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‘So what do you do?’ 6 ways to answer that age-old holiday season question about your job

Alanah Nichole Davis provides a guide to talking about work with your family, drawing from experience — and ‘00s alt-punk songs.

This holiday season, let Weezer help unite, not divide. (via SNL)
This is a guest post by creative consultant, organizer and artist Alanah Nichole Davis.

Whether your family is holding Turkey Day on Zoom with breakout rooms for kids, or you’re all taking the risk of contracting COVID-19 and flying to Soda Springs, Idaho, to see grandma, you can probably expect one question to remain constant this Thanksgiving:

“So what do you do?” 

This being 2020, I’m certain that this inquiry about your line of work may be causing more anxiety than it ever has before.

It’s a question that brings you back to feeling like an unsure, acne-ridden teenager with angsty, graphic Hot Topic T-shirts and an unusual affinity for coding your Myspace page (RIP Myspace). OK… maybe that’s what I feel like when family asks me that question, but you fill in your own blanks. Whether it’s Star Trek, Harry Potter, or calculator watches, I’m sure you can catch my gist.

Whether you’re in tech, working for a nonprofit or making your way in an innovative role, it can be hard for your family to appreciate or even grasp what the heck you do for work. Admit it: Sometimes it’s hard for you to grasp </laughs>. When a straight answer to describe your title doesn’t work, it’s necessary to have a few strategies that can help to answer — or deflect — the question.

Just like those legacy skills you were building with the coding on Myspace, no one appreciated how much time you spent in your room mastering profile customization whilst listening to Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy, or Gorillaz, but you’ve turned out alright. Seeking nostalgia is actually a natural response to traumatic events, and if you’ve been pining for simpler times, you’re not alone. If your teenage bedroom is not intact for a stroll down memory lane, these songs ought to bring you some grounding and support in answering the annoying and age-old question, so what do you do.

Using lyrics from alternative and punk songs from the aughts, here’s a guide to how your Zoom or in-person visit home might play out this holiday season. Plus, they’ll help you build a sick 00’s playlist for working from home.

“We’re going down, down in an earlier round, and sugar we’re going down swinging.”

This is the direct approach.

At an early stage in the night, weekend, trip, or Zoom call, nip the question in the bud and suppress the need to argue or have your accomplishments measured. One strategy may be to come up with a 60-second pitch, but make it less jargon-filled than what you would present to a funder. The point is to get in something succinct before your family destroys the prospect of much-needed quality time after a trying year of pandemic pandemonium.

Remember: your family won’t necessarily know the names of folks or organizations, but everyone can generally resonate with a win or a loss.

Be proud of yourself. Maybe you should bring it up first this year? Just like the name of the song, be sweet (for as long as you can). Remember: your family won’t necessarily know the names of folks or organizations, but everyone can generally resonate with a win or a loss. If it’s been a rough year, don’t be afraid to tell your family that. If they can barely wait for your jacket to come off at the doorway, it’s okay, because Alanah and Fall Out Boy have got your back. If we’re going down, we’re going down swinging.

“What’s the worst that I can say? Things are better if I stay”

My therapist calls it a trap door when I’m in an uncomfortable social situation and I just want to get in my car and dash off to save myself the trouble of even dealing with something. If you’re like me and tend to hit that trap door when things get sticky like your fav holiday pie, try to think of a reason that things will be better at this year’s holiday gathering if you stay. Maybe it’s your sister’s new baby, other older nieces, nephews, or even the freakin’ ham. Find a reason and stick around.

What’s the worst anyone can say? So what if you fumble through explaining what you do. If you’re working on something new, it’s likely that you’re exuding bravery by even trying. So many generations before us did not have the luxury of choosing a dream field, initiative or role in the community. You did, and I can’t say this enough, but be proud of yourself! You’ve come so far. Like a friend of mine, the Generosity, Inc., founder and advocate for movement building Jamie McDonald, would say, “Look back down the mountain.”

Or, simply put, acknowledge where you are, for yourself. That kind of acknowledgment doesn’t require anyone else, or input. Nope, not even your family. With that kind of sureness abounding within you, it’ll make things a bit easier if you do decide to stay.

“Take my picture by the pool, ’cause I’m the next big thing”

Realize that, going in, your family might have picked up clues on social media.

Alanah Nichole Davis. (Courtesy photo)

OK, so maybe you spend a lot of time flexing on social media at cool rooftop meeting spots, eclectic meeting rooms, or even pools. This remote work-life culture is a far cry from your father, uncle, or mom’s dreams of a corner office with a window. These kinds of pictures can make that ask for a loan you plan to make a little bit harder, as it makes you look pretty successful to be poolside with your laptop.

I can definitely relate to trying to find a cool outdoor workspace while I’ve been in grad school for social design (a program that I always have a hard time describing to people). No matter what grad program you’re in or out of, or if you’re the next big thing yet or not, a little Instagram flex by the pool never hurt anyone. It shouldn’t hurt your family members, either.

Maybe you could join forces with the cousins who might be around your age to describe what finding a less harmful work culture has been like as a millennial or Gen X. Maybe they’d be less tense by next year’s holiday season if they found time to work by the pool?

“And jealousy’s the cousin, the cousin of greed…and we go where the money goes”

Maybe you’re in it for the money, and that’s OK! Sometimes a part of chasing your innovative dreams is not about passion, but profit. You can just say that. You don’t have to spool on and on about how you love your work if you don’t, yet. Maybe you’re just there to put a little nest egg away to hatch some more passion-driven ideas down the line. I’m sure your family doesn’t mind that you go where the money goes for work when Christmas rolls around and you’re able to dole out those fancy gifts. Facing the music may mean talking about their possible cousin or whichever family member’s jealousy outright. Why beat around the bush? Much like many of the songs on this 00’s Alternative/Punk list, the videos were in our face, loud, colorful and honest.

Bonus Track: If you need a little more courage for your chat about jealousy turn on crushcrushcrush by Paramore (2007). The lyrics go, “I got a lot to say to you/Yeah I got a lot to say/I noticed your eyes are always glued to me/Keeping them here/and it makes no sense at all.” For anyone looking to crush that conversation about jealousy, this song had enough guitar riffs to get me through middle school and it should get you through the holidays.

“The best thing ’bout tonight’s that we’re not fighting”

Another option: Refuse to answer the question and avoid the fight that may ensue. There are respectful ways to do this, but you could also do it with the gumption of your teenage self storming up to your room. “No” is a full, solid and resounding answer. You’re an adult now, you can buy your own Pro-activ+ and you can stand your ground about not wanting to fight on Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah.

“You don’t know me, and you don’t wear my chains”

  • from “Boston,” by Augustana (2005)

In the end, they might not still get it. And it’s important to remember that.

Feeling just as misunderstood as an adult as you did as a teen over the holidays can be tough, but one thing is for sure, 2020 has taught us all that we have chains we are wearing individually, as a society, as families, or even systemically. Our differences are what makes us all so beautiful…or so ugly. We may or may not be able to see the chains of our family members, they may or may not see ours. They don’t see the perils you face dealing with passive-aggressive bosses in your field, just like they couldn’t see you in your room doing choreography in the mirror whilst listening to Panic! At The Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” The lyrics to that song go, “…It’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality.”

Whether you’re looking to chime into the family conversation about what you do, or you plan to hold your family members accountable for their racist tendencies or poor political opinions, break the chains off of the doors of those tough conversations knowing that it might be more than the pie and light banter you bargained for. But you’ve got this. We’ve got this.


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