The worst question, and the worst response.

I was at a wedding last Saturday, and five minutes after sitting down at a table of strangers, it happened.  They were all younger than my husband and me, two married and all childless.  The guy I was sitting next to was a submariner  in the Navy – what a very exciting and impressive job to have.  Not only that, but when I asked him where he was staying that night, he told me he had just moored his yacht after sailing from Scotland.  Top that!  I couldn’t, obviously.

Buoyed up after that information, you’d think I would have been armed with my own story, but I hadn’t even thought.  So, the next moment, when a different guy called across to Ryan and me saying, “Sorry, I didn’t ask – what is it that you do?”, I was caught short.  Flailing about, I let Ryan, the ’employed’ one answer first.

Then, all eyes on Ruth.

“What about yourself?”

“I’m a stay-at-home mum.”

What occurred next was, in hindsight, both hilarious and atrocious.  He stared at me, and too slow to draw up a suitable reponse, just said the affirming, appreciative

“Oh.”

And that was the last thing he or anyone at the table bar the submariner said to me all evening.  Ryan tried to add that I was a writer, but the write-off had already been done.  Later as I thought about it I realised that most of the time I feel I have to add the extra things that I do as a kind of supplement, to put people at ease, and to somehow justify my own existence.  When the children were younger, I occasionally found myself banging around the house muttering ‘I have two degrees’, but I think I’ve got over that now.  Or maybe I can’t quite believe that I ever managed them.

Why is it that we have to know someone’s profession before we can decide whether they’re worth conversing with?  Why do we think that label tells us the most about who they are?

I wonder what would happen if we studiously avoided asking that question?  I wonder who the person in front of us would turn out to be.

(By the way, the ideal response would be something like “A stay-at-home mum?  What an admirable thing to do.  The hardest job in the world.”

Take note for next time, Mr. “Oh”.)

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