Meeting someone you didn’t know used to be simple. At its worst, it was a matter of extending your hand to a stranger and saying, “I don’t think I know you. I’m so-and-so. And you are…?” One of the smoother variations of asking, “Who are you?”
Only in the rarest of circumstances would a question like that result in an irritable or negative response. Uh, okay, maybe more often when teen boys who were anything but “hot” finally got up the nerve to try to meet the new girl and hope she hadn’t already met the real “hotties.”
I’m not really thinking of teens, however, but of full-fledged adults.
Especially if the meet-er and meet-ee were both men–and often if the meet-er was a woman–the “what are you?” question was a frequent follow up. “What do you do for a living?” or “I see you’re driving a Porsche. It would take me a lifetime to save for the insurance alone. You must work really hard. You, uh, …?”
Perhaps that second variation wasn’t the most subtle one, but it still served the purpose of acknowledging interest in the other person’s occupation. Along with showing a little friendly jealousy. At least the well-practiced man would attempt to make it sound friendly.
It’s not surprising that men often asked one another a question like that. Then, as now, they not only took pride in their jobs–or at least in their ability to provide for their families–they were apt to think of themselves as being what they do. I must admit I still prefer thinking of myself as a published novelist rather than a bald-headed sixty-nine-year-old man. And I especially prefer saying, “I’m a novelist” to “I’m retired.”
I started this post by implying that these introductory practices might belong to the past. The “Who are you?” is probably still safe, but the “What are you?” might result in unexpected answers. Especially t if asked that bluntly.
Let me explain.
Years ago while working in a state job service office, I noticed someone sitting in the waiting area. This person wore jeans, a very loose-fitting flannel shirt, and a short haircut. The overall appearance was that of someone who had lived a hard life and probably needed a job badly.
How I prayed that I wouldn’t have to be the one to process this person. Before learning that she was a woman–at least in theory–I could’ve flipped a coin just as successfully as try to determine her gender from her features. She didn’t have the first distinguishing gender characteristic. Not any sign of a woman’s figure or a woman’s face. Or a woman’s mannerisms.
And yet she didn’t look like a man, either. Her appearance was utterly neutral. I thanked God that day that I didn’t have to ask her what she was.
Sure, that was an isolated incident, and it took place many years ago.
But let me share something a little more relevant. I was the editor of the store newsletter where I was working, and a particular young lady had written an article she wanted me to publish. The best I can recall, it was on tolerance in the workplace. I thought it worthy enough and well written, but she shocked me when she expressed doubt that it would be well received by her co-workers. I didn’t ask why, and apparently she thought I understood.
Not until months later did someone tell me this young lady was a lesbian. Although I was shocked, part of my reaction–I only thought this–was something like “what a shame for some nice man not to have any chance of romance with a nice, attractive gal like her.”
I’d never had a reason to ask what she was, nor would I have done so.
But now that so many people have come out of a very crowded closet and have gained wide acceptance except among conservative Christians like me, I’m doubly thankful I’m a happily married man. I’d hate to think I’d have to ask a woman what she was before daring to ask her out. And whether she’d always been what she was now.
What do you think? Please leave a comment.
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