Ask Martha: Is it rude to ask people what they do for a living?

Got a social dilemma? Martha Arthur has the answer...
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Q. I was told it was rude to ask people what they do for a living. Is this true? Zoe, Watford

A. This used to imply that the person being asked looked like a labourer not a toff, but now it's fine as a question. It's just the answer that's problematic."Oh, it's really boring, I don't want to talk about it" translates roughly as "You're really boring, so I'm not going to bother, and anyway I'm a barrister/banker, so my job is too important for table talk: amuse me with tales of your silly ramshackle bohemian job instead." "As little as possible" means "I am either wearing a silk cravat or I am capable of doing so without embarrassment and as a result no one will employ me." And "I'm trying out different options" means "Screw you, Lehman Brothers!" Ask away, by all means, but like all unimaginative questions, it might mean you end up wishing you had asked something else.



I have given up smoking and put on half a stone. Should I explain this to others, or would that simply draw attention to something they might not otherwise notice? HE, Islington

There's only one thing more boring than someone talking about their nicotine addiction (you haven't stuck any dry leaves in your mouth and set fire to them since June? Do I look like I care?) and that is someone sharing the details of their new elasticated waistband jeans. Keep it to yourself, or your nearest and dearest. It's what family's for.



I saw some circus performers taking huge quantities of water from a public well. Should I have tried to stop them? Reported them? Mrs C, by email

First, are you sure they weren't just gaily dressed plumbers? The case of the black farmer, David Mwanaka, recently accused three times in a week of stealing his own crops, springs to mind. Next, when you say "huge quantities", I assume they weren't filling the performing whale's tank. More likely it was a few buckets or a bowser (love that word) at most. Just to help you relax, it might be helpful to remember that in 2006, a bad year, Thames Water is reported to have leaked around 894 million litres a day. And finally: although council tax might be impracticable for itinerants, bearded lady sword-swallowers do pay income tax. While I hope I have assuaged your anxiety, please don't let any of this background information get in the way of your admirably hands-on approach to civic life. It takes a village to conserve a water supply, after all. Ever considered becoming a community officer? Then you could report them to yourself.

Email your social dilemmas to Martha at askmartha@independent.co.uk

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