I’d like to ask you a question. No, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
In many cultures, including my native United States, there’s a dreaded cliché that’s often asked when first meeting someone: “So, what do you do?”
It’s loved by workaholics, dreaded by the unemployed, and causes many people to fall into the illusion that their job is their identity and the only thing that really matters.
The big secret is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you can’t stand being identified by your 9-5, maybe it’s time to break out of your comfort zone. There are many situations where those around you couldn’t care less about the title on your business card.
Where Are You From?
While there are countless scenarios where your job is irrelevant, I’m going to focus on my true passion: travel. When you spend a lot of time traveling, you learn that the most important thing about your identity is where you’re from. Your job, how much money you have, your hobbies, and everything else come after. Like it or not, this is how people will initially judge you.
Just think about the last time you met someone who spoke with a strong accent in your hometown. Did you ask what their job was, or did you ask where they were born? You can make a lot of assumptions when you know someone chose to be an accountant, but you probably get some samba music pumping through your ears every time you meet a Brazilian.
An International Office is Like a Backpacker’s Hostel
Have you ever stayed in a backpacker’s hostel? It almost seems like it’s a rule that you must first ask people where they’re from, and then follow with questions about where they’ve been traveling. It’s fun, but exhausting.
I had the chance to work in an international office in Amsterdam. Actually, calling it international might be an understatement. There were only around 100 employees, but the ratio of different nationalities rivaled the United Nations.
In this remodeled Dutch warehouse, I learned that my co-workers weren’t very interested in my role, but they couldn’t wait to find out where I was from. Instead of the standard office humor being based on your responsibilities in the company, we all cracked jokes off of country of origin.
It was strange and awesome.
It Leaves the Office
This fun line of questioning is just part of life in faraway lands, and it’s not simply limited to the office. If you move to a new apartment or house in your own country, questions about your job may continue even after learning about it (as in, “did you move here for work?”). But, your neighbors, shopkeepers, and bartenders in a foreign land will generally be first interested in the name on the front of your passport. More often than not, you’ll be forced to explain how you ended up in their corner of the world long before they’ll care how you make a living. Well, except for those making sure you can pay your bills.
Liberating or Stressful?
Being categorized by your nationality instead of your job can seem like a big relief if you’re sick of being judged on your professional choices, but it also takes away any control you have in the matter. At least you can work to change a job, but you’ll always have to answer to the stereotypes of your homeland – whether you like them or not.
One thing that you should keep in mind is that this can be especially challenging for people from less desirable countries, and it usually just ends up opening a whole new world of problems for them. Count yourself lucky if you’re from a “nice” country, and if you meet someone from a place you don’t approve of, try not to hold it against them.
The Best Question to Ask
You might wonder whether I advise you to ask people what their job is, or if I think you should only focus on their nationality. To be honest, I can’t tell you. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer to which question is better, and it really takes a combination of both.
Think about that when talking to others, and maybe even surprise them by asking something unusual.
What Matters to You?
In the end, it’s your responsibility to determine your own values. There are things you can change, and others that you can’t. But, one thing you can decide is what types of people you will hang around with. If they are judgmental in a way that makes you unhappy, you might want to make a conscious effort to escape them. By surrounding yourself with the correct mindset, you’ll be much happier in life.
Now, My Question
At the beginning, I said I wanted to ask you a question. It turns out I have more than one.
Where are you from? And do you feel that’s a good starting point to help people learn about you?