The unreasonable request: ‘Describe yourself in 101 characters’

All too often I hear people complaining about society’s constant desire to pigeonhole people

Peter Harrison

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Recently when logging into Facebook I noticed on my homepage in the ‘intro’ section the ominous request ‘Describe who you are’. So with great vigor I clicked, ready to write an essay as my answer, only to discover I had just 101 characters to carry out this great task.

So currently this remains unanswered and here’s for why. Describe myself – it’s a horrible question and one I’m sure I could not answer in 101 characters.

All too often I hear people complaining about society’s constant desire to pigeonhole people and oddly it was Facebook’s efforts to do this that made me realize what these people are getting at.

Like all people, I am a multitude of things to a multitude of people. My parents separately will have their own views of who I am, as will my siblings and my closest friends.

At work there are 2,000 people, some who may have their own preconceived ideas of how to describe me. Those who sit nearby my desk will likely say I’m large and loud.

Sensible people seem to have carefully rehearsed the answer to this, while some of us seem incapable of bigging ourselves up. One of my many former job titles at a newspaper I worked on was ‘defense writer’.

When I told people this their eyes would light up as they asked: “So you’re a war correspondent?”

Sensible people would say “yes” – and make the most of the short time I spent in Afghanistan, exciting the imagination of the now captivated audience. With hindsight I realize this response would have sparked much more interesting conversations than my: “I’m not sure five weeks counts”.

It’s not just Facebook that asks this impossible question. Anyone who, like me, lives as an expat, will be all too familiar with the inevitable “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” questions that are regularly asked when with new people in the expat community.

But this is one of those situations where I think it’s a reasonable question – it’s an icebreaker.

But in job interviews the grossly unreasonable request: “tell me about yourself” can surely only be answered with “what do you want to know?”

Surely few of us are entirely forthcoming with the complete truth to this? We’d be there for hours – possibly days.

Your average international diamond thief is probably unlikely to reply “up until recently I have followed a life of crime, stealing precious stones – but I fancy a change”.

I remember once introducing my mother to a friend as “this is mum”. My friend – who has three daughters - turned to my mother and not unreasonably said “I’m sure that ‘Mum’ is not your actual name”. She was right to pick me up on this.

As you get older, your perception of yourself changes, what we see ourselves as now will surely change as the years pass. What is important to us changes, which alters the way we define ourselves.

So I challenge all of you, next time you are asked to describe yourself, to come up with something other than your job title. It’s a harder task than you might think.

And for now – how would I describe myself? Why I’m Peter Harrison – make of that what you will.