Have you ever been in this situation? You’re at a party, or gathering of some kind, mingling among some people you know, others you don’t. Eventually, you’re approached by someone in the room you’ve never met before. After the introductions, there’s the inevitable question, “So, what do you do?”.
This question, as we all understand, is asking about our job or career. When someone asks, “What do you do?” they aren’t asking what your hobbies are, what books you’ve read lately, if you like skiing or if you fix up classic cars in your spare time. They are asking about the thing you do to earn money.
This question has always bothered me for many reasons. I’ve struggled to decide what exactly about this question bothers me. The short answer is that in our society talking about money (how much you make, how little you have etc.) is considered somewhat taboo, but here you are asking a question which will tell you roughly how much money I make. Yet this question is totally acceptable. It is even one of the ubiquitous questions we are asked in any number of social situations.
Here’s the long answer; there are plenty of people who would find some jobs less “respectable” than others. For an extreme, think of the sex worker or porn actor at a gathering being asked this question. What do they say? For something less extreme think about the stay at home mother? We all know the reactions stay at home moms get. It’s the same reaction working moms get; judgement. She stays at home all day her house must be immaculate, her husband must have a great job, she probably sits at home eating cookies all day. Or on the other hand, she’s a working mom? She must never see her kids and must never cook for her husband. I wonder if she makes more money than him. Her kids must not know her at all. What about the unemployed person, or the person between jobs? Since you ask about their profession, they’re forced to talk about something that might be extremely sensitive or shameful for them. And if we’re all honest with ourselves if we know nothing else about a person other than the fact that they don’t have a job they immediately fall into a pretty negative category; lazy, pitiful, stupid.
Maybe I dislike this question not so much due to the comfort or concern for other people, but because this is such a difficult question for me. I’m 37 and have never had a “career”. I have stood in rooms full of intelligent, successful people and dreaded when someone would walk up and ask me “So! What do you do?” I’d cringe a smile at them as I tried to decide what angle to choose, Starbucks barista, or just barista because what if they hated Starbucks? Writer or author? What if they ask if I’ve been published? Which “job” would get just a tad bit more respect?
When I was a grad student the question became a little easier because it bought me time. I didn’t have to have a real job yet because I was still learning. But now I’ve got that Master’s degree, and I’m still floundering for the best answer to give to this question. Because I’m discovering that maybe I don’t want to get a “real job” just yet.
Maybe I enjoy staying at home, cooking, baking, cleaning, planning get together’s, and carting my kid around to his various activities. Maybe I want to start writing seriously again. I was really in it for a while. My blog was updating regularly, I had followers I didn’t know personally! My blog got an award from a fellow blogger once.
I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I kept with it instead of stopping all together when I started my master’s program. I don’t regret getting the degree; I met some great people; maybe I’ll be a librarian, maybe not. Only I wonder, what might have happened if I hadn’t let other people’s expectations into my head. If the strangers raised eyebrow hadn’t bothered me so much…
Some of these reactions are extremes to be sure, some people are very kind and non-judgmental. But the fact remains, the person asking this question has no other information about this person answering aside from their job, so extreme judgments are going to be made. We as humans rarely give each other the benefit of the doubt. People talk about how mean kids are…but where do you think they get that from? The kids just say it out loud, while adults have learned to keep their mouths shut.
And does a person’s profession really tell you much about who they are? I was a Starbucks barista for two years and when I told people their usual response was “wow you must love coffee!”. Which, sure coffee is tasty, and I do like it, but it isn’t a pivotal piece of my personality. If you took away coffee, I would still be me because liking coffee doesn’t define me. And then there was the moment when they would ask what I actually wanted to do. In my case I was writing a lot and trying to get published, but what if I wasn’t? What if I was happy being a barista with no plans on moving up the ladder to a corporate job eventually? Isn’t that ok? I’d argue that no, it’s not. It’s not ok to be content with a job like that, because this person knows zero else about why you are content with that job.
Maybe this barista wants to travel the world. Starbucks pays well, has stock options, and healthcare for employees working at least 20 hours a week. Why not take that job save money and use the savings for epic vacations? When you hear that story perhaps your opinion of that person changes, but that’s not the question you asked. You asked, what do you do? And that barista has been asked that question many times before and is sick of explaining themselves to get respect from a stranger.
There are not that many people out there that live to work. Few are the folks I’ve run in to who speak about their job like it’s a gift and they can’t wait to go each day. I’ve known people who like their job, enjoy the work, and have nice co-workers, but at the end of the day they’re happy to punch out and go home to do the things they want to do. So why don’t we ask about those things?
This is my goal for this year, to not ask one person what they do for a job, but what they like to do. Or ask specific things like what books they’ve read, what movies they’ve seen, what their favorite meal is. I want to ask questions to get to know the actual person. I’ve seen meme’s and jokes on the internet about people opening up too quickly and how awkward it is; but I love that. I hate small talk and “What do you do?” is the pinnacle of that. I’d rather have a conversation about someone’s favorite vacation, than hear about what clients they dealt with for eight hours of their day. I’m not trying to start a new trend. My goal is not to create the latest trending hashtag (#squirrelsarehighincholesterol #namethatmovie), I’m not looking to be the pioneer of the newest buzzwordy practice. Very simply, I want to make more meaningful connections with the people I meet and I don’t believe “what do you do?” is the way to do so.