When 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.
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