So…what do you do?
I’ve always hated that question. It always gets asked at parties or when you’re sitting next to a random stranger on a plane. Most people probably ask it with innocent enough intentions of just making idle chit chat, but for many people, it can be a stressful question to answer.
Not everybody likes what they do for a living. Not everybody is proud of what they do for a living. Not everybody works, even. For many people, getting asked this question can feel like being sized up. It often seems like people ask this question to determine where they are in the pecking order.
Case in point…three people meet at a party. One person is a powerful executive who loves his work, another is working in a call center job he hates, and yet another is a struggling artist who is currently waiting tables to make ends meet. So, our three friends meet at a party and the executive starts up the conversation.
“So….what do you guys do?”
For the executive who is happy with his situation in life and his work, this question doesn’t bear much thought. If somebody were to ask him what he does for a living, he would happily describe his work and his company and how wonderful it all is. He would love the opportunity to tell somebody all about the happiness and success he has found in life and as such, he is interested in initiating this kind of conversation. He doesn’t even necessarily realize the stress and anxiety a question like this can cause in others who might not share his enthusiasm for their work.
For the man who is slogging along at his call center job that he hates, this question can feel like he is being sized up. Here’s this successful executive talking about how wonderful his life is, and he feels like he will be judged for being less successful in his career.
For the struggling artist who is currently waiting tables, he might feel like answering the question honestly will paint him in a negative light. He wants to be seen as an artist, but if he tells the group that he waits tables, he will only be seen as a failed artist and his hard work and dedication to his craft will not be taken seriously.
It’s time we asked different questions.
People want others to take interest in their lives and accomplishments, and if the conversation turns to work, it’s perfectly fine to talk about. However, there are better questions to ask random strangers who you know nothing about. Instead of “what do you do?,” how about asking one of these questions?
- What do you like to do for fun?
- Have you done anything interesting lately?
- Are you into any sports teams?
- What do you think of this band?
- Do you fly with this airline often?
- So, how do you know the host?
- If money were no object, what would you want to do?
- What kinds of things do you like to do?
- How do you spend your days?
- Have you read any good books lately?
- Do you have any hobbies?
- Have you learned anything interesting lately?
You get the picture. Allow people to tell you about what is most important and interesting in their own lives. If you ask questions that allow people to talk about themselves, they will tell you all about the things that are most interesting about them. Remember our call center friend? Well, it so happens that he’s also a talented guitar player who plays on a rugby team. Pretty interesting stuff, right? But since he was just asked what he does for a living, he didn’t really have an open invitation to talk about those things.
When somebody asks you “What do you do?”
You can’t avoid it. You will get asked this question. The key is to be prepared for how you plan on answering it. If you’re working in a field you love at a job you enjoy, then great…talk about that. But if you’re not where you want to be career-wise, then it’s helpful to prepare to answer in a different way. Here are a few examples:
- Well, I make my money waiting tables, but I spend all my free time rock climbing and painting landscapes.
- I took some time off of work to raise my kids. It’s so nice to be able to hang out and make pretend spaceships out of cardboard boxes all day instead of being stuck in a dreary cubicle.
- What do I do? Oh, all kinds of things! I take a salsa dance class every Tuesday, and on weekends I usually explore new local hiking trails.
- Meh, work is a boring topic. What I’m really passionate about is basketball…
- I’m between jobs at the moment, but it’s been great because I’ve actually had time to work on my novel for once in my life.
You see where I’m going with this. Deflect the question and turn it into a conversation about what makes you happy in life. It’s going to be a better conversation than talking about work, anyway.