The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: ‘Working with your hands’ is bad? Let’s see how they think on their feet.

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: I waited tables during and after college and for most of my working history. I worked in upscale restaurants and waited on people who appreciated getting the best food and service. I worked hard and made great money and friends. Now for the past decade, my husband and I have a custom cabinetry business where we are once again working for people who understand quality and service.

My family, who only value education, higher degrees and unending ambition and accomplishment, have only ever said, "You must like working with your hands." Even recently, meeting extended family members for the first time, they said of my husband, "Well he must like working with his hands."

I'd like to scream at this and say, "As opposed to working with his brain, like you, sons and daughters of education?" They do not know the amount of science and math and skill that goes into a perfect build. I find this saying extremely offensive and demeaning, and it diminishes our skill and experience.

Where did it happen that smart people think only certain types of work are acceptable? Is there a good way to reply to this without sounding defensive/offensive?

— Build It, and They Will Offend

Build It, and They Will Offend: Wait now. Don’t repeat the error you’re trying to correct. Just because these “smart people” think only certain kinds of work are acceptable doesn’t mean all smart people think that.

In fact, people who “only value education” aren’t necessarily smart, so let’s put all the broad brushes away.

Instead, focus on what you specifically hope to accomplish.

Which is . . . to gain the respect of your myopic family?

To purge “working with your hands” from their lexicon?

To inoculate yourself against irritation when they say stuff like this?

To stand up for yourself?

To burst snob balloons?

It’s only a “good way” to respond if it serves your purpose — which means you need to settle on what that purpose is.

The purpose also needs to be reasonable enough to be worth serving. For example, you can’t make them change their language; you can only ask. And I’m not sure anything you do to earn the respect of people you don’t respect is ever going to be worth it.

I suggest you start at your baseline: who you are, where you are and why you chose as you did. What I see are careers to be proud of, a business to run, pragmatic use of your talents and values, and the entirety of the moral high ground.

To me that translates to zero need to trifle with any of this.

But if it just bothers you to leave your family’s biases unchallenged, then I suggest approaching it in the form of a question: “Are you suggesting our work is only physical, not mental?” — or, softer, “Meaning what, exactly?” Better to start a conversation than a war — and surely they of all people can find thoughtful ways to expand on their views beyond a reflexive cliche.

Maybe all they’ll get from this is the experience of being on the defensive for once. Ideally, though, all parties will take the chance to put some old role-playing to rest.