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.