Working as a waitress in a restaurant with an excruciatingly slow debit card reader means you frequently become a host of small talk. My favourite waitressing-chatter is to ask where the customers are from. Then, wherever they tell you, you have a failsafe response; “Oh, not far then”. The genius of this standardised reply is a) if the place they are from is genuinely not that far away, and you have just made a correct observation; or b) if it is far away, you have just made a joke. Congratulations.
Sometimes the fact that I am a student gets dragged into the exchange. Which I don’t mind, but there is one question I dread. And not solely from customers, or any polite small-talking strangers. Family and acquaintances too. Actually, I don’t doubt that every other clueless undergraduate has to stifle their cringing when they are asked the one question innocently designed to flatten any self-esteem:
“So what are you going to do with that?”
I envy other students. The ones studying law or midwifery or accountancy. The ones whose degrees line up with what people expect from a three year course, the ones whose degrees have a purpose in the eyes of strangers. Not because I think their degrees are any more valuable than my own, or because I think all students studying medicine are going to become General Practitioners, but because they don’t have to come up with stumbling justifications of their education in these very situations. When an engineering student tells someone that this is what they are studying, people assume he wants to be an engineer. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, he might want to become a poet or a nightclub manager, WHO CARES. The point is, he completely sidesteps this horrible uncomfortable question.
When a “languages and linguistics” student tells someone what they’re studying, it’s a different story. These strangers DEMAND to know what you plan on DOING with your life, as though it’s their birth given right to question the validity of any degree they haven’t heard of. I splutter and mumble and basically panic. “I DON’T KNOW YET, SORRY” flashes like a beacon in my mind, but I’m not telling a STRANGER that. They’ll think I’m doing my degree as an excuse to live in halls for a bit. But I can’t tell an outright lie to someone I’ve just met, so I need to come up with something plausible, something that seems important and impossible to do without this very degree. Fast.
And it’s difficult.
Students of art history, Hispanic studies, geophysics, and philosophy; I feel your pain. We rationalize our choice of education so often we may as well rehearse our reasons before we leave the house each morning. Barefaced lying to distant family members. Having your parents completely incorrectly explain to their friends what your degree consists of, and not correcting them for the sake of an easier life.
I tried lying once, faking an intention to become a speech therapist. However, that one backfired, as I was instantly questioned on why this particular stranger’s son just COULDN’T get over his stammer, and do I have any advice? Which obviously, I didn’t. So now that stranger not only thinks I’m personally useless, but that the whole field of linguistics is useless in relation to helping her son’s stammer. Great. Won’t be using that one again.
In the end, after a great deal of spluttering and a little indignation on my part, I offer up something vague about “communicating with people” and shuffle off. Yes, I know it does little for justifying three years spent agonizing over Phoneme Boundaries or X’ Theory, but by this point there’s usually another table who need my attention, so I can cheerfully whizz off to them anyway. Thank God.