The Problem with Introductions

The problem with introductions, I think, is that they rarely do what we want them to.  We want a window into someone else’s world, to get to know them, to have them encounter our isness with theirs, to meet as ontological equals: and instead we get a label, usually what they do for a living.  Almost always we are left with no real sense of whether this way of making a living has anything to do with their life.

“Hi, I’m Victoria.  I teach at a university in Halifax.”  Yes: but how very inadequate.  It’s facts, not truth.  I do teach at a university in Halifax, and I love my job; but it is not the centre of my life.  My name is only a pointer to who I am, as “What do you do?” — when it isn’t meaningless, conversational filler — is shorthand for the Caterpillar’s question.  But sadly, to often we have to reply as does Alice:

            ‘Who are You?’ said the Caterpillar.
            This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.  Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, Sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
            ‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar, sternly.  ‘Explain yourself.’
            ‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
            ‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

If we don’t ask, “Who are you?” so bluntly, and “So what do you do?” usually ends up with inadequate responses that end up with us realising three years later — after some rather more successful conversation, usually right before one of the parties moves across the country — that that person was actually fascinating and probably would have been a fantastic friend — then what are we to ask?

The old manner, still much favoured in the rural Maritimes, is: Where’re you from, and who’s your father?

This is not a freeing conversational gambit.  This ends up with us enmeshed in a semi- or fully-patriarchal view of society (and I say this as a hierarchically-minded medievalist) and the categorisation of the other, not a way to open the possibility of encountering each other ontologically. It too easily sticks in relations, not realities.

But the first part: Where do you come from? — Now, this has potential.  When travelling, the questions where do you come from?  where are you going? are both pertinent and acceptable and often permit a real encounter.  I find it very difficult to answer in other times, when I can’t just say ‘Canada’, for I grew up in the four quarters of Canada and am a come-from-away everywhere.

But then again, I think we’re all come-from-aways.  Who are you? — we find that one a bit too uncomfortably hard to answer, so take refuge in names and labels.  (The names are, however, important.) What do you do? — then, Where do you come from?  Which can take us so easily to: Why?  What are you reaching towards?  And this lets us start to get at answering the first question, the unanswerable one, the one we often forget to ask.

No wonder Socrates irritated people so, going round insisting that people answer the Delphic oracle’s challenge.


5 thoughts on “The Problem with Introductions

  1. I’d be interested to hear why you say names are important. I’ve always thought so too and have, over the years, noticed similar character traits in people I’ve encountered with the same names.

    Very interesting post and a good point you’ve made that one sometimes only find out how interesting someone else really is when it’s too late to become better acquainted. And I agree that what you do to pay the bills isn’t nearly good enough to describe who you are. Perhaps asking what would you like to do would come a little closer?


  2. I think I’m going to have to think a bit more about names — it’s one of those things where I simply say to myself, “Of course they’re important! They’re essential!” without always thinking through the logic of that. But to start with — names are for particulars, and anchor our individual particularity. (Whether there are mystical aspects to it, as names attract types of personality . . . now that is an interesting question indeed.)

    One of the difficulties with trying to come up with a non-customary way of entering into conversation is that it somehow has to open the doors for people who do know what they think, while at the same time not being scary, creepy, annoying, or embarrassing those who don’t quite know what they want to do with themselves or what the core of their lives are. (Which is most of us.) Hmm. More thinking ahead.


  3. The thing is, “What do you do?” is actually quite a good question. It asks, “How do you spend your time? What sort of activities fill your days? What are you accomplishing in the world?” That’s fascinating, important stuff — or it could be. We always answer it as if the question were, “How do you earn a living?” and there’s usually good reason for that, because a job takes up a lot of your time. But there’s no real reason we couldn’t mention the things we do that don’t earn money, if we want to. Mind you, I don’t ever answer the question that way myself. But I think when I ask it of people, I secretly hope that they will.


  4. Very true, Alice. I think it’s the fact that it is shorthand for “What’s your job?” that’s the problem — because of course (as Aristotle points out), character is formed by what we do. So the way we spend our days is precisely who we are and what we’re like. But breaking out of the social convention is . . . difficult. I answer it the boring way, too, usually. Though perhaps I can work on these things as we enter the holiday season and meet people at parties.


  5. Pingback: Second List Item! #9 Play My Flute In Public « The Rose and Phoenix Inn

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