I’ve lived in D.C. for ten years now. Before that, I lived in the U.K. Both places have the same arresting, and misunderstood, quirk, which is this: everyone spends the first five minutes of each new interaction trying to size the stranger up. This manifests itself in different ways in both places. In the U.K., I was asked questions about what school I attended, where in New England precisely I had lived, and – delightfully – what my family was “in.” (That one in particular made me feel like I was at Epcot Center and the British person to whom I was speaking was actually an acting student from Gays Mills, Wisconsin.) The obvious purpose behind all this was to assess where in the crusty social strata I fell. Here is where the misunderstanding kicks in. I learned over the course of many years that it doesn’t stop there, that there was a further point beyond that one, which was to ascertain how much of their own life were they now going to feel comfortable divulging. It really didn’t have much to do at all with stereotypical snootiness, beyond the tacit acknowledgement of the existence of a social strata in the first place. They just wanted to know who they were talking to so they didn’t do anything stupid.
The exact same principle exists in D.C. Washington also has social strata, layered on top of which is the fascinating reality that no one just sort of ends up here: people come to D.C. by choice. Therefore, where you work can speak immeasurable volumes about who you are, and everything that means: your politics, your background, your values, your level of cultivation, your drive, your everything. So, the very first question you get asked in D.C. is, “So where do you work?” Again, like the U.K, this isn’t only a yardstick of how you stack up against this stranger as much as it’s a gauge of how much you can relax around them. Say you and your work friends from the E.P.A are out at a bar blowing off steam after a terrible day, and you run into an old college acquaintance who’s got some friends of her own in tow. You’re not going to ask people where they work so you can pat yourself on the back again for going to Bennington. You’re going to ask them where they work so that you know whether you can sound off about that coal country Senator who is still deciding whether or not to block the passage of muscular clean water legislation, or whether that new guy in the madras shirt is his legislative aide.
This is one of the many reasons I felt so at home in the U.K., and why I feel equally – if ironically – at ease in D.C. I like living a life that cautions me against gum-flapping about Russia because I might be sitting next to the new President of the German Marshall Fund at the symphony. True story. (It was so awesome OMG.) Puts me mind of my favorite Wodehouse quote, whose hilarious “Jeeves and Wooster” stories were turned into one of the best TV shows ever made:
“I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping.” — P.G. Wodehouse, “Carry On, Jeeves”