How do conversations at your cocktail or holiday parties usually go? If they’re anything like mine, it starts out with a “great to see you, how are you? how’s the family?”, and then (especially if your partner in conversation is an aunt, uncle, family friend, or parent of a friend) the inevitable question arrives… “What are you doing right now?” Even better, this year I got the even more specific, “What’s the next step now that you have graduated?”
I’m not sure why people use this as a “go-to” conversation starter. True, some of them may be genuinely interested, and for those select few I am happy to enumerate the details of my current state of employment and education. However, the majority of people who ask this question do so because its an easy question to ask that requires little conversational prowess, and pushes the onus of conversation to another individual. They likely won’t remember what you tell them five minutes later. I’m not sure they realize that for a young person who is unsure of their path, hearing about the successes of their peers and questioning them about their own plans can induce anxiety and stress.
Each time I have been asked this question this year, I dutifully answer with what I like to call my “christmas party spiel” (most call it an elevator pitch, but I rarely find myself listing off my accomplishments to strangers in elevators). The spiel includes: a description of my current job, I am saving money to travel, and I am unsure of what I am going to do after that, but I hope to pursue some higher education. The responses I receive are a mixture of disapproving nods, confused faces, and thankfully some understanding souls whose children are doing the same thing.
Although this post has been framed mostly in jest, I do wish to impress upon my readers the fact that for some, the anxiety caused by being questioned about their future can be very real and harmful. For some, it can be so extreme as to deter them from attending social gatherings.
So, do all of us a favour, and stop yourself the next time you begin a conversation with a 20-something to reconsider your leading questions. Try to find a neutral subject of common interest and start there. But for goodness sakes, please don’t ask the dreaded question, “and what are you doing?”.