Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Do You Do?


Upon meeting somebody new—the friend of a friend, the parent of our child’s friend, a newcomer to our club, a stranger at a cocktail party—we naturally look for easy conversation starters. Many, including myself, observe the age-old rule of avoiding the forbidden realms: sex, politics, religion. But a great many do jump to the simple question, “What do you do?”

This seems an innocuous enough inquiry, but viewed a certain way it is actually pretty thorny. If you ask somebody about his accent, or her hat, or some activity you see him engaged in, the interest seems sincere. But since the career question generally comes out of nowhere (i.e., it’s not based on anything observed), the person asked this may naturally assume you’re attempting to place him in some sort of social hierarchy. (Martin Buber would roll over in his grave.) If the person asked this is insecure, the question may strike him as a euphemistic version of “What the hell good are you, anyway?” Meanwhile, with our ongoing economic meltdown, the person you ask may well be unemployed, which would start the conversation off on an awkward foot indeed.

I doubt that people really have ill intentions when asking this loaded question; for many or most it has simply become a habit, a standard opener. This blog post is about the problems inherent in this question; the duty incumbent upon all of us to quash it; and some handy how-to suggestions.

What’s the big deal?

You may think this isn’t really a problem. Perhaps you’re proud of your own career, don’t mind being judged by it, and like talking about it. Well, good for you. But what if you were unemployed, underemployed, have a job that is hard to describe, or just don’t like talking about work? Can you see how this would be a bad start to a conversation?

A special case involves a career mom asking this question to a stay-at-home mom. The stay-at-home mom finds herself saying something like “I’m just a mom” or “I’m a homemaker.” She may feel lame in the face of another woman who does everything she does in life and also has a career. The career woman, meanwhile, may feel silently judged for her life choice. The whole thing can get awkward.

True stories

When I met the parents of my college girlfriend, the first thing out of the mother’s mouth was, “What does your dad do for a living?” I was taken aback. Embedded in this statement were several notions: 1) She is interested in the prospects of persons peripherally associated with her daughter; 2) she considers a man’s work more important than a woman’s and is thus not very progressive; 3) she considers the vocation of a young man’s father to be an indicator of something important about the son. Wanting to make a good impression, I didn’t mouth off with a statement like, “Oh, Pop’s on the dole” or “He sells narcotics and hallucinogens to junior high kids,” but I did consider asking, “Don’t you care what my mom does?” Instead I replied, truthfully, “He’s a rocket scientist” and let the matter drop. (I wasn’t quite craven enough to say “aerospace engineer.”)

A stay-at-home mom of my acquaintance—I’ll call her Alice—and her husband were visiting an old friend of his. I’ll call the friend Bob. Bob and his wife had never met Alice before. Bob had his own business and Bob’s wife was a successful artist; her work was hanging on the walls of her and her husband’s elegant dining room where they were all having dinner. Halfway through the meal Bob popped the career question. Of course he meant well, and was just curious, but he neglected to consider whether Alice worked outside of the home: “I forgot—what is it you do?” After a brief pause, Alice replied, “Nothing.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “Which is pretty good,” Alice’s husband remarked, “when you consider that’s where the rest of us are hoping to get eventually!” There was laughter and supportive statements were offered all around, but it can be hoped that the brief awkwardness conveyed a small lesson.

Sometimes this inquiry can cause awkwardness if the person asked has a particularly respectable or glamorous career. I met a guy at a barbecue who turned out to be a medical doctor. I wasn’t sure what to say about that. After a slightly awkward pause I said, “Wow, that’s really ... great!” He replied, “Dude … I am really, really smart.” It’s hard to evoke here how obviously facetious his remark was. It completely dispelled the awkwardness and I immediately liked the guy: he was a joker first, with his vocation a distant second. His response was a splendid recovery from the morass of “What do you do?”

How to respond

Bearing in mind the downfalls of “What do you do?” and also the tendency of chitchat to be excessively anodyne to begin with, I encourage you to equivocate, dodge, parry, and otherwise neutralize this question. I’m not asking you to lie; just take the topic off into the weeds until it slowly rolls to a stop. (Not that I haven’t lied myself. I ran into an old college friend a couple years after graduation, and when she asked the question I said, “I work on an assembly line de-burring plastic parts.” She said, “Oh, that’s great!” I replied, “No it isn’t, I’m miserable!” I did eventually set her straight about my real, slightly less humble occupation.)

So: if you’re asked, “Where do you work?” you can just give the location: San Francisco, south of Market.” Sometimes this is all the person was wondering, in which case you can be really relieved you didn’t misconstrue the question. If he says, “No, I mean what kind of work do you do?” you can say, “Indoor stuff” or “You know, I’m just a weary cog of the corporate machine like everybody else.” (Often I just give a straight answer, but then I feel like a coward, hiding behind the fact that my title is fairly respectable.) Get creative. You could do worse than, “Look! Krill!” Or you could use the Socratic method: “What makes you think I’m employed?” A final ruse: “I already told you.”

I’ve thought of one response that I’m waiting for just the right opportunity to try. I’m picturing myself at a cocktail party where, just as I’m starting to nibble on a little lamb chop I’ve plucked off a passing tray, some stranger walks over and introduces himself. I will forget his name instantly (one of my failings) and then he will ask what I do. “I’m a vegetarian,” I’ll reply. He’ll say, “No, I mean for work.” I’ll reply, “Yes, it’s a lot of work.” He’ll persist: “I mean for a living.” I’ll say, “It’s a living.” He’ll point at my lamb chop: “But you eat meat!” I’ll reply, “Yes. Yes I do.” By this time the conversation will have gone completely off the rails and I’ll be left to chew my hors d’oeuvre in peace. Or, he’ll appreciate the humor and we’ll have a nice chat on some more noble topic.

More benefits of avoidance

Beyond defending your own role from being placed within a social hierarchy, avoiding the “What do you do?” question has additional benefits. For one, it frees you from talking about work. I suppose some of us have really compelling job titles—surgeon, cop, prison guard, actor, assassin—but others of us may not relish the idea of explaining a complicated and/or boring job to somebody else. Meanwhile, if you answer the career question, you may well feel compelled to turn it around and say, “What do you do?” This can give the other guy an opening you might come to wish he didn’t have.

At a party once I carelessly asked a guy what he did for work and for the next twenty minutes he went on and on about how he hosts a radio talk show about sports. I’m one of those oddballs who doesn’t care about sports, at least the kind that get radio programs. Throughout the soliloquy I was dying of boredom. The guy’s speech sounded almost rehearsed, and morphed into a motivational speech (“I was really just lucky—right place at the right time—but I did manage to take advantage of the opportunity I had,” and so on). I desperately hoped somebody would come rescue me, but instead some other guy came over to listen in (out of real interest or schadenfreude I have no idea), and then my wife arrived to watch with amusement as I slowly rotated on the spit. Finally—around the time I wished the whole building would catch fire and the ceiling would collapse on us—the radio guy finished his monologue and said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m an outside sales rep for Science Diet. It’s the premier ultra-premium pet food on the market. I’m basically doing it out of my garage at this point but I see that changing eventually.” He said, politely, how great that was, and then somebody burst out laughing and the radio host stormed off. See? Better to avoid this topic altogether.

A friend of mine never asks what anybody does. (He himself does a little of this, a little of that. I once asked him about a business venture of his I suspected had failed and he replied, “We’ll talk about that,” and then never did. Well played!) Once, during the early ‘80s, this friend was at a marketing event for Coors, with whom he had some business. He was bored and struck up a conversation with some random dude. I don’t remember much about the story except that the two of them didn’t talk about work. Their conversation was cut short when the man was called up to the stage. Turns out he was Al Unser Jr., in whose honor the event was held. My friend had had no idea.

This same friend had a similar experience at a cocktail party. He chatted up some random guy for a good while, mainly about the guy’s newfound love of the guitar. My friend didn’t learn until much later that the guy was none other than Gary Larson. How different would the conversation have been had my friend learned Larson’s, or Unser’s, identity up front? He’d have been unable to resist asking the typical questions (“Where do you get your cartoon ideas?” or “What’s it like driving that fast?”), thus boring these guys to tears and making real conversation impossible.

When is this question okay?

Of course the question isn’t totally off limits. I just recommend it not be used as an icebreaker. Once you know somebody well, it’s bound to come up, but by then you’re not at the fragile point of first impressions. A guy on my bike club once asked me what it was like being an attorney. “I have no idea,” I said. “You’d have to ask one.” He was puzzled, as was I. The mystery was solved a few rides later when he called me Trevor. He’d totally confused me with another guy on the club, who actually is an attorney. I was flattered—not because Trevor is an attorney, but because he was always a much better bike racer than I.

Oddly enough, I’ve found that this career question doesn’t even need to play a huge role in a job interview, at least in the industry I’m in (which is an indoor one). A former colleague of mine interviewed a candidate and came away laughing. “She asked me if I was ever going to ask her about her qualifications,” she said. “I told her, no, I’m sure you could do the work or I wouldn’t be interviewing you. I’m trying to figure out if we’d get along.” Another guy at this firm asked a candidate, “If you were a flower, what kind of flower would you be?” The guy replied, “A sunflower, because it’s not just an ornament, but has seeds that are nourishing and lead to growth.” (The guy was hired.)

The flower question inspired me, so when I interviewed a guy (for the same firm), I had a list of questions that included, “Are you any good with your fists?” I chickened out and didn’t ask that one, but I did run the candidate through a list of arcane protocols asking if he had firsthand experience with any of them. As I went down the list he replied, “No … no … no … no … no,” which was good, as I was making sure he wasn’t a Toward the end of the interview I glanced at his résumé and said, “I see you have a double major in political science and philosophy. What makes you think that will help you in this [unrelated] role?” (I was seeing how easily he got flustered.) He replied smoothly, “It will make me more interesting to work with.” And he was right: I’ve enjoyed his workplace banter ever since.

One of my favorite Woody Allen movie scenes is in “Take the Money and Run.The protagonist, Virgil Starkwell, a failed criminal, lies his way through a job interview. “Mr. Public, have you any experience working in an office before?” the interviewer asks. “Yes, I have,” Virgil replies.
ooooo“What kind of office was it?”
oooooHave you any experience in running a high-speed digital electronic computer?”
ooooo“Yes, I have.”
ooooo“May I ask where?”
ooooo“My aunt has one.”
ooooo“And what does your aunt do?”
ooooo“I … can’t recall.”
ooooo“You said before you worked in an office. Did you deal in products or services?”
ooooo“Is this something found in the home?”
ooooo“No, it’s not. One down and nine to go.”
ooooo“Is this product edible?”
ooooo“No, it wasn’t. I think our time is running out and I’m sorry you haven’t guessed my occupation. So I’m going to flip all the cards and tell you what I used to do. I used to manufacture escalator shoes for people who get nauseous wearing elevator shoes. I’m sorry you didn’t actually guess my occupation, but you did win $10 and I want to thank you very much. Better luck next time. You’re a good sport.”

The point of quoting all this is that this scene makes a fine blueprint for your response should you be asked what you do for a living.


I don’t actually expect my albertnet readers (if any) to dodge the question of what they do for a living, but I hope my point here is well taken. At least we can refrain from always asking this question upon meeting somebody. We can ask ourselves first, “Do I really want to know? Is this important?” If the journalistic mode strikes us as the most natural for conversing with a stranger, at least we can remember that there are more questions than just “What.” To run through the reporter’s standard six:

WHO: A classic opener, nothing thorny there.

WHAT: See if you can skip over this one.

WHERE: Where do you live? Where are you from? No harm there.

WHEN: Not likely to apply unless you’re delivering the classic line, “Come here often?”

WHY: Now we’re getting somewhere! “Why do you do?” could really open up a dialogue.

HOW: Fine thank you, how are you?

After my wife and I had a really fun dinner party recently with the parents of our younger daughter’s school friend, we got an e-mail from the mom. She wrote of her husband that he “marveled at how we didn’t just sit around talking about work, saying happily ‘I don’t even really know what Dana does!’”

See, it works: don’t ask, don’t tell.
dana albert blog


  1. Ugh, you have taken away my only hope of having a conversation at all. Perhaps you would do us the honor of explaining how to *properly* talk to someone you know nothing about? (If you have extra time, perhaps you could help with my more serious problem, which is talking to people I should know but can't remember anything about, i.e. just about everyone I ever meet.)

  2. I'd like to answer sometime, "Well, I used to be a bicycle mechanic. You know, they say, `Bicycle mechanic bleed on the inside!', but that's not always the case. How about you?" or something like that. "I got a job drilling holes in sheet metal!" would be cool, too, though I never actually had that job.

  3. Ed, your two questions could almost be tackled simultaneously. If I don't remember somebody's name but know I should, I like to fall on my sword (because trying to play it off never works anyway) and comment on my inability to remember names. This usually breaks the ice. And I like Bryan's suggestion as well. A variation: when asked what you do, you could say, "You mean what do I do now, or when I had a really crazy job?" Probably the person would be more curious about the crazy job, which is a nice opening (at least, if you've had a crazy job). My craziest job was canning underwear. My wife dressed up as an alligator and danced around to promote a short-lived restaurant that served alligator meat. Conversational gold!