What DC lacks
I couldn't really put my finger on it until I left DC. Everyone talks about how transient this city is. I've been victim to this common thread, having two of my best friends move to different cities in the past few months. I'm happy for them to start a new adventure and gather new perspectives and experiences they weren't getting from living in DC. But eventually, most everyone packs up for somewhere new.
The second thing everyone talks about is the two same question you get asked when you meet someone new. I've heard these questions differ from city to city, but it's become such of a commonality that folks expect it when you first meet.
What do you do?
I usually tell people I'm a web designer and wait for the confused faces or the polarized comments about my CEO. It's a fun game when they're expecting me to ask them same question and I never do.
People usually say it's because you get judged immediately on your worth on the career climbing totem pole. I have another theory. On the surface, we're judged on the things we do, not our character. Bring up any okcupid profile and it'll list a passion for running, cooking, and traveling. You get points for being more interesting and unexpected in the things you do. Since a job makes up the majority of what a person does from day to do, it gets added to those points. It's only natural when talking about the things you do to mention (besides sleep) the thing you do the majority of the day: your job.
In France, I've heard, it's rude to ask people what they do.
How much of DC's culture has permiated down into my core, making it impossible for me to divorce my career from my personality? It's extremely tough as a designer not to notice things like kerning and typography on everything, but I enjoy making a distinction between my job and my career.
Where are you from?
This is where I usually wait for the comments on Delaware beaches or something about incorporating in Wilmington. My conversationalist is usually looking for some commonality between the two of us, which may be likely since most everyone in DC is from somewhere else. I'm from the second smallest state and I didn't live at the beach or in a corporation, so there's not much to say.
These questions aren't bad, but people end up complaining because they're so surface level. It's easy to start a conversation with a broad question like the two above, but we get stuck in this surface level slush instead of sinking down into the rabbit hole.
People who live in DC have a hidden defense mechanism. It's like they know everyone's going to leave eventually so making deep connections isn't that much of a priority. Add big government and being treated like a number to the mix and suddenly a culture of detached professionals permiates through everything.
I've fallen victim to this as well. It's easy not to get too attached. But it's also monotonous. The meaty, rich parts of life come from deeper connections between people and the only way to get that is to be more empathetic in our relationships. I'm going to start small and try to keep empathy in the front of my mind. It's not going to change the city, and I'm not trying to solve all the problems, but it's a start. Small steps.