It all goes downhill after this

24 Nov

Whenever I greet a new stranger at the lobby of my apartment, they seldom ask me, “Did you just move in?” Or even a more basic, “Do you live here?” What they ask is, “Are you a tenant?” and, “How much do you pay for rental/the house?”


People in Singapore have a bad, bad habit of asking new acquaintances about their jobs, salaries, education, etc.

Most cultures don’t do this. When I travel overseas, or when I entertain foreign visitors, we talk about hobbies, friends, passions, current affairs, our respective awful climates. I don’t get asked (nor do I ask) questions like, “What company do you work at?” The closest I get to that is, “What do you do?”

I’m not saying this to bash local culture. I’m saying this because it’s an important boundary to respect when meeting new people.

Have you ever asked someone about their job, only to have them give a generic answer, like “Executive”? Have you ever asked been about where you study, only to have to answer, “Oh, just some neighbourhood school. You’ve probably never heard of it.” Did the conversation stop dead, right there?

Or did you ask, “Well… what, exactly?” and get a curt, “I don’t think I know you that well?”

Asking strangers and new acquaintances about their jobs, or salaries–or anything to which people attach social status–is bad because it’s often a direct assault on their egos.

Let’s reverse the roles, and suppose a date asks you what you do for a living. If you answer, “I’m a doctor,” she might think,  “Wow, someone’s boasting here.” Or she might think, “Does this mean I’m not good enough for this person’s company? What if he asks me what I’m doing?” Or, “Uh-oh, it sounds like he’s got a more interesting job than me… what do I say next?” If you answer the question directly, you can’t predict her reaction. If you avoid the question, she’d think you have something to hide.

If you’re at the receiving end of such an insensitive and ill-judged question, there’s really very few things you can do to keep the conversation from going downhill. To me, it’s not your responsibility to keep a conversation from turning awkward once the other’s party’s started down that part.

But you shouldn’t do it yourself.



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