Dear Wendy: “I’m A 30-Year-old Receptionist And Ashamed Of My Job”

I’ve been dating this guy I really like for a couple months and things are going well. He’s 35, I’m 29. He’s pretty successful, and most of his friends are too. Like, really successful. Me? I’m a receptionist at a law firm and I’m going to school online for social services. I’ll be done in 2013. My problem is I’m super self-conscious around his friends because my job sounds pretty pathetic. (I know I can find a new job that I’m happier with, but that’s another conversation. I have a loose plan.) I’m meeting his family in a few weeks and I’m soo nervous. His sister has a PhD! I feel like I don’t even know what to talk to these people about and that they’re all thinking he can do better. I dread the “What do you do?” question. I hate feeling like I need to make excuses for the fact that I’m a near-30-year-old receptionist whose been working on a college degree for almost six years. Do you have any tricks for ways to boost my confidence a little? And when I explain what it is that “I do,” how can I say it so it’s not so obvious that I’m down on myself? I’m usually pretty decent at giving advice and building people up, but I just can’t do it for myself! I know the whole “people take different paths” thing, but I just feel so uncomfortable around these people! (For the record, he never makes me feel this way).— Self-Conscious Receptionist

I’m gonna let you in on a few secrets. First, people who have PhDs are just like you and me! Except they have a lot more debt. Basically, each of those three letters after their names cost roughly 25-50 grand each. Or, if they want you to call them “Dr. So-and-so,” as I would imagine they would considering how much that title cost, then each letter before their name is worth about 35-75 grand each. I guess if you’re really at loss for what to talk about with someone who is well/over-educated, you can talk about debt. Most people with advanced degrees have plenty to say on that topic.

But, honestly, you shouldn’t feel as if you have to grasp for discussion topics with your significant other’s family just because they’re more professionally successful than you are. Unless they’re total bores, they’re not going to want to talk about their work too much. They’ll want to talk about what everyone else wants to talk about: good movies, new restaurants in the neighborhood, vacation plans, their family, what books they’re reading, even celebrity gossip. It’s true! Even really well-educated people like to gossip about the stars (there’s another little secret for you). If you’re worried about awkward silences, all you need are a few generic questions about these universal topics and you’ll be golden (just make sure you have answers for them as well).

As for how to answer the dreaded, “What do you do?” question, I have another secret for you: most people hate that question. Even lawyers! Maybe even especially lawyers, though you wouldn’t know that by the amount of them who confess their profession as soon as you meet them. But for every attorney who can’t wait a second to tell you what it is he does for a living, there’s, like, five who cringe when they’re asked what they do. Why? Well, like everyone, they afraid of being judged, characterized, stereotyped, and labeled, and there’s almost no easier way to put someone in a box than based on how they support themselves.

And yet, here we are — we humans — with so many other things that make us who we are. Just look at some of the recent “Reader of the Week” columns. People’s jobs are just a tiny fraction of their lives. They also volunteer, workout, spend time with their families and friends and pets. They cook, they read, they play video games and travel. The list goes on and on. I’m sure you have a similar list, don’t you? If you were to write down all the things you do in a year or all the things you do when you aren’t working, I bet you’d sound pretty interesting.

So, darlin’, lead with that. Take pride in your accomplishments outside of work and school if you don’t feel particularly confident about how you spend your life from 9-5 — though, of course, there’s no shame in making an honest living! You think someone who spent ten years of her life paying for three letters after her name had time to pursue much outside of school? Probably not. And that’s not a knock on higher education. It’s just a reminder that we all make choices and just because one person chooses to focus on advancing his or her schooling and career doesn’t mean another choice has any less value. And it doesn’t mean that everyone defines success the same way.

The key thing to remember when you mingle with your boyfriend’s friends and meet his family for the first time is that the path you’ve chosen has value and merit, perhaps in different ways than the path many of them have chosen. Don’t apologize for choosing a different path, and don’t be ashamed. There’s no need to make excuses for yourself. When someone asks you what “you do,” because they aren’t creative enough to think of a more exciting, less obvious question, hold your head high and say, “I work in a law firm by day, and by night I [fill in the blank … with the main things that make you you].” If you don’t focus on your job, no one else will either. You control the spotlight on yourself. Remember that. If you shine it at the things you’re proud to talk about, that’s what people will see. So, think about what those things are, and be ready to direct your light there when you meet an mingle with these people you think are oh-so-successful.

If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at [email protected] and be sure to follow me on Twitter.