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A Social Experiment

January 6, 2011

I call this a social experiment because it reminds me of my dear friend Hypomnemata, who likes to do sleeper social experiments, usually regarding cultural expectations, on the general public.  As she likes to say, “I would never experiment on my friends, though.”

Today on the bus I saw a woman that I have spoken to once or twice before.  One of the side effects of being “the girl on crutches” is that people on my daily commute – on the bus, at Starbucks, etc. – tend to recognize me more readily than other people.  One I switched from two crutches to one, this particular woman noticed and we struck up a conversation.  As anyone will tell you, I make poor small talk.  Therefore, I was pleased with myself that I managed to conduct a conversation throughout the 20-minute bus ride without asking her where she worked.  I should explain.  I consider it a challenge, when meeting new people, to not ask them what they do for a living.  This goes back to college, a place where I acquired all kinds of unexpected information.

When a friend came back from her junior year abroad, one of the many stories that she shared with us was that Europeans rarely ask one another, upon introduction, what they do for a living or where they work.  This anecdote has since been confirmed by other Europeans and travelers that I have met.  The reason given is that in other cultures, unlike in the United States, work does not define a person and by asking this question, you imply that their value is limited by their profession.  It’s seen as an attempt at measuring someone’s importance or status and is quite a faux pas. 

Having awareness of this cultural difference has led me to consider how frequently I discuss work.  I just moved to a new city and outside of a few old friends, most everyone I’ve socialize with are my coworkers.  The default topic, is of course, work.  In particular, our workplace dysfunction, which seems funnier and less tragic over a few beers.  The thing is, these are fascinating people.  Because we work in a museum that focuses on medical technology and science, my colleagues come from all walks of life.  I find myself wondering about the things they’ve done and seen, and yet somehow always forget to ask.  Partly this is just me:  I am loathe to ask overly personal questions or pry for information and because people have such diverse comfort levels with these sorts of things, I tend to stick to neutral topics.  Like work.  I think this is the case for a lot of people – I have many friends who tend to be rather “out there” with their interests and experiences and will ease their way into these topics because they are somewhat out of the common.  But really, aren’t the best dinners out with friends the kind when it’s a mix of people and we are forced to not discuss work because it would leave out our dinner companions?  It’s not only more interesting and more fun, but it provides necessary relief.  Personally, I try to never think about work except at work.  I am paid to do work and think about while I am there and it is important for my sanity that I limit such things to 9 hours. 

All this is by way of saying that I saw the same woman on the bus today and after exchanging pleasantries about the recent holidays, we discussed our respective commutes, and…I asked where she worked in order to keep the conversation going.

Better luck next time.   

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