A surprising weekend recently – we went away to visit family in Paris, and met 20+ new people, but didn’t talk about work once.
Work is such an important part of identity, and of conversation, for me and in the lives of those around me that I was somewhat surprised – and rather delighted.
That weekend not a single person asked us what we do for a living, where the office was, were we busy at the moment, how did we get into to doing that, or anything of the sort. And we in turn did not ask those questions back.
No quick-matching of a new friend with an old one who happened to have a similar job. Less shorthand, more longhand.
In his Life of Alexander The Great (and, indeed, Julius Caesar), Plutarch said that:
When a portrait painter sets out to create a likeness, he relies above all upon the face and the expression of the eyes, and pays less attention to the other parts of the body. In the same way, it is my intention to dwell upon those actions which illuminate the workings of the soul, and by this means to create a portrait of each man’s life. I leave the story of his greatest struggles and achievements to be told by others.
Meeting someone new is like inching open a box of secrets. You don’t know what will emerge first or, when it does emerge, how representative it is of what remains hidden. Knowing that person’s job or chosen career might provide a glimpse into what’s inside. But only rarely does it allow you to remove the hinges and see the whole.
So it was lovely to build up a picture of our new acquaintances more gradually – to be removed from our own professional identities – by exchanging not a single word about work.
I can’t remember the last time that happened. Really.
Plutarch has the last word:
My preamble [to the Life] shall consist of nothing more than this one plea: if I do not record all their most celebrated achievements or describe any one of them exhaustively, but merely summarise for the most part what they accomplished, I ask my readers not to regard this as a fault. For I am writing biography, not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall, or of marshalling great armies, or laying siege to cities.
Photo credit: Laura Liberal.