It’s just shy of 11pm. I’m pulling up to a party in the inner west of Sydney. I’m in the instantly recognisable technicolour uniform of one of two major national grocery store chains. I’ll let you flip a coin and guess, but I’ve worked for both companies at different points. I’ve worked for one of them twice.
I douse myself in deodorant. I didn’t have time to change. I don’t particularly want to be here. I like the host, and even a lot of his friends. I’ve just been pushing trolleys and cleaning bakeries, delis, fruit and vegetable preparation areas, chicken ovens and so on for the last eight hours or so. No amount of goodwill toward anyone attending could make it more appealing than a shower and bed.
I appreciate how friendly the crowd is although I suspect it may be something to do with the fresh deck of darts I brought with me. I seem to be the only person at the party with darts. I’ve nervously smoked through most of the pack before someone talks to me any longer than it takes to bum one. They ask, customarily, what I do for a living. I gesture broadly at my uniform and say, “What does it look like? I just came here from pushing trolleys.” I light another dart. The person who asked starts speaking to me slower, like they’re talking to a child. Another person even has the audacity to say, “Do you do anything else?” or something along those lines. They seem less apologetic in asking for more cigarettes, because now they know they’ve got nothing to lose by being a pest to me. I’m used to it. My girlfriend walks past. She says, “Tell them about your doctorate, and teaching!”
Their demeanour instantly changes, and I’ve got whiplash. Suddenly wide-eyed, they’re asking me if I can critique their undergraduate essays. You can hear the honorifics stalling on their tongues as they talk animatedly at me, trying to exchange socials so they can send me their work to look over. I can’t wait to go home.
It’s the litmus test for how much respect they need to afford me.
I’ve found that when people ask, “What do you do for a living?” they’re not asking out of interest. It’s the litmus test for how much respect they need to afford me. You might think people judge solely off how much money you make, but it’s not that simple. Your average plumber easily doubles the income of your average practicing artist, and yet, most of the time people want to talk to the artist. Social capital is a strange thing and perhaps it’s a hangover from a bygone time when the relationship between education, class and prestige was more straightforward. Nevertheless, we all wear different masks in our day-to-day lives, and how people react to you is dependent on theirs.
I push trolleys at stores across the region. In the poorest places, people say “Thank you for your service”. More affluent suburbs, they either don’t make eye contact or instead they look you dead in the eye while they leave the trolley anywhere but the bay, utterly refusing to acknowledge you as a human either way. Similarly, when teaching university students from less affluent suburbs you’ll find they call you “Sir,” or “Professor,” regardless of your academic rank, and thank you for your lessons. The more well-to-do kids treat you more like you’re their private tutor and request one-on-one meetings for any reason they see fit. I’m always torn when people ask me what I do for a living, but I know I’d rather say what “I do,” rather than what “I am,” because I think no matter who you are, you’re more than what you do to pay the bills.
When teaching university students from less affluent suburbs you’ll find they call you “Sir,” or “Professor,” regardless of your academic rank and thank for your lessons.
Another party I was at years before the first one: I’m there with my friend who’s an escort. Someone asks what we do. We jokingly reply that we’re the customary writer and sex worker-muse pairing. The guy comments that he thinks sex workers contribute to society, but writers don’t. I’m certain he’s just trying to pick up my friend through being performative, but I could kiss him in that moment for not picking the easiest route through that customary conversation.
Australia is not the classless society it pretends to be. It’s stratified in all different directions that aren’t as straightforward as the haves and have-nots. We cut down tall poppies but condescend to those beneath. I think, rather than asking what people do for a living, we should ask them what they’re passionate about, regardless of whether they earn an income from it. There’s so much more you can learn about a person by asking anything but “What do you do for work?”
This story has been published in partnership with The Writing Zone, a mentoring program for young writers from Western Sydney, hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.