You go to a party or a social gathering that will have you. You strike up a conversation with a stranger. Or they do with you. It works in either direction.
The standard, if unimaginative, “ice breaker” after exchanging names is:
“What do you do?”
An innocuous “opener.” Unless they’re a felon and they admit it, leaving you the conundrum of reporting them to the authorities or letting it go because it’s not your business to catch them. Under normal circumstances, however, a pleasant encounter ensues following “What do you do?” Something like:
“That’s interesting. How do you like it?”
Or, if it actually is interesting:
“Tell me about it.” Or my abrasively less sanitized version: “What’s that like?”
Maybe you learn something. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re bored to tears but you can’t strategically get out of it because you opened the floodgates with “What do you do?” and you cannot rudely interrupt with “That’s about all I wanted to know.”
One thing is certain. You are trodding undangerous terrain. “What do you do?” is socially sanctioned and is in virtually no cases viewed as an intrusion. The worst you can hear is, “Don’t remind me”, which leads to a laugh which leads to the twin forks of “Is it really that bad?”, opening things up further or “I wasn’t aware that was a sore subject” after which you move on. With the conversation, or actually physically move on.
Mostly, “What do you do?” is generically harmless.
But here’s what isn’t. The forbidden follow-up question to “What do you do?”:
“How much do you make?”
Am I right?
I mean, have you ever done that? I haven’t.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a neurologist.”
“Oh yeah? How much do you make?”
It’s a disrupter, that question. Walls immediately go up. Next thing you know, there’s the combative,
“Why? Are you thinking of becoming a neurologist?”
“No. I was just curious about how much you make.”
“I see. And what do you do?”
“Well, I’m retired. But I used to be writer for television.”
“Oh yeah? How much did you make?”
And now it’s on you. And it is really unlikely you’ll tell them. And the question is,
“It’s not polite” is an answer, but it’s a deflective one, because “Why isn’t it polite?”
It’s a capitalist country. Everyone gets paid. But if you are paid inordinately generously, unless you’re the current president, it feels uncomfortable to brag. Or not brag. Just accurately report what it is.
Which you immediately place in a diminishing context.
“We are not talking ‘Seth McFarlane Money’, I’ll tell you that.”
True. But it’s a large pile of money. And what exactly did you do to deserve it?
Stop! “Deserving” is not the issue. In a capitalist country, you don’t make what you deserve. You make what you are somehow able to get.
Some people make substantial sums because they receive a tiny fraction of an enormous entrepreneurial pie. For example, if you make a million dollars a year in a business that grosses a billion, your personal “cut” is one tenth of one percent.
Still, it’s a million dollars a year.
And the majority of people make less… doing things that are far more valuable to the community. Though even that doesn’t protect you. Sometimes, it makes things even worse.
I do not recall the specifics, but there was a recent L.A. Times “Letter to the Editor”, decrying the million-or-more-dollar pensions given to certain high-ranking police personnel and upper echelon firefighters.
There is this subliminal acceptance that in certain recognized undertakings, lopsided exorbitance is natural. Police officers and firefighters, and millions? Somehow, it does not seem to fit. And not just because it is “public money” they’re receiving. The implicit perception is those guys aren’t supposed to be millionaires.
Why? Because they’re not in show business?
“We dodge bullets.”
“Sorry. That is strictly for ballplayers.”
It’s so weird.
And innately uncomfortable to talk about.
And believe me, there’s more.
But I feel so uncomfortable talking about it,