When adults meet each other at parties, they typically ask the banal question: “What do you do?” Sometimes, if one of the adults is really insightful, they’ll ask “What do you do for a living?”
And most (if not a majority) of adults will respond by saying something equally banal (y’know…small talk…), mentioning their job title, their tasks at work, or something else that seems socially acceptable.
But, what if instead of asking—and answering—such questions with banalities, we answered with what really has value for us, what really makes a difference, what the places are where we stand up with courage and actually make something that matters?
The reason we don’t do that, and the reason that we respond with banalities to a banal question is two-fold:
The question asker really doesn’t want to know what we do. It’s a polite shorthand of trying to cram the other party in a tiny hole, make assumptions about them, their worth, and their work, and then forget about it.
The question answerer really doesn’t want to respond with vulnerability. It’s really hard to be vulnerable with a person you just met five seconds ago. It’s just easier to let them categorize you—even as you categorize them—and make assumptions, and move onto the remainder of the interaction.
It’s easy not to notice these small things; the impact of greasing the social wheels so that there is as little squeaking as possible; so that the social group gets along, knows who’s “in” and who’s “out” and so that categorization can happen in an easier fashion in a world that seems chaotic and noisy.
But the ways that we have developed to handle a complicated world, don’t really assist us that well anymore, and it’s easier not to notice that the banalities lead to cruft, and that the cruft builds up over time into plaque, and the plaque cakes over the substance of our relationships with people, until conflicts become the only vehicle for meaningful changes.
Going past banalities at the beginning of a relationship, and going toward what matters with people, is at the core of managing and engaging with conflicts that matter. The next time you’re asked “What do you do?” respond by talking about what matters—not your job title, not your tasks you get paid for, but what really matters.
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: email@example.com