New in Town, April 2024 Questions

New in Town, April 2024 — Questions…

For 15 years, I was a proud resident of the DMV––what locals call the greater Washington, D.C. metro area, which includes the District of Columbia and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The world-class museums, the Kennedy Center, the National Mall, the half-smokes, the mumbo sauce, happy hour at Joe’s––I was going to miss it all. It was a lot to give up so I knew I had to pick the right city for my next adventure.

I decided to move on to sandier pastures and, about a month ago, I traded in the cherry blossoms for some desert blooms and became a Phoenician. I should note, this decision was not made in July or August…I am bracing myself for my first 110 degree day.

So here I am, an excited new resident of Phoenix getting used to the city. Part of that is meeting a lot of new people: new neighbors, new people at the gym, friends of friends, etc. One immediately noticeable difference between D.C. and Phoenix is the first question I’m asked by a new acquaintance. In D.C. it was always, “What do you do?” Here, it’s a mix of, “Where are you from?”, “How do you know so-and-so?”, and “What brings you to Phoenix?”

I was so used to work being the first topic of conversation with every new person I met that this really threw me for a loop at first. A decade and a half of conditioning is hard to break. I have walked away from conversations and realized I talked to someone for 10 minutes and neither of us ever talked about work. That would be nearly impossible in D.C.  

There are a few different takes on why “What do you do?” is such a prominent question in D.C. 

One is that it’s a city of people who are out to get ahead and they want to know if you can help them. Does this person know the people I want to know, do they work at an organization I want to be a part of, could I learn from their experience, etc. To put it more cynically, they’re wondering how this person can benefit them. 

The more generous take is that people in D.C. spend so much time and effort working that it’s the most natural thing to talk about. In that atmosphere, asking what someone does is a fast way to identify mutual acquaintances or find out what you might have in common. It is, after all, a company town where the company is the U.S. government. 

With Phoenix’s more diverse employment options, what people do for a living is less of a defining characteristic of who they are as a person. Indeed, what they “do” could mean so much more to them than their employment. They could identify as a hiker, a volunteer, a crafter, or by their religious affiliation. Not that all of those can’t also apply to a Washingtontonian, they’re just less likely to come up in the first conversation.

So I find myself grappling with a question I’ve never had to ponder because it was always right on my business card….now that I’m a Phoenician and less defined by my job, what do I do?