I hate it when one of the first questions someone I just met asks me is, “What do you do?” And I also hate that this is usually one of the first things I ask when making polite conversation with a stranger.
I’m trying to get myself away from this habit. It really is a habit. Ingrained. Because we’re taught to believe that what we do is who we are.
For some people, this is true. These people LOVE what they do and absolutely see it as part of their identity. And that’s fantastic! But for those of us who are not quite there yet (or never will be), the question can sting a bit.
It’s definitely at least in part an insecurity thing. I don’t want to be judged by the fact that I have a job that doesn’t necessarily reflect my ambition, potential or education. I used to be able to say, “I’m a student. I’m getting a Master’s degree.” Now if I divulge that bit it’s like, “ok, well, Ms. M.A., what happened there?”
Maybe one day I will have a job (or a career) that reflects who I feel I am–abilities, passions and all that. But in the meantime, how do we deal with this question?
There’s the aspirational route:
“I am working on …..(fill in the blank with impressive career aspiration)….”
Or the self-deprecating humor route:
“Oh you know, I’m woefully underemployed and spend the rest of my time picking up my dog’s shit and dreaming about Rafael Nadal‘s arms.”
Or there’s the change the question route, where you basically ignore the spirit of the question and answer how you’d like:
“I love to read, hang out with my husband and dog watching ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and recently I’ve been exploring continental cuisine with a headlong dive into Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking.'”
But it’s not just the insecurity of being underemployed at the moment that bothers me. It’s also the prevalence of this thinking–this compulsion to be defined by our job or career (and to define others in these terms). We are much more complex than that. So many people do meaningful, important things outside of their work. And sometimes these meaningful accomplishments are as simple as how well you love your family. Simple, but no less profound than the guy who advocates for world peace.
I know that the most interesting thing about you is probably not your job (unless you’re something insanely cool, like a roller coaster tester or a that guy who won the contest to be caretaker of an island in Australia).
So I’d rather ask questions that actually tell me something about you like, “What is the most important thing in your life?” or “If you could do or be anything, what would it be?” or “What makes you so g*ddamn special” (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). But it’s disarming, and therefore considered rude, to skip the conventions of conversation.
For now, as a more viable, less confrontational solution, I’m trying my best to create a new definition for myself so that I am prepared with an answer I feel happy with. I am also trying to be a more creative conversationalist so that I don’t have to cringe every time I find myself asking the mundane, “so, what do you do…”
Have you noticed this as well? Other suggestions for how to answer?