A million thoughts start racing through my brain. I am completely and entirely judging myself. As if I need to have my LinkedIn profile tattooed on my forehead, I am again asked “What do you do?” While seemingly innocent, that one question epitomizes the way we connect with each other here in S.F. It isn’t just S.F., but my career seems to have more emphasis here. Personal and professional are just two words swirling around in the same bucket.
I start to speak. I stop. I am not going to play this game. No, I did not go to Harvard, I went to a state school, and no I am not from the east coast, but Ohio, and no I don’t have a specific job to categorize me … I am in transition. It seems that the only way people can sort me is by a few straightforward questions: 1) Where are you from 2) Where do you live and 3) What do you do?
The best example of repetitive question asking is when you meet someone who has an accent. If you are trying to make conversation, your first and usually gut response question is, “where are you from?” Keep in mind, they know they have an accent and probably get asked this multiple times a day, as if it weren’t hard enough being a foreigner in America, I have to go and bug the shit out of them with my incessant question that will most likely end in, “I know like one word in [insert language],” and then blurt it out terribly.
“What do you do,” is not the only question that feels a bit off. I have been told that in NYC, the area you live represents what kind of person you are and how much money you have. Well in S.F., it is expensive everywhere. So, asking about where someone lives is another way to further refine this evaluation. People think because I live in Hayes Valley, I am hip and wealthy. Truth is, I chose this neighborhood because my studio apartment was cheap. It was the neighborhood that decided it wanted to be exclusive and upscale, not me.
I was at a panel not too long ago about the differences between startups in Israel and America. One of the Israeli guys said, that in America, you are the school you went to and your job you do. “In Israel, the community is a lot smaller, so you don’t feel the need to explain yourself.” he said. “You are just you.” This point makes me think about the big world we live in, and the need for our brains to make order out of it. The only way to start that categorization is with those questions.
The issue I run into is that I will not be reduced to three questions. When asked what I do, I sometimes answer, “I am a part-time shitty artist, a decent cook and an avid reader.” But that is not enough for many people who I talk to, so when they ask again, I answer their question with another question. “What do you love to do in your free time?” I ask. “What is the best meal you’ve had in awhile?” From there, it is easier to start a real conversation. I am not vapid. People can’t just swipe left on me when I don’t meet their expectations. I am standing right there.
I have been at networking events and parties where what you do holds weight. For example, if I am looking for a job and meet someone who works at a company I am interested in, I will most likely want to keep in touch and contact them when I apply. Or another example, when I find out you went to Ohio State, I go apeshit and quietly but enthusiastically say “O-H,” to which they respond, “I-O.”
These questions, albeit annoying and judgmental, sometimes enable you to find ways to connect with people. Not all people feel comfortable telling you what they love and where they eat. Being the incredibly extroverted person that I am, I sometimes forget about the introverts who probably want to be left alone. I just don’t work that way. But what I try to do is find a topic that makes people, excited, happy or nostalgic.
You get the best out of people and find out who they really are when you ask the right questions.
With a background in journalism, Melissa Eisenberg has been working in the tech industry for eight years, currently leading the SF FashTech community.