When you’re meeting new people, even in casual social situations, the topic of work is never far off. Maybe this is a general commentary on The Texting Generation’s lacking conversation skills, but I always find myself getting asked about my work shortly after being introduced to someone.”Sooo… what do you do?”It’s a question I never want to answer…
During the bad ol’ analyst days, I’d be at a friend’s apartment or a bar, trying to pound booze as quickly as humanly possible so for a precious few hours, I could transport my mind away from the endless vortex of minutiae that dominates the life of every junior banker on Wall Street. Despite my borderline sociopathic drinking routine, some chipper friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend would always find a way to spark up conversation. For whatever reason, the topic of that conversation always eventually pivoted toward work.
In between gulps of cheap beer and/or badly mixed whiskey and Diet, I’d catch on to the fact that the nameless mouthpiece currently distracting me from my systematic brain cell murder had a day job involving corporate sales, law clerking, or something else vaguely generic. After jabbering on about how awesome it is to live in New York City and how great living in the West Village is, inevitably, the ball would be volleyed back to me:
“Sooo… what do you do?”
During my time in investment banking, I answered this question hundreds of times, in as many different ways. As a third party, I’ve seen it asked and answered many times more than that. Generally, the answers were a variation on the following:
1. I’m in finance.[FYE-nance]
Usually, I was concentrating on getting my mind off work, not talking about it. Given that literally millions of New York City residents work “in finance” in some capacity, this answer could have been interpreted as “I am a bank teller at the BofA on Canal Street,” “I am the real Bess Levin,” “I am Henry Kravis and today is wig day,” or anything else in between. Frankly, it didn’t matter. I answered tersely, and with a “let’s talk about something else, please for the love of f*ck” type of tone.
2. I’m in finance.[fin-NANCE]
What a difference inflection makes. Sarcasm is like Tabasco – it’s meant to be used sparingly, but sometimes you just gotta lay it on thick. After replying with just the right dose of pomp, I’d launch into a long monologue about my days growing up in southern Connecticut, playing on the Exeter lacrosse team, and cruising through the Wilson school at Princeton before moving on to my current gig in banking. Of course, none of these things were true.
3. I’m in banking.When I was feeling polite enough to actually answer the question rather than 1) dismiss it, or 2) troll it, I’d still be pretty vague. The bottom line was, talking about work always led to conversations that led me deeper into the abyss of cynicism. What does one say to someone who’s essentially just told you he’s decided to celebrate his college graduation with 730 days of torture? In my experience, something equally depressing:
- My dad was a banker. I never saw him when I was growing up.
- You know, coffee stains your teeth.
- Really? I thought you said you were a philosophy major. How do you live with yourself?
- … or something so stupid it’s offensive:
- Oh, I hear you guys work a lot. Do you, like, do a ton of coke to stay awake?
- You work for a bank? Great! The other day, the ATM ate my check. Can you help me look into that?
- I think it is SO wrong that you guys don’t have to pay taxes. AND you got bailed out!
… or something infuriating:
- I know how hard that must be. I worked till 7 today.
- Hey, at least you get a free Blackberry!
- You must be learning a lot.
… or, perhaps most wrenching of all:
- Me too.
On the one hand, it’s depressing to see the sad, hollowed-out reflection of yourself standing in front of you. The downtrodden tone of voice, the rumpled dress shirt and creased slacks held up by a worn belt that’s one loop away from useless. Hell, you might even catch a glimpse of a laptop bag somewhere in the corner of the room.
On the other hand, you get the strong sense of camaraderie that comes with meeting another one of your own. There are thousands of analysts on Wall Street, but one of the worst parts of the job is feeling like you’re very much alone in the uphill battle of corporate survival.
Bumping into a fellow analyst is a reminder that there are others that understand where you are mentally and emotionally. I find that this is what binds the WSO community itself – young financiers reaching out to others in the same shoes, in search of a common bond forged through the shared experience of working on the Street.
As for me, I’ve been out of banking for a while and I still dance around the topic of work. Aside from writing these columns about my experiences on Wall Street, I rarely broach the subject – as it was, I spent more than enough time at work already.
How do you respond to people who ask you about your work, and how do you feel about meeting other bankers on your rare nights off the job?
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