News

Annual Report Finds Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Remains Largely White, Male

News

Harvard Square Celebrates Oktoberfest

News

Harvard Corporation Members Donated Big to Democrats in 2020 Elections

News

City Council Candidates Propose Strategies for Supporting Low-Income Residents at Virtual Forum

News

FAS Dean Gay Hopes to Update Affiliates on Ethnic Studies Search by Semester’s End

Columns

Occupational Inquiry Testing

When we ask “What do your parents do?”, what are we really trying to find out?

By Jenna M. Gray, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jenna M. Gray ’19 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Quickly into my Harvard career, I learned that Harvard students do things differently. Here, handshakes are not reserved for business deals; they’re the customary greeting upon meeting another 18-year-old college kid. Across campus, you’re just as likely to find kids passing blunts as business cards. After meeting someone, you can expect a request to connect on LinkedIn in place of a follow-up text. Think you’d never get asked about your SAT or Advanced Placement scores after completing the college application process? That’s a cute aspiration.

At worst, I find these modes of communication mildly irritating, mostly off-putting. At best, I appreciate the explicit signal warning me that I should never be friends with their proponents. As a senior, I’ve become accustomed to the student body-wide obsession with social climbing and status as reflected in everyday conduct. But one common question has unwaveringly irked me: What do your parents do?

Growing up, the question only ever surfaced in school documents rather than in peer-to-peer discussion. Back home in Philadelphia, we make conversation about the weather, perennially late public transportation, and the Eagles’ Super Bowl prospects. My schooling placed me alongside kids with parents in both blue-collar and white-collar professions, but nobody cared about how other people’s parents made their money.

I can’t recall the first time at Harvard I was asked that question because it’s happened so many times. I learned to dress up my father’s occupation of “truck driver” as “My dad works at a hunger relief organization.” Both are true, yet the second meets the dignified expectations of upper-middle-class culture. Growing up without a mother forced me to be aware of the assumptions inherent in other people’s questions, particularly that everyone has two parents. I usually ignored the plural case and hope the inquirer would get the hint. Recently, to my response I’ve added “My mother’s dead, so she doesn’t do anything,” because I revel in making people justifiably uncomfortable.

I don’t carry shame about my socioeconomic status or how I grew up — at least not consciously or as much as I used to. I dislike this questions so much because being asked about what my parents do feels like I’m being put on trial. It’s like I’m going to be judged based on a host of factors out of my control: how much money my parents make, and the activities, experiences, and lifestyle made possible or unimaginable because of that income. As if how people with whom I share DNA spend their nine-to-five is supposed to dictate whether I am a good person, whether I am worthy of the time and attention of the person asking this question. Typically, the only people quizzing others about parental employment are people who have “appropriate” or “impressive” answers.

As a freshman, I attended a three-day social justice organizing workshop at Harvard during January break. The leaders, all “conscious” and “intentional” lefty grad students, introduced themselves with their parents’ professions. Every single one of them followed their name with some two-parent, high income response like “My dad is a professor,” or “My mom is an astrophysicist.” I wondered how the room would react to responses reflective of some populace beyond our ivied gates, like “My mother does drugs,” or “I’ve never met my father,” or “My parents are in prison.” When we broke into small groups and told our life stories, my group leader told me I was defining myself too much by things my parents had done.

Of course what our parents do has an affect on us. If my parents were professors, I wouldn’t have made the observations that led me to write this article. Worth noting is why we might prioritize some information over others. Perhaps we’re just class obsessed. Maybe we believe knowing what one’s parents do will allow us to make assumptions that will help us best to understand the respondent. While income and industry might reveal a lot about how someone grew up, the most telling aspect of the conversation might be our own judgements about the answer.

Most of us don’t ask about what traumas our peers’ childhoods created. We don’t request to know how adults in their lives managed their emotions or reacted to life’s stresses. But such queries will tell us just as much about others as the “What do your parents do?” question. Parents of all socioeconomic classes do a host of things: lie, neglect their children, drink too much, cheat on their spouses. Take their kids to the park, read bedtime stories, work extra hours so their children can have easier lives than their own. Why aren’t we interested in those things?

My demand is simple: Don’t ask people what their parents do. If your verbal and mental itch to inquire into their occupational past overwhelms you, ask yourself why! How would not knowing the industries in which someone’s parents work affect your life? Would lacking that knowledge affect your ability to connect with them? Would knowing alter your judgement of them? If “What do your parents do?” feels like an indispensable question in your conversational toolkit, it’s time to learn new ways of relating to and understanding people.

You can ask some more innocuous questions instead. How do you hang toilet paper rolls? Have you ever tried saying “Bloody Mary” three times with your bathroom lights off? Do you put ketchup on hot dogs? These questions will tell you all you need to know about the respondents’ values, respect for law and order, and sense of basic human decency. No parental occupation required.

Jenna M. Gray ’19 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Columns