‘What Do You Do?’ Breathing New Life Into an Old Question

Businesspeople Shaking Hands in Office LobbyWhen you meet someone, you know it’s coming. Social niceties dictate a certain order of operations—a “What is your name?” followed by a “Where are you from?” and perhaps a “How did you hear about this event?” or “How do you know [so-and-so]?” But fairly quickly, you will hear a version of the question that has become a staple of getting-to-know-you chit-chat: “So, what do you do?”

That we view this question as essential to our understanding of an individual reflects just how much we associate one’s occupation with one’s personhood. Devoting roughly eight hours per day, five days per week to a particular occupational pursuit does not just provide fodder for small talk; it bleeds into who we are as friends, family members, partners, and members of a community. For better or worse, the commonplaceness of “What do you do?” echoes how integral Americans view one’s work or career to be to one’s overall identity. But while the question may be routine, it is not necessarily relished.

It is worthwhile to consider how you feel when you are asked, “What do you do?” While some may value this question as an opportunity to share what they feel is a purposeful part of their lives, for others, the question can stir up negative emotions. If your relationship to your work is complicated—perhaps you are between jobs, your work is adversely affecting your health and happiness, your career is a poor fit, or you simply want to leave the stress of the daily grind back at the office—then naturally you may not look forward to this question. You may even be wondering: is that question, in the rote manner in which is it often asked and answered, really conducive to forming a meaningful connection? And is my usual response truly reflective of who I am and what I want to say about myself?

If “What do you do?” has become stale for you, here are some alternate ways to address it:

  • Focus on what you DO, not a job title. Replying, “I’m an assistant vice president at a bank” may tell a person how you are categorized within your organization, but it does not say much about what you actually do. By focusing on contributions that have meaning for you (e.g., “I manage account openings for new clients to help them get started on their dream businesses”) rather than simply a job title, you let the other person know something about the value, if any, you derive from your work.
  • Change the meaning of the question. Chances are you do a lot of things. Perhaps you run in the park on the weekends, coach your child’s soccer team, or take Italian language classes. When your new acquaintance asks, “What do you do?” he or she may not be expecting an answer focused on your interests, but why not give one? “I go to the movies frequently—I’m a huge fan of comedies. How about you?” Then you can encourage a discussion of your respective passions, which perhaps say more about you than your job, and stimulate a deeper discussion.
  • Be future-oriented. If where you are is not where you are headed—say you are shifting gears career-wise, unemployed, or going back to school—focus on the positive things you are doing to make those plans happen. Perhaps your answer to “What do you do?” is “I am preparing to go to graduate school next year” or “I am exploring opportunities to transition into sales” rather than a description of your current line of work (or lack thereof).

Self-identifying via “What do you do?” may be conventional, but it need not be boring. By replying with information about your interests, goals, or most valued professional contributions, you can reframe the question in a way that is more meaningful. In addition, you signal that you see your new acquaintance not simply as a job title, but as a person with passion and stories to share.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Adia Tucker, MSEd, LMHC, Career Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Micah

    January 26th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    I know that there are people who genuinely have an interest in what you do for a living but you know there are other times when someone asks that they are imply doing it to put you down and make you feel a little humbled.

    I don’t know why there are people who do that but it is like the only way that they can improve in their minds their own self worth is to diminish that of other people. I truly believe that this is the real reason behind the question for a whole lot of people.

  • Jacob

    January 26th, 2015 at 11:27 AM

    Want to be known as more than just my job title

  • Rhi.

    January 26th, 2015 at 9:16 PM

    Its a constant dread because of my poor mental health and relience on benefits..Its been for most of my life and im 49 swn..Can be bright,funny and interesting to talk too..but always know that ‘The Question ‘ is coming!!

  • danna

    January 27th, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    LOL!! When I get this question, and I am an RN, I look at people with a raised eyebrow and ask them if they really want to know, because truth be told, I think that most people are just looking for a job title or something that will tell them if you are their peer financially or career wise. I don’t think that they really want to know how many patients I see every day or how many bed pans I empty or how many vials of blood I draw or how much paperwork I have to do in the hospital system. No I don’t think that this is the answer that they are looking for at all.

  • Dirk

    January 27th, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    Who cares what anyone does for a living anyway?

    For most all of us it is just a means to an end, a way to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.

    I would much rather know about the person…not what they do to earn a paycheck week to week.

  • Ann

    January 27th, 2015 at 10:02 PM

    I am having a very hard time owning up to what I do for a living at this moment in my life. I want to be more and I need to make more money to live comfortable and not worry. I dread going out and having people ask me what I do for a living. People shouldn’t judge others especially not knowing anything at all about where someone has been and why they are where they are right now, so annoying.

  • joey

    January 28th, 2015 at 3:49 AM

    I wish that we could take a model form other countries in the world where work is not such an integral part of their lives and their happiness numbers are far higher than ours are.

  • Calliope

    January 28th, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    I used to ask people this question all the time, not as some kind of equalizer but more as an icebreaker. I am not sure why it feels so wrong today to have someone ask this question other than the fact that there are numerous jobs today that someone would have to explain to me in minute derail before I would have any real clear idea of what they actually have to do to have that as a career.

  • steven

    January 29th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    Ask them “Why? You have a better opportunity for me?”

  • Adia

    January 31st, 2015 at 5:33 AM

    This question can definitely spark a lot of feelings, and at times feel a bit “judgemental” – it is interesting to hear others’ perspectives on point of the question in the first place!

  • Gene Gardino

    June 2nd, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    When a person is retired, and the question of “what do you do” comes up, there often seems to be an expectation that you still have to be “doing” something interesting…just answering, “I’m retired,” seems to make people uncomfortable. It seems to stymie them or put a bump in road to the conversation. A simple: “How’s that going ?” could be a nice reply.

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