Thursday, January 29, 2009

social construction zone

This month my book group discussed Your Money Or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. A worthwhile read if you skip all of the case studies, which didn't add much besides approximately 100 pages of italicized text.

Besides having a good discussion all around, the book group touched briefly on status and social scripts. One of the main points of the book is that we usually think of work in terms of money. By confounding work with paid employment, we end up defining ourselves in terms of what we do for paid employment. But paid employment is only one part of who we are and what we do. There is a lot of "work" that we put energy into that is not paid. The book goes on to talk about how it is individually liberating to separate the concept of work and paid employment, because then we can have a self-definition and purpose that goes well beyond our 9-5.

I've been thinking about this in terms of social interactions. Not only do we define ourselves by our job, but we also define others (almost exclusively upon first encounters) the same way. We embed these social scripts into ourselves. Think about the last time you met someone for the first time. Which of these phrases did you use within the first 5 minutes of conversation?

"What do you do?"
"What brought you here?"
"What are you studying?"


I don't think these questions are meaningless or harmful. I think social scripts are important for creating common ground between people, for helping us make mental models that allow us to act appropriately and make people feel at ease. But when social scripts never go beyond just that, then we get into trouble. We make judgments about each other based on our paid employment, education ... in essence, our resumes. Personally, I hope my resume is not a very accurate portrayal of who I am. Hello, boring!

So next time I'm at a party, my goal is to bulldoze through the social script and get to the things that really matter. I'm not exactly sure how to execute this plan (the whole point is to get away from the script, right?). My best guess is that it will involve a lot of follow-up questions, and a good deal of real listening. It may even mean that I will start caring about the other person, instead of just thinking about myself and what witty comment I can interject next.

Wish me luck.


Maren Hansen said...

Sounds good--I'll have to check it out. Here are my thoughts: as a mom w/no current paid employment (unless you count the bit of babysitting afterschool), I have trouble "defining" myself when first meeting someone. Usually, the conversation hits an awkward point right after, "I am a stay-at-home mom"... I like what Derek has hit upon--we both like to read and we are always interested in others' hobbies. So why not ask people what they like to do in their spare time? It's opened up some much better avenues to friendship and leaves behind a lot of that awkward, oh, he works for DOD or, oh, she is JUST at home with her kids right now... (The unspoken part being, "She'll actually do meaningful work when her kids are grown.") snark, snark...

tpmotd said...

That's what we spent practically our whole first quarter on in my counseling program: getting past the surface-level talk. I could recommend some good books about it for you, but I find a lot of it is summed up in the "unconditional positive regard" of Rogerian therapy. He could call it that all he wanted--it's basically charity, and we know that works.

Dawn said...

And yet you've never struck me as "not" caring about the people you're already a good listener!

Jen said...

I've always found it interesting that we are so much defined by what we do for a job. Have you noticed that if you are with your husband when you meet someone they will ask what he does, but not what you do? That happens frequently to me.

That script is funny though because as insincere and meaningless as it sometimes sounds, I often find myself asking people the same thing.

I had a colleague who would always ask people what their dream job would be. I only ever heard one person say they were doing their dream job and it certainly started some good conversation.

Good luck at the next party, let us know what you did to shake up the conversation.