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"Where do you work?"
singapore sunset
amw
Where do you work?

Before reading on, pause to have a think about that.

I guess this is one of the more common pieces of smalltalk we encounter. I get "where are you from?" a lot, especially here in China where i am obviously a foreigner. In the rave scene one of the classic ones is "how's your night been?" Bars have "come here often?" But on city streets everywhere, "where do you work?" is king.

I realized the other day i might have been understanding that question incorrectly my whole life.

You see, when i hear "where", i think about directions. When people ask me where i work, i invariably tell them the general area of town and maybe try to recall some nearby street names or landmarks. Then when they press me on it, i excuse myself for not having been able to describe it very clearly.

That's worth a tangent.

I grew up an army brat, so some of my earliest memories involve the wonderful sport of orienteering. Basically: you are given a map and a compass, then you are dumped in the country and have to find all the checkpoints marked on the map and make it back to the finish with the fastest time. You can plot your own route and the starts are staggered. I doubt the military have much use for paper maps and magnetic compasses these days, but out in the civilian world i think even armed with a smartphone a lot of people don't know where the fuck they are most of the time. I guess orienteering got me comfortable with the idea of wandering around places i've never been with just a map and a water bottle.

So, perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps because i did a lot of (computer) gaming as a kid, or i dunno... i'm not great at explaining routes in a way that most people i meet can navigate. I tend to express the destination in terms of compass direction and kilometers. Sometimes i will translate to walking time, since that's reasonably constant no matter what the terrain. But unless the route is very simple i don't tend to think in lefts or rights, or count traffic lights or bus stops or whatever. I also find it weird when people turn their maps around so that north isn't up, incidentally.

Here in Shenzhen most people think in terms of subway line, then station, then exit. God help them if the place they need to get to is further than half a block from a subway exit. I've even been given directions to a lunch place by the office, like literally one block due east, on the north side of the same road our building is on. But the directions i get are "oh, it's by Xyz station, near the E exit". What?

Tangent over.

The other day, when i was trying (and failing) to explain to a street vendor how to get to my office, it occurred to me she really didn't care how to get to my office.

Because perhaps when people ask where you work, they aren't asking about the location of your work. Could it be they are asking about the... the company? Or subtly trying to ask you what exactly your job is? I've heard the same question repeated in so many different languages over the years, i was sure it was meant literally. But, really, who cares about the location of someone else's job? Like, how does the conversation progress from there? Good lunch spots over a side of town that you never visit? It makes a lot more sense if the question is actually for whom you work.

So. Yeah. How do you answer?