When I was in college, people would start conversations with me by asking, ”What’s your major?” It wasn’t a very creative way to start a conversation but it was effective as an invitation to talk about my interests.
Now that I have long since graduated, people don’t ask me that any more. Most ask me about my job. It’s the grown-up equivalent of “What’s your major?” and it works just as well.
But I have noticed that a significant minority of people–mostly Mormons–don’t ask me about my work. Instead, they ask, “What does your husband do?”
This question doesn’t work as well for me. I can answer the question. I know what my husband does. But then the conversation drags to a halt because I am not terribly interested in my husband’s occupation. He does valuable, meaningful work. There’s nothing wrong with what he does. But I didn’t choose to go into that field myself because it doesn’t interest me personally. And because it doesn’t interest me personally, it’s not the best conversation-starter for me.
Once, at a Mormon wedding, the stranger seated beside me made a valiant effort to start a conversation with me and I tried as hard as I could to engage. First she asked me, “What does your husband do?” She followed that with, “What does your father do?” and then went on to “What does your brother do?”
At this point, the conversation really derailed. I was embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know exactly what my brother did. He traveled a lot. I think he managed some sort of administrative something-or-other and maybe sold some sort of widget. Or service. Or something. I was lost.
Scrambling for a way to get back on track, I blurted out, “I work for a children’s advocacy organization,” and abruptly shifted into more comfortable conversational territory for me.
I was surprised that the stranger reciprocated by telling me all about her own career. Since she had only asked me about the occupations of the men in my life, I had assumed that maybe it hadn’t occurred to her that some women are employed. Not so.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Now, when people ask me, “What does your husband do?” I respond with a double answer. “My husband is a [very brief answer] and I do [elaborate description].” Now it doesn’t matter that people ask me, “What does your husband do?” because I have found a way to swim out of the awkwardness.
Still, I am curious about why this happens, just as an intellectual question. I’ve asked my husband if people ever ask him, “What does your wife do?” He says they don’t. Ever. Not even after they have covered his own career in detail. Hmm.
Maybe they don’t ask me what I do because they assume that I am a stay-at-home mom? But even if I were, being a stay-at-home mom is doing something, right? Why not ask about it? Or maybe it’s because traditionally, women support their husbands in their husbands’ work, so they assume that I have a lot to say about it? (I do support my husband in his work. I have edited many a paper for him, and yet, I have failed to glean much information because his papers bore me to death.)
What do you think? Why do people ask me, “What does your husband do?” Does this happen to you, too?