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Mind your questions, or how to practice social niceties

By Edna Froese


So, it happened yet again, at a biannual extended family gathering. Whether this story is mine to tell or belongs to someone else who granted me permission to tell it is not germane to the matter at hand. Let’s just call him Adam — or Eve. Your choice.

Adam had retired since the last family gathering and wasn’t much of a hand at letter-writing, or Facebook posts. Inevitably, then, The Question came, in this case from a hearty, well-meaning cousin. “Hey, Adam. I hear you’re retired now. Keepin’ busy, are you?”

Dutifully, Adam began giving an account of himself, including volunteer work at the Children’s Hospital and the local soup kitchen, the assorted projects around the home that had been postponed for years, the church committee work he finally had time for, and the university course he was taking for his own pleasure. At which point, the cousin expressed astonishment: “What the ... ? Aren’t you supposed to be retired?”

There you have it in two breaths — the hopelessly contradictory assumptions with which we try to cope with retirement. On the one hand, since people are valued by the work they do and the pay they get for it, not being busy is the ultimate form of uselessness. Heaven forbid that we should have time to be, to reflect, to live quietly in the moment simply because it’s been given and is precious. On the other hand, our equally common assumption about work is that it is a sentence to be served, a debt to society that once paid should be rewarded by endless days of leisure and pleasure. Thus, the only approved ways of managing retirement, to judge by most advertising and by the ubiquitous “keepin’ busy?” are extended travel and perpetual golfing.

What both questions pointedly ignore is that Adam — or Eve — is not, and should not be, accountable to every Tom, Dick, and Sherry who chooses to probe Adam or Eve’s use of time. For 20 or 40 or even 50 years, Eve has obediently filled out time sheets, turned in regular reports, endured yearly evaluations, completed projects, explained to her parents that she was indeed doing what they had taught her to do, met the needs of her dearest partner, raised children, served society. For 20 years and many more, Adam has wondered when he could finally call his soul his own (which, realistically, he can’t ever do, since we all live and have our being in the communities and roles that make us who we are). Yet now, when he no longer owes his soul to the company store, for the sake of civility, he has to give account of himself to every Shaun, Vicki, and Harry? Doesn’t that verge on being rude and unjust?

Oh, many retirees over ever so many decades have genially gone along with the joke and made up jovial replies on the fly: “Oh, I keep busy watching the paint grow old on the walls.” “Hey, the grandkids keep me busier than I ever was. I don’t know how I found time to work.” “Man, I’m working my way through the beers that have been waitin’ for me.” And so on. The socially adept will find their way through this conversational minefield as they have found their way through countless other social occasions. Such is the oil that smooths out our necessary meetings and greetings. It will not do to make too much of the usual awkwardness of finding something to say to someone one doesn’t know well but would like to acknowledge.

My sympathies are extended, though, to the Eves and Adams who are introverts, those private people who treasure their newly acquired space in which to seek the inner quietness that has always beckoned them, who want to give their time to carefully chosen projects that were never meant to be loudly public. For them, the nosiness of “keepin’ busy?” is an intrusion on privacy, and the often trivializing responses to an honest account given in good faith feel humiliating. Maybe we could craft some gentle rebukes that can convey the gist of “none of your damn business” without spoiling the friendly tone of the conversation. I’ve heard someone say, “Well, I don’t have any days in which I stare at the wall and wonder to do next.” Or also, “I am content. Is that what you wanted to know?” My favourite response is, “I’m doing nothing of socially redeeming value.” Which deftly signals both that the question has encroached on privacy and that our assumptions about work require more thought.

While it seems a useful social service to trigger some mocking laughter at our sometimes foolish assumptions about work and not work, it is more important, I think, to practice the social niceties as peacefully as possible. Some irritations are not worth risking social unease for someone else. Nevertheless, I’m still looking for some gracious responses that will stamp out the “keepin’ busy?” questions and invite my interlocutors into a more harmonious dance in the space between doing and being.

Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.