x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Your pompous job description matters only to yourself

How you talk about your job may involve some self-delusion; what matters is how your customers think about your work.

About a week after I started working as a television writer in Hollywood, a guy who had been in the business a while was telling me a few stories from his career, and he wound up this way: "I've got a lot of stories like that," he said. "Because I've spent 20 years in show business."

"Show business." That's what he called it. At the time I was a 24-year-old recent Yale graduate. I had a degree in English literature. My last year at Yale, I wrote a paper actually called, without a trace of irony or embarrassment at the pomposity, Naming and Re-Naming: Identity and Unveiling in Spenser.

So, obviously, I didn't call the industry I had just joined "show business". That sounded, to my ears, a little too plaid-jacket-old-timer, a little too tacky. Not upscale enough.

Here's what I told people: "I'm a writer, in the entertainment industry", which sounds almost like a real job when you say it with the right inflection.

I can't be in show business, I thought to myself, because I can't tap dance or tell jokes and I'm not a character in a black-and-white movie. There's something sort of grasping and desperate about the whole idea of working in "show business".

And yet, "show business" is a lot more truthful and honest than "entertainment industry".

I think one of the problems right now, in the television side of show business - and in probably every other business as well - is that nobody wants to admit what it is that they're really doing. They'd prefer to be in some other kind of work - something loftier and more elegant, something that sounds more clever and upscale.

Last month at a party, I met a man who informed me, in a knowing and smug tone of voice, that he was a "chartered life underwriter", which is - I discovered after several minutes of dogged questioning - a nice way to say "insurance salesman". A guy who sells stocks for a living is a "financial consultant in the financial services industry". And my father swears that the guy he hired to snake out the toilet pipes in his house described himself as an "entrepreneur in the biomass treatment space".

In other words, I'm a lot better and smarter than my job makes me sound.

Saying you're in the "entertainment industry" sounds like you're saying you know something. Which you don't, because you're in "show business", where it's hard to know anything, or predict anything, with any real accuracy.

"Show business" sounds ad hoc, and made up, and kind of grubby - I always picture a cigar box full of cash, for some reason - but it has a great levelling power because it refers to everything and everyone who puts on a little play or bangs on an instrument or talks into a microphone for money.

Lars von Trier, the artsy Danish film director, is in show business. So is Beyoncé. So is Clint Eastwood, so is Shah Ruhk Khan, so is a child's birthday party magician, so was William Shakespeare, so is U2, so is George Clooney, so are the Jonas Brothers and all of the boys in the Korean boy-band Flower Boy, and let's not pretend they're not.

Because when we pretend they're not - when we pretend that there's a difference between doing it for the money and doing it for artistic vision (and also the money) - we suddenly end up thinking we're in something called "the entertainment industry". That just makes us sound pompous and smart and better, somehow, than our customers, who have a pretty elastic idea of what entertainment means.

To show business customers, it means YouTube and Star Wars and Facebook and Friends and Mad Men. Our customers want "show business". And we're giving them "entertainment industry".

But as I said, all of this euphemising isn't unique to Hollywood. The next time you're tempted to dress up the business you're in, take a note from an old friend of mine who is in the natural gas business in Texas. I remember talking to him once and inadvertently using the phrase "the energy sector". His craggily Texas face got all squinched up for a moment, and he drawled, "I don't even know what 'energy sector' means, amigo. I'm in the gas business."

Then he stopped, cocked his head and thought for a moment. "Let me correct that," he twanged. "I'm not in the gas business. I'm in the gas shortage business." And he smiled an evil, but honest, smile.


Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood.

Follow on Twitter: @rcbl