Why Don’t I Know How To Talk About Myself?

Anne Hathaway in "Princess Diaries"

Last week, I appeared on Doug Giles’s radio show to discuss an article I’d written on the downsides of being a twenty-something. Though my taste in men is borderline worrisome and relationship history downright embarrassing, I have a lot to be proud of, and Doug said so himself. I have a decent resume for someone in her early twenties, as I have written for several reputable publications and known my career track since second grade, yet still have no idea how to talk about myself in the slightest. Sure I’m ahead of a good chunk of my peers in terms of decision making and selecting a professional path, but I’m awkward to the point of discomfort when placed in a small talk situation, and others can definitely feel it.

During college, I studied in France on two separate occasions, and while I disliked the slow pace, cafe attitude of the people, I loved that no one really inquired about my work. They were more interested in my hobbies, which of course go hand-in-hand with my professional life, but I didn’t mind discussing my interests when asked what I liked rather than simply what I did. As the saying goes, it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

It’s the opposite in the U.S. People go in for the kill and hurl, “What do you do?” right after meeting a person, sometimes even before catching said individual’s name. Believe me, I have a million responses to this question, and rather than spout the most descriptive one, I freeze, choke over my words, and string together a few short nonsensical yet overly explicit sentences, inadvertently killing the mood and nearly derailing the social experience. All networking bets are off, that’s for certain. When it comes to “what exactly [I] do,” I can say one of three things:

1. I’m a writer (vague and pretentious, and I’d rather not fall into either of these categories. Also sends the message that I’m unemployed, which I’m not).

2. I’m a reporter for the Mediaite network (more often than not, I have to explain the mission behind Mediaite, with which I’ve become so familiar that I no longer know how to simplify it. If I’m lucky, the other party will know or at least pretend to know what it is).

3. I’m a writer for a women’s website (this automatically makes me sound like a radical feminist, which I’m not, and there’s no going back from this identity once you’ve been pigeonholed as such).

I need an awkward guy like Jesse Eisenberg!

More often than not, I wind up downplaying what I do, mainly because I don’t want to bore anyone with long-winded details on my goal to oust David Sedaris as the greatest nonfiction writer of all time (not happening, by the way) or views on the state of the political realm. I have more than my fair share of opinions on the events of the world right now, but I spend so much time talking about it all during the day and would rather turn my brain off when meeting new folks. Why do you think I moved away from D.C.? The place exhausted me.

Besides, there’s no way for me to even begin to lay out all my career aspirations without sounding lofty, arrogant, and naive (David Sedaris, hello). The only reason I’ve revealed my goals to you is because I’ve written them down rather than explained my plans in person — something I’d never be able to do because I’m too uncomfortable and skittish a person to captivate someone with my personality. As a close friend, who majored in business and is currently studying for his master’s in finance, once said to me, I don’t immediately grasp the attention of people. I’m soft spoken and people mistake that for meek.

As you may know from some of my writings, I’m unafraid to tackle eyebrow raising topics, but these discussions often remain in print. I can try to speak of my passions to humans, but my words don’t flow the way I’d like them to. I have no clue what to do with my hands. Do I let them hang at my sides, move them around as I usually do (and in turn knock things over), or keep them folded like a faux debutante? How do I bring up a subject without including a preamble? I’m a strong believer in the importance of back stories and never shut up as a result. How do I speak slowly enough so as to articulate each of my words but at a pace that won’t infuriate those unlucky enough to listen to me?

I’ve been told time and time again that I am approachable, warm, gregarious, and as sweet as they come, but if any of these are applicable, why would I rather visit the dentist than answer the question, “What do you do?” Does this make me a complete psycho or just a painfully awkward individual? At the end of the day, I know it’s simply the latter and that my confidence in writing will help me get ahead, but also that I’m as much a salesman as I am a mathematician. It’s never going to happen, so if I want to be a published author someday, I’ll need one Hell of an agent. Other people — such as my mother and pal Nikki — know how to talk me up, but in spite of my accomplishments and the immense pride I feel in my work, I simply cannot vocalize any of it.

In a nutshell, I’m Mia from “Princess Diaries,” only 23 rather than 15. Same thing, right?

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6 thoughts on “Why Don’t I Know How To Talk About Myself?

  1. Laura, this is my life, to a T. I HATE the “what do you do” question, partly because I hate how it makes it sound like my profession is my whole existence, but mostly because I have no clue how to answer it gracefully. I end up making people even MORE confused about what my job is than they were when they started. “I’m a writer” is the worst, because then people either want to know what you write (nothing good, lately) or want to tell you about their novel in progress (jealous of your stamina but probably not that interested, sorry).

    I’m so glad you tackled this subject. I find it so, so relatable.

    • Exactly. You’re more than your profession, even if you take great pride in it. As Anna pointed out, most assume writers are unemployed, which we are not, so that poses some difficulties as well. Glad to hear you found this helpful and easy to relate to.

  2. Yeah, I hate this question. It’s only slightly less condescending than, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I feel like a pretentious nob saying I’m a writer, but I do get paid to write, so…what else should I say? I don’t think I can keep lying about my intention to go to law school, which strikes the perfect chord of being young enough and ambitious enough to impress people without making them try to pitch you their small-claims case. No matter that I took one practice LSAT and abandoned it entirely!

    On a related tack, do you ever care what people say to answer this question? I don’t. Unless you’re a baker and you need a taste tester, I do not care. But what other normalish question can you ask a person to get the conversation going?

  3. Hey Laura, cool article. I think you said it best in it’s “how you say it”. I can relate to the awkwardness of not being too much of a show-off, but not being vague. I think if you say things in a more conversational, back and forth sort of manner, and less like a pitch on what you do, then it’ll become easier. And confronting the stereotypes of what you say in a funny way could help. So for example…if you were just like “So I do writing for a woman’s lifestyle website. No not what you’re thinking…(you can laugh), people always think I’m some crazy feminist lady when I say that, and I assure you I’m not…and you can continue to joke about the stereotype. And then you guys laugh and go into a more light-hearted convo. Or rolling your eyes and being sarcastically pretentious and be like “Oh, I’m a writer” could be funny. Again, some people are not into that, so it’s always about adjusting your style, but I think in general 1) Making it more conversational than a pitch 2) Being funny if possible 3) Confronting the stereotypes of each answer in a light-hearted way 4) really just not caring as much what think about your answer could all help you moving forward 🙂 -Kevin

    • Great insight, Kevin! I already try to approach awkward conversations with humor, but my attempts sometimes backfire. I’m more interested in a person’s interests than their work, even if the two overlap.

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