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Europeans, I hear, have some very distinct opinions about Americans. We’re brash, overconfident, self-indulgent, and often rude. And we speak only English. So whenever we find a European who also speaks English, we’re too inquisitive. And after engaging in conversation for as little as five minutes with a native, we’re likely to ask, “What do you do?” Meaning, of course, how do you earn a living?
Having long heard that this is considered a rude question in other parts of the world, I looked up some reasons why. On one online forum, some of the answers were (a) it’s too personal, (b) it defines people by class, (c) it’s a boring subject, (d) Europeans work to live, not the other way around, and (e) “I hate my job and don’t want to be defined by it.”
To most Americans, asking about occupation is simply a reasonable conversation starter, because until recently Americans had a different attitude toward work. More than anyone, they bought into the “Protestant work ethic” defined by Max Weber in 1905: Work was how you got ahead and defined your place in society. With the United States’ lack of aristocracy or landholding gentry, newcomers grabbed fortune by their own two hands. Some succeeded brilliantly, some failed utterly, and most managed to carve out their own share, whether modest or showy, of what became known as the American dream. And it was almost entirely due to the work they did.
With 1 in 6 working-age men unemployed, it’s time to regain a sense of the worthiness of work.
I don’t mind people asking me what I do for a living, or the inevitable follow-up (“Oh? What do you write?”). It could lead to interesting byways and opportunities (for example, say, “WORLD is a Christian news organization,” and see what response the word Christian generates). But even more, when I bestir myself to ask the occupation of the gentleman next to me on the plane or the lady in the ticket line at a concert, something of interest always lurks in the details.
Think of all the hands it takes to keep a vast and various economy going: the builders and funders and maintainers and movers. Before he retired, my husband was a transportation consultant whose many years in the railroad industry gave him the expertise to start his own business. He came to specialize in “high, wide, and overweight loads”: huge factory pieces or machines that required careful routing from one point to another. That’s something we don’t often appreciate: how stuff moves from here to there. The level of coordination it takes to get imported goods off a ship and onto a railcar, and from there to countless distribution points and final destinations.
Any legitimate occupation is worth knowing about when you ask the right questions. Aircraft mechanic: What’s the most challenging aspect of that job? Teacher: How has the classroom changed since you started? Stocking clerk: Why does Walmart discontinue items? Especially after I’ve come to like them? Systems analyst: Um ... what is that, exactly?
What do you know about how your brothers and sisters at church spend the rest of their week? Here’s something I’d like to try: set time aside, say once a month after the potluck, for a Q&A of people willing to explain their occupation, what’s most rewarding and challenging about it, and how they see themselves furthering God’s kingdom within it. This would include retired people and full-time mothers and homemakers. Elders and deacons could lead the way, and as time goes on more reticent members might feel more comfortable about sharing their own experience. One vital question to ask: How can we pray for you in your work?
We would certainly get to know each other better, and students could gain some realistic expectations of the work world. All could better encourage each other to “do with all our might” whatever God puts before us as an occupation.
With 1 in 6 working-age men unemployed, it’s time to regain a sense of the worthiness of work. As in so many other areas of our broken culture, the church has an opportunity to lead.