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"Where do you work?"
singapore sunset
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?

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That's quite a persistent misunderstanding. Love it!

Instead of "where do you work", I've also been asked, "what do you do", and if I was working, that's when I'd mention the company where I worked and maybe what I did there. When I was raising my son, I'd say that. But - it's true that if asked where do you work, I would not think "location", when, in fact that's exactly what the question asks!

I think this is why I have been confused about it for so long. If it was just a quirk of English, then perhaps I would have cottoned on, but in other languages people also literally ask "where do you work" when there are perfectly fine alternatives like "what do you do", "what is your occupation", "for whom do you work" etc. Weird.

Interesting interpretation, I think I would just say the name of my library. Usually I am asked what I work with before where, though. I'm not very focused on orientation, though. Sometimes people ask where the school I work at is, and I give very vague answers, like, "not far," but maybe they genuinely want directions.

Did you meet Gurkha regiment kids when you were an army brat? They took cub scouts so seriously that it is both comical and awe inspiring looking back on it. They had every bit of survival kit short of guns.

I don't think there were any Gurkhas in our neck of the woods! When it comes to actual survival in the real wilderness I would almost certainly fail to "Be Prepared". I think my survival instincts are more centered around the philosophy of never getting more than one day's hike away from town.

Ooo if asked in Chinese where I work (在哪儿上班?) I would assume 90% the person is asking for the company/type of role/job in a roundabout polite way. It is considered nicer (politer) than asking directly what company do you work for (你在哪家公司上班?).

If i wanted to ask the location it would be where's your office located? (你的办公楼在哪儿?)

I feel retroactively embarrassed for all the times I have misunderstood this question! In particular when I'm speaking a second language, I guess the people I am speaking to must think I'm struggling with the language when actually I'm struggling with normal human interactions 🤣

Of course it doesn't really help that my job is difficult to explain anyway. I have tried 我是软件开发者啊我是软件工程师啊…… Lately I have just taken to saying 工程师 by itself and let them believe I build bridges or airplanes or something. It's tough when you can't easily explain your job in your first language either.

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