1) What do you do?
This has always been at the top of the list of problematic questions for me, or at least it has been ever since I became an adult. Granted, becoming an adult took a pretty long time since I went from high school straight to undergrad and then straight to graduate school in film, and it took me five years to graduate from there. So for the first 24 years of my life, the answer (“I’m in school in…” or something along those lines) was pretty easy. And because the schools I went to were fairly prestigious, it also sounded good, and people were duly impressed. But it was all downhill from there.
For one thing, it’s pretentious to say you’re any kind of artist, period. “I’m a writer,” or “I’m a filmmaker” is preferable to “I’m an artist,” but even those imply that you do those things for the sake of art and art alone. Because if you were a technical writer you would say “I’m a technical writer,” if you were a journalist you’d say “I’m a journalist,” if you were a producer for “Toddlers With Tiaras” you’d say…well, maybe you wouldn’t tell anybody that, but you’d say “I produce for television” or something vague but not entirely pretentious like that, because those are all actual jobs. When people ask what you do, they mean, “What do you do for a living?” So unless you happen to inhabit that rare stratosphere of people who get paid to create, you probably can’t answer the question simply by saying, “I’m a filmmaker.” Or you can, but then the next question will inevitably be, “What have I seen that you’ve made?” and then you’ll be stuck explaining that the answer is probably nothing. Which might be okay if you were still someone who got paid to make the stuff that this hypothetical person has probably never seen. Getting paid to do something implies that someone else (the person or company that is paying you) thinks it has value.
I have gotten “paid” to “make” “films" (really videos these days but who’s counting?), so I do sometimes say that I’m “a filmmaker.” But then I always add, “and I also work in the film business,” because working in the film business is the primary way that I earn my living. Often I then go on to say, “Doing sound,” which really muddies the waters and leads to more need for explanation (as in, “No, not sound design, that’s post-production…No, not sound editing, I do location sound…Yeah, sound recording, on set. Like, pointing the microphone at people.”) But then at least if people ask what I’ve worked on, I can talk about stuff that they’ve actually heard of, and then I can tell stories about famous people that are amusing but actually have very little to do with me personally creating things that I have to either laud or defend, and I’m much more comfortable with that. And I can also tell them about the documentary I completed, well, nearly two years ago now, but then they ask me what I’m working on now.
2) What are you working on now?
This is one of those questions that, in my business, you are not allowed to not have an answer to, or have the answer be, “Uh, nothing.” If you aren’t working on anything new, you have to make it sound like you’re actually working on one of the many impractical ideas you’ve had floating through the transom of your mind, often preceded by the words, “Wouldn’t it be cool to make a film about _____?”, but without any concrete thoughts about how to begin to explore said idea, or accompanied by roadblocks like, “But ___ would never agree to be interviewed by me,” or “But then I’d have to raise the money to fly to Mumbai and hire a translator,” or, “But I’m not that suicidal, so naah.” But you can’t tell people that part, you have to just tell them the crazy but cool idea and say you’re “researching.“ You certainly can’t say that you’re currently wandering around in the existential wasteland of middle age, wondering if you really want to do that thing you thought you wanted to do your entire life. Not only because that’s depressing, and waaay more information than the person who asked this question was bargaining for, but because if you tell enough people this, you really will never make another film, because nobody wants to work with a big loser, and that’s what you are, basically, if you aren’t moving and shaking, always in pursuit of what’s next. This is why one of the things you have to learn to do well in the film business is how to excel at pitching yourself and pitching ideas, aka pitching bullshit.
Mind you, I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way. Being confident in yourself and your ideas and being able to describe them in an engrossing yet pithy way are great qualities/skills to have. I truly admire people who are like this, and I’m proud of myself when I can pull it off. I just also know that nobody can that consistently generate excellent, fully-formed and executable ideas all the time, so, if you’re expected to do that, being able to spin crap at will becomes an important job requirement.
3) Why aren’t you seeing anyone?
It’s funny how often people would ask this question when I was single, which I was for the nine years between 1993 and 2002 and then for nearly all of my late 30s. Variations on this theme are, “How is it possible that you are single?” or, “When are you going to get a boyfriend?”
The fact is, a stupid question is still a stupid question, even when it’s meant to be a compliment. Most people (and definitely female people) who have actually been single for any length of time realize that most people aren’t single for years by choice, and if they are, there’s still no good answer you can give to someone about the whys, hows and whens. The nicest answer you can possibly give is something along the lines of, “Beats me.” If you’re expecting more, then how about, “Because apparently nobody wants to date me?” “Because ever since I turned ___, it’s like I have an expiration date stamped on my forehead”? “Because, even though I guess you can’t see it, I’ve got a lot of shit to work out”? Or “When I finally stop only attracting assholes”? If you don’t think that any of these are answers you’d like to hear, stop asking this question, even if you think you’re being nice.
4) When are you getting married?
If you are in a serious relationship and of a certain age, you are guaranteed to get asked this all the time. Again, I don’t understand why people think it’s okay to ask this in casual conversation, because even if there is an answer, it’s probably not something anybody wants to get into. Again, what answer do you think you’re going to get? “Oh, some day”? “When we darn well feel like it”? “Never, because we actually know that this would someday result in an ugly, ugly divorce”? And think about it, what could your goal in asking this possibly be? 1) Embarrass this person or 2) Cause an argument? Well then bravo, you’ve succeeded. Anything else, then you’ve probably failed.
My then-boyfriend-now-spouse and I did actually just get married at the City’ Clerk’s office, and the awesome thing was that the last time he was asked this question, he was able to say, “Oh, probably next week.” Best answer to that question ever, but not one you’re likely to hear.
5) How many times have you been arrested?
Just kidding. Nobody ever asks me this, which I suppose says something positive/sad about everyone’s assumptions about me — something else it’s probably too late to change at this point in my life.
6) Are you planning on having kids?
When you get to be my age, this sometimes morphs into, “You’re still planning on having kids??”, but more often, it just becomes one of those Things You’re Not Allowed To Talk About, which is a totally different category of stuff that appears in middle age. We’ll get to some of those later.
I suppose when a woman is young, before she’s fully realized that fertility is not an open-ended state of being, there’s not anything wrong with this question. But it gets increasingly fraught as you get older, ike most questions that call attention to one’s age in general. If you ask me this expecting a real answer, be prepared for a long discourse on my career, the progression of men through my life, and gory recent details of fertility treatments and miscarriages. Did you really want to know about all that when you asked? Didn’t think so. (But for those of you who did, lucky you, because, again, we will be covering some of these topics later on).
(Asking men this question tends to be fraught in completely different ways, since I’ve found, to a surprising degree, it’s often something childless men of middle age have not really considered unless and until they’ve been prompted into it by a woman who is either their mother or their partner. So you’re opening up a completely different can of worms along the lines of, “Oh my God, should I be thinking about having kids? Am I that old? Wow, I really am that old. Oh shit…” Cue purchase of sportscar and/or annexation of inappropriately young arm candy. I know this is a stereotype, but sadly it’s one that’s not really that far off base.)
7) How are your parents?
I shouldn’t really lump this in with all of the other questions, because it is actually something people ask solicitously, and in fact, some people will consider you impolite if you don’t ask it. But for me, and I think for many other people (based on what I see posted on the Facebook statuses of friends and "friends” alike), this brings up the fact that, if you’re my age, your parents are probably kind of getting up there, and that’s scary. You don’t want your parents to become your grandparents, not because you don’t/didn’t like your grandparents, but because they’re supposed to be your parents, aka, taking care of you, not the other way around. My parents are in good health and retain all of their faculties, but I don’t want to think about what could happen when and if they aren’t. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, I worry about it quite a bit, but I don’t necessarily want to shower you, casual friend, with my deepest fears. And of course if the person’s parents are in poor health, you may not be prepared to hear about it. And if they’re dead, uh, yeah, oops, you should have remembered that before you asked, shouldn’t you?
I’m sure there are plenty more questions that belong on this list. Thoughts?