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Down With Do

May 6, 2008

One of the worst things about spending an evening at an a cocktail party in England is having to answer the question, "what do you do?" This is a phrase I don't hear that much in the U.S. Americans may ask "what do you do for a living?" but that's not quite the same as "what do you do?" because it doesn't allow that little "do" word to run amok and come to represent the sum total of a person's existence.

While in the U.K., people are only allowed to apply the "do" word to the activity they undertake everyday to keep a roof over their head, in the U.S. the qualifier "for a living" has to be added because there's a general acceptance of the idea that peoples' lives are composed of many key activities that extend beyond the remit of a day-to-day job. For example, in the U.S., a person can say that he or she is an artist even if it's not something he or she makes a living at. Do this in England, and you'll get nothing more than a furrowed look.

The British tend to be suspicious of people who answer the "what do you do?" question by claiming to be writers of graphic novels, yodelers, morris dancers or sitar players. When misappropriators of the "to do" verb later let slip that they happen to work in a restaurant or as an accountant to make rent, a cold front automatically descends upon the room. They are pitied for thinking of themselves as artists, when really what they "do" has nothing to "do" with making art. Poor fools, they're living in a deluded dream. For how can they possibly call themselves artists if don't have a Top 10 hit, a place on the bestseller lists or aren't at the very least capable of making a full-time living from their art?

This attitude is crippling to British culture -- not to mention cocktail party conversation. In the U.S., people don't seem to have a problem with talking about what the British would call "hobbies" with a level of devotion and enthusiasm that their compatriots across the Atlantic only reserve for discussing their jobs. For this reason alone, I have to admit that I like cocktail parties in America a great deal more than back home in England.

But it's an odd phenomenon -- one that I think about on occasion but still don't understand. The U.S. boasts the biggest work ethic of any nation in the world. People take their jobs incredibly seriously and, if statistics are to be believed, have little time inbetween working and sleeping to engage in anything of an artistic nature. Yet somehow, there's more "give" at the heart of the culture; a tolerance for people trying on phrases like "I'm a singer-songwriter" or "I design theatre sets" to see how they fit even if they've never signed a deal with a record company or created the scenery for a Broadway show.

This is ultimately very liberating. It allows people to articulate and acknowledge that there's more to life than clocking in and clocking out. The British could learn a thing or two from the American attitude to "to do."


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