- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

I am a lawyer, and my wife operates a small catering business. We both are a bit fed up with constantly having to deal with inane comments about our respective occupations when meeting people for the first time. After a few moments of conversation, I invariably hear something on the order of “I’d better not get in a fight with you,” while my wife has to put up with, “I guess I’ll really have to be careful if I ever have you to my house for dinner.” This has happened to us so many times that we both are afraid of losing it i.e., saying something nasty out of sheer exasperation. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this?

P.S. We used to live in Boston, where this sort of thing was much less of a problem. Why is everyone so job-obsessed in the District?

A: Washington is a Beltway town where everything goes ‘round and ‘round. New acquaintances think they have to know exactly what you do for a living before they can relate seriously to you. That’s why the first thing you are likely to hear after “Hello” or “Pleased to meet you” is apt to be, “What do you do?”

People from most other countries — Great Britain comes to mind — would never be so presumptuous as to ask someone what he or she “does” upon first meeting. It is considered a rude personal intrusion and none of anyone’s business. (Maybe that’s how very “proper Bostonians” think as well.)

In Washington, this is not the case. Far from it, probably because so many people have politically oriented jobs. They need to know what you do, and by extension, whom you know, to gauge how freely they may speak about certain issues — or anything at all, for that matter.

They are apt to get very frustrated if you beat about the bush by not revealing your occupation right off the bat. By holding back, you are putting your relationship with them, however brief it may be, on immediate “hold.”

You and your wife can, of course, attempt to steer initial conversations to nonoccupational themes (Tennis, anyone?) but I doubt you will be able to hold out for long before the inevitable query is posed.

Personal experience: Some years ago, I attempted to avoid discussing my work with a woman at a cocktail party, sallying into one chatty ploy after another as she grew more visibly agitated by the minute. Finally — as I was jabbering on about some long-ago art exhibit — she grabbed my arm in a clawlike grip and hissed (you guessed it): “What do you do in Washington?”

But I digress.

Face it, if you and your wife want to meet new people here, you are going to have to talk about your jobs sooner or later. Putting up with inane comments, however, is another matter. Most of the silly statements you mentioned can be dismissed as signs of a well-meaning person’s shyness or inability to come up with better conversational gambits. Or, the person could be a clod. You be the judge.

In any event, it’s better to take a deep breath and think a moment before making any nasty rejoinders, however tempting. Laugh off the silly statements with a tried-and-true reply of your choosing. You could, for example, say, “All the defendants in my cases are now bankrupt (or behind bars).” Your wife might reply that she has “never been poisoned yet.” Then change the subject and wait to see if the exchange improves. If it doesn’t, it may be time to refresh your drink at the bar.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@washingtontimes.com.

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