My holiday reading included Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Early in the book, the main character, Sid, catches a cab to the airport. The cabbie tries to strike up a conversation, but Sid wants nothing but peace. When the driver asks Sid (who is from Baltimore) where he is from, he lies and says he is from Canada. Edugyan writes: “The cabbie’s eyes sort of glazed over. Canada kills any conversation quick. I learned that long ago. It’s a little trick of mine.”
I laughed when I read this. Usually Americans pretend to be Canadian for political reasons. But I suppose we do have a reputation for being well-meaning, but about as interesting as refrigerator mould. Maybe we are conversation killers.
When people tell us where they are from or what they do, we form opinions about them based on information we have about those places or occupations. Depending on our level of experience or knowledge on the topic, reactions can vary widely, as Michael Webster discovered. In an article for The United Church Observer, Webster describes the reactions he gets when he tells people he is a minister:
One starlit evening, I found myself in the outdoor pool with two other vacationers, arranged in a comfortable triangle. “What do you do?” came the question, and I gave my usual response. The reaction was almost comical. One person abruptly turned his back on me and fled to the farthest corner of the pool. The other moved just as quickly toward me and began to unburden herself in anguished detail. “Maybe next time, “I thought to myself, “I’ll just say I’m a plumber.”
When my second child was born, I quit my job to stay home with my kids. Making the transition from career woman to at-home mom was difficult. It was not easy to lose a flexible schedule (Yes, it is easier to be flexible at a job than it is at home with kids) and financial independence. But one of the worst side effects was the reaction I got when I told people what I did. “What do you do?” would come the question. “I’m at home with my kids.”
It seems we can’t help forming those first impressions based on things like nationality and occupation. But we’re better than that, right? We can work harder, take the next step, and ask some questions to find the rare and bizarre stories that lie behind the headlines.
I am no less interesting for being Canadian—I’d like to hope I have an edge on refrigerator mould, at least. Michael Webster does not deserve either rejection or burdening with the woes of strangers because of his occupation. And try asking that at-home parent for some stories. She, or he, will have some doozies.