What do you do?

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A few weeks ago I met some friends of a friend who were an American-Croatian couple living in Croatia. The next day I was telling my wife about how I’d met some ‘Americans’ from San Francisco who preferred Croatia to… California!?! And my wife asked, what do they do in Croatia? Like what are their jobs? I paused a second, trying the think through the night’s drunken haze and well, I couldn’t remember asking or learning what they do.

A few weeks before this and a friend, who was initially a friend of a friend, was having a ‘I’m-moving-back-to-Canada-Party’ and I was trying to explain to my wife who this person was, and again she asked, ‘What does she do?’ and again, I didn’t know. And this was weird because we had all hung out too many times to count and I couldn’t remember what her job was. I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever even known.

Now, you might be thinking, Cody that’s because you’re a horrible conversationalist and self-centered, and you might be right, but I actually think it’s something else. Back in the day when my wife and I began dating she made a point that all Americans do is talk about work, and how she can’t stand it when we meet people and ask ‘So, what do you do?’ Since then I have heard similar sentiments from other people in Croatia (and elsewhere in the world). I remember at the time thinking, if you don’t talk about what you do, what else is there to talk about?

In America we talk about work because American identity largely comes from our profession. What you do is who you are, and the best way to get to know someone is to learn what kind of work they are in. If I meet someone from Oregon and tell them I’m from Oklahoma, there’s not a lot we are going to talk about. Oklahoma Megachurches? Portland hipsters? And it doesn’t really tell us much about each other. I do not attend megachurches, and this guy might be offended if I call him a hipster, no matter how tight his jeans are. If we discuss our jobs though we can learn about our education, our interests, and perhaps, even our competence.

Meanwhile in Croatia talking about your job can be… awkward. By bringing up work you might come away thinking someone is an uhljeb (someone with a well paid, pointless job, attained through a connection) or you come away mad at the system and feeling sorry for this person you just met because they are either underemployed or unemployed, and finally, maybe you’re in awe with how they got such a great job because getting a good job in Croatia is a mystery… and well, the whole thing can just be uncomfortable.

I often feel some embarrassment when I tell someone I work at the University. Usually this is followed up with a question of whether or not I have ‘permanent employment.’ When I say yes, their eyes sparkle with what I can never tell is envy or respect, either way I can see in their eyes that I’m living the dream, permanent! state! employment! And then this raises the question about how did I get this job or don’t I think this job should’ve gone to a Croat… and… erm… uh… it’s best to just avoid talking about work altogether.

Croatia offers other, less awkward, ways to learn about someone. You can talk about where you are from, or where your parents are from (which is sometimes the same thing, but also different… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯... ‘I’m from Baška Voda,’ said the person who has never lived in Baška Voda). You can also talk about what region of the country you’re from, even what part of the city. In Croatia, where you’re from seems to speak more to the traits and personality of a person than their profession. People also discuss family, having kids, health and holiday plans before they ever discuss work. And of course what most people talk about are the daily challenges of living life in Croatia: bureaucracy, incompetence, and inefficiency.

What someone does and how they do it in this country is filled with so many awkward unknowns, that I’ve learned to avoid discussing it when meeting someone the first time, even with Americans and a Canadian, apparently. Perhaps this explains why we often revert to complaining. Complaining in Croatia is like the great icebreaker, the best initiator to get to know someone. When it comes to complaining about daily problems everyone has a story that we’ve all already lived through. And it’s a story we can all understand.