How to End a Conversation Instantly (Say You Are a Tech Writer)

by Kim on February 24, 2012

People often ask what I do for a living. It’s a completely normal conversation starter.

In my case, when asked this job situation question, there’s a pretty solid pattern in how this conversation plays out. Somewhere between most of the time and every single time, when I give the nonchalant reply, “oh, I’m a technical writer,” it’s amazing how predictably and immediately people’s faces go blank. Then, the unspoken question “what the hell does that mean?” lingers in the air while their mouths move uncertainly to say something generic and polite (“oh, that sounds, uhhhmm…rewarding”). I’m guessing they might also be visualizing vacuum cleaner manuals at this point. To ease this awkward moment, I’ll sometimes add, “so, technically, I write”…which usually causes more confusion but is at least registered as a joke, so it gets a cheap laugh.

I love this guy’s take on the problem-he calls this “narcolepsy in a bottle” and says “You say ‘I’m a technical writer’, and instantly the person listening falls asleep.” It’s true. I’ve seen it. And if they manage to keep their eyes open through this part, it only takes about two more job-related words out of my mouth for them to go back to writing their mental shopping lists again.

The next best part of the conversation happens when I add “…for a software company.” At this point, they suddenly register two of the words I’ve mentioned-write and software-and, for whatever reason, they choose to dismiss all the rest and make a sandwich out of it. Leading to the next inevitable part of the conversation: “oh, so you write software??” Well…no. Closer to the vacuum cleaner manual, actually.

This second part, of course, is contingent on the person’s ability to stay awake through the first part, which is a rare and beautiful talent. I understand my job title isn’t that thrilling or gratifying to hear about-I’m no doctor, firefighter, or flaming-bowling-pin juggler. But my job can be pretty interesting, um, I think…maybe I just need a title rework: how about Software Utilization Information Composition…uh, Specialist…?

Which reminds me: there’s a CNN article I love about this phenomenon of bloated job titles. It says that, according to a survey done in the UK, 7 out of 10 workers said they would prefer a grander sounding job title over a pay raise-are you kidding me? People in the UK must be way better off than me…I mean, you can call me Employee Q for an extra 2K. The thing is, you can tack the word “specialist” or “analyst” or “expert” on any title and it might seem cooler at first, until you realize it’s still the same lame job, the only difference being that its now even more incomprehensible to others and, to the job-title-sensitive, might smell a little like BS.

Also from that article: apparently, Ben & Jerry’s lets its staff choose their own titles, so that it now employs the “Grand Poobah of the Joy Gang” and the “Primal Ice Cream Therapist.” And to think I’m complaining about having to explain “technical writer.”

So I guess my job can sound pretty lame, fine. But at least it’s not loaded with bogus “important title” words-or in B&J’s case, random hippy words. And anyway, the point is: it could be worse. I mean…at least I’m not a…you know…um…


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