How do You Describe Your Job During Christmas Dinner?

Dec 21, 2012

Christmas week is almost upon us – the time of the year when we finally get to switch off the monitor, power down the laptop, and record a festive message on our office voicemail. It’s a week where we’ll be heading back to the ancestral abode for some quality time with our extended family and doing our level best to consume three times our own body weight in chocolate. It’s a week when we find ourselves, once again, being asked to explain to our relatives what on earth it is we actually do for a living. How do you describe your job over Christmas dinner?

When it’s Not Easy to Describe Your Job…

Whenever I answer ‘technical writing’ in response to questions about my job, it’s generally met with a blank expression and a polite, ‘Oh, um … that’s nice, dear’. Using synonyms like ‘information development’, ‘content authoring’, or ‘user assistance’ doesn’t do much to help my case.

If I then make the mistake of trying to explain how I visualise my role – a translator of technical tomes, a combatant of convoluted complexity, a mediator for the masses – my conversation partner starts to look quite uncomfortable and the Brussels sprouts on their plate suddenly become incredibly interesting. This is normally the point where my mother leans over and whispers conspiratorially, ‘She works with computers’. The dawning of relieved comprehension is a wonder to behold.

…It May be Necessary to Compromise

The unfortunate result of this statement is that all my relatives then assume I know everything there is to know about IT and computers. I’ve received numerous requests over the years to fix modems, printers, and laptops that have been lost to the dreaded ‘blue screen of death’. Being a technical writer has somehow become equated to being a kind of ‘computer whisperer’, magically able to get them functioning again. At this stage, I no longer try to patiently explain that I am actually not a software engineer or IT administrator. Instead, I just agree to take a look at whatever it is and try my best to swot up on critical system errors – referring of course to the documentation and training material produced by fellow technical writers.

There’s a neat irony here in that we technical writers, who labour so hard at explaining things simply and clearly to an audience, frequently struggle to explain our own job. I could try saying, ‘I write manuals,’ but that doesn’t cover the E-learning course I’ve just designed. I could say, ‘I write web content ’ but that doesn’t cover the technical glossary I’ve spent weeks on. ‘Technical writing’ covers so many different tasks that I could happily spend hours telling my family about each and every one of the services we offer to clients. I wouldn’t recommend it however – it could end badly; being pelted with mince pies is surprisingly painful. Perhaps my mother has the right approach after all – ‘Yes Gran, I work with computers.’

What’s your solution when put on the spot to describe your job?

Photo of christmas dinner chocolates. What do you say when asked to describe your job to relatives?

What do you say when asked to describe your job to relatives? Photo by Jennifer Pallian (

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