was the last time you heard a politician use the phrase “working-class”?)
Judging People Based on Their Jobs is Stupid and Stops You From Getting to Know Them As People
As I talk about constantly on this blog, people work different jobs for all sorts of reasons. A few years ago I was in the Sears tool department buying a Christmas gift and ran into an old middle-school classmate working there—he was clearly embarrassed that I’d seen him working at the Sears tool counter, and was quick to explain that he was only there for a seasonal second job on weekends so he could save up enough money to go back to school for physical therapy, something I could tell he was genuinely interested in. Even though I didn’t think any less of him for working at the Sears tool counter, he seemed afraid that I would, and his eagerness to explain his school plans felt defensive, which made our interaction more strained.
I didn’t judge the guy for working at Sears to save tuition money—I actually respected him for it, since it was helping him achieve the upward mobility that gives our lives meaning and purpose. But he didn’t know that when he saw me.
When people look at a guy mopping floors and think “Oh, he must be lazy or he didn’t work hard in school or made bad decisions or maybe even did a bunch of drugs that fucked up his life,” they’re making assumptions about that person’s background based on his job. In reality, though, that guy could well be working that job for a very different reason. (He might even be a Day Jobber just like me.)
Even worse is the idea that a person can look at someone with a low-status job and assume that person is boring, stupid, crass, rude, uneducated, messy, dangerous, violent, crooked, or some kind of drain on society, when in reality that person could be intelligent, fun, interesting, passionate, genuine, caring, or an otherwise good person to be around. And I like being around good people no matter what their jobs are.
When I was in India, I hated seeing the social structure that placed certain people on top and others on the bottom for reasons that to me seemed fairly arbitrary—and had the far-reaching consequences of keeping these people on the street as beggars or in low-status jobs that caused them to be derided by others. Not everyone enforced this class structure, of course, but a lot of people did.
As an outsider visiting India, seeing this class structure played out in extreme circumstances helped me understand the American class structure more intimately just as seeing the extreme separation between work and home life in Japan helped me understand how this divide also affected people back home.
What I really learned, though, is that we should be showing everyone around us an equal level of respect, not judging them based on their Day Jobs.
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