Who Are You? That seems like a simple question to answer, but if you think about it, that inquiry is much more wide-ranging and deep than we first suspect. In America, we are taught at an early age that we are our jobs. We are defined by the work we do and to seek definition beyond the 9-5 workday is to not have value in society and your essence isn’t allowed to linger long beyond the cubicle unless you are staked to a family.

Who Are You?

  • I am a lawyer.
  • I am a sanitation engineer.
  • I am a venture capitalist.

Students are not immune from the by-rote reply. When I ask them who they are, I get back a pseudo-militaristic answer in three boring parts. Who Are You?

  • Name: ___________.
  • Rank: I am a (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior).
  • Serial Number: I am from _________.

Students are defined by their schooling first and then by their jobs upon graduation.

To dare someone to move beyond describing their life in work terms immediately earns the second most popular, but still boring, answer: Family.

Who Are You?

  • I am married.
  • I have three children.
  • I am a (grandparent, aunt, sister, etc.).

It is the rare person who imaginatively replies to a “Who Are You?” inquiry with a genuine expression of human emotion that tempts abstraction and solidifies a non-definition that rattles and riddles more than answering.

Who Are You?

  • I am the expression of dreams beyond facts.
  • I am the hopes of the poor and dying.
  • I am an unspoken blessing in (tatters, human form, twilight, etc.).
  • I am an unfinished piece of art.
  • I am a wonderment that never wounds.
  • I am unique in the world sharing a common essence.
  • I am a healer for the misbegotten.

Is the reason people answer “Who Are You?” with rote responses because they think we expect a standard reply in our asking?

Why are Americans defined first by their jobs and then by their families? Is the reason caused by the need to appear part of a greater whole and as a workable cog in the family core?

I have one question for you and one question only:

Who Are You?

I look forward to the imaginative temptation of your non-standard reply — and you are certainly encouraged to be as specific or cryptic as you wish.

If you want to really help add to the discussion, ask three people today “Who Are You?” and post their replies here. If they ask what you mean, just repeat the question. Let them form their own answer based on your simple inquiry. I’m also interested in knowing where in the world you are asking that question and how long it takes your respondents to provide an answer. If you decide to ask your questions online in your blog or other online entity, please link back to this article so we can follow the discussion!

25 Comments

  1. I think Antoine de Saint Exupery says it best in The Little Prince

    When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

  2. I actually have always identified myself as a Jew, long before I knew what really was kosher and what wasn’t, so to speak. My mother and I had a long conversation about self-identity one night when we were in Mexico. I said that I considered myself a Romanian-American Jew. She said I should consider myself a Jewish American-Romanian.
    Now I have mostly dropped the romanian-american parts and have stuck with just Jewish. Why? No matter where I live in the world, that will be with me. If I live the rest of my life in Canada, will I still be American? Not really. I will, however, still be Jewish.
    As to why it has formed me so, I suppose you could say it’s because it has always had some sort of voice in my life whether causing me to strike back (verbally) when I overheard someone saying that he had been “Jewed” when I was in high school to having a greater sensitivity to Israel’s plight.

  3. Yes, I remember your GAC claim from a previous conversation, Katha.
    I think it’s a sad thing that we allow “definition by net worth” when there are other, more engaging, factors that determine value in the world.

  4. Hi David. Here’s what I came up with:
    “I am a person who takes life one day at a time, who is guided by strong beliefs and values, and who tries to make himself and those around him better people.”
    I hope it doesn’t sound too corny, but I think it sums up best who I am now and what I’m doing.

  5. Hi David,
    I see myself through different lenses depending on what I’m doing. If I’m at work, I define myself by what I’m doing. If I’m at home, I’m a husband and father.
    But, there’s always the question of what is our purpose. Is it to just be a member of XYZ occupation so that I can support my family? Or, is it something else?
    It’s the struggle to figure out how to go beyond the daily routine that always makes me wonder who I really am. However, it is really easy to just get caught up in the daily routine and let that become what I am by default.

  6. Hi,
    There is (in my opinion) only one correct answer to the question, “Who am I?” and all the other responses are “what you are”, and not the one answer to who you are. And to me, Nicola got it right, it can ultimately be, “I Am.” and nothing more.