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Wednesday, August 18, 2004 10:33 AM
What Do You Do?
Kevin Salwen on Culture

How many times have you been asked that question at a first meeting? It means, of course, what kind of profession, what kind of job? So, you're expected to say that you work in marketing for Microsoft or some such. But lately, just to gauge reaction, I've found myself answering in ways that surprise people: 'I build Habitat houses,' I say, or 'I coach Little League baseball,' or 'I like to ride my bike.' Often they look puzzled, especially when I quickly ask, 'And you?' If I'm feeling merciful, I'll say something like, 'If you mean what do I do for work, I create magazines.'

So often we define ourselves by our work and the 'What Do You Do?' question reflects that. But it's also a reflection of only one part of us. What we do in other areas, frankly, may say more about our core values. Isn't that what the questioner really wants to know?


HumbleOpinion - 8/26/2004 9:08:52 PM
It's my understanding that this is a particularly American question -- that in other countries it is rude to ask what you do for a living because that yields too much information about your income and socioeconomic status.

For example, I've never been asked that question on visits to Europe. However, I have been asked directly 'How much money do you make?' on visits to Asia.

I would love to hear responses from people outside the U.S. how they feel about the question, and how do they respond?
business cartoons - 8/22/2004 6:31:25 PM
Saying what I do ('I'm a cartoonist') still gets quite a resonse from people. I don't think many people know any cartoonists, so it's a good conversation starter.

I've read about thie sort of thing before and I'm thinking about changing my answer to 'I'm a good husband and father.'
Curt Rosengren - 8/20/2004 12:31:32 PM
There are multiple possible motivations behind the question, 'so what do you do?'

One of course, is a genuine interest in knowing more about the person and a real curiosity in what they do. I think that's less common than we'd like to think.

Another is small talk, pure and simple. When people meet someone new, they often don't know what to say. 'So what do you do?' offers them a conversation crutch.

That crutch would be fine if it weren't for a third possible motivation. Consciously or unconsciously, people are looking for boxes to put people in. And how people perceive that box in turn often determines how they decide to perceive that person (and yes, I'm guilty of that myself on occasion).

Sound cynical? It is. Unfortunately, I think it's also true. It's a broad generalization, of course, but one that I think hold true for a sizeable percentage of the population.

Think about it. You're at a party. Not a party with the kinds of enlightened, deep people YOU hang out with, of course, but a party with an average cross section of people. You overhear two conversations near you.

First voice: So what do you do?
Second voice: I'm a doctor.
First voice: Oh, that must be (blah, blah, blah)!

More often than not, the doctor will be perceived as high status, intelligent, worth knowing, etc.

Contrast that with this one:

First voice: So what do you do?
Second voice: I'm a janitor.
First voice: Oh...(slightly embarrassed pause as the brain spins trying to think of something to say)

The janitor's box is one of perceived low status, and all of the things that go with that, and he/she will often be perceived accordingly unless the other person decides to dig deeper to know more about who they really are. Of course, at the same time the doctor might be a complete schlep, but that might take more digging to realize as well.

I try never to ask someone what they do as my leading question when I meet them. I figure that if what they do is an important part of who they are, they will bring it up over the course of conversation (or something they say will make it a relevant question to ask). If not, I'll find out a much more accurate picture of who they are and what makes them tick.
Mindwalker - 8/19/2004 11:26:38 AM
When someone asks you 'how are you?' I think they are making an honest attempt to know how you're feeling. But do our rote answers really get at the heart of the matter and express our feelings?

I remember a year ago, I was having a conversation with someone who asked, 'How are you?' I answered automatically, 'Fine, thanks' but then thought about the roteness of the answer. Often, it's just a crutch to make conversation. More times than not, it belies or runs completely counter to what we're truly feeling.

I've always thought it would be interesting to reframe the question and substitute 'where' instead of 'how.' This way, someone asks, 'Where are you?' and you can give a reply that's expressed from your feelings.

Here are some examples:

Where are you?

- 'I am in a tired frame of mind right now, feeling kind of low over the kind of day I had at work.'

- 'I'm in la-la land because I just got engaged.'

- 'I'm in a nervous place right now because I'm feeling unsettled and restless.'

Any thoughts?
Dave - 8/19/2004 7:26:00 AM
At first I took this like Todd did, but then I realized all Kevin intended was to make me think - just like he does when answering this question.

Consider how many times a person - friend, acquaintance, peer - asks you 'how are you' every single day.

Imagine their reaction if you replied something along the lines of 'much better, now that I'm no longer consipated....' and then proceed to go into detail of everything that surrounded it.

'What do you do?' is a cultural phrase in that everyone knows what is really being asked, and nobody ever really thinks about other alternative meanings.
anita - 8/18/2004 4:38:26 PM

A friend of mine -- who is an advertising executive -- always answers the 'what do you do' question by saying, 'I drive a school bus.'

He swears you can tell everything you need to know about a person by how they react in the first 10 seconds after he says that.
Robert - 8/18/2004 2:48:18 PM
Interesting stuff to ponder, not unlike that question, what do you want your tombstone to say. Virtually impossible to write, for some of us, amazingly easy for others.

In fairness, there was sort of an attempt to get away from 'what do you do?' a few years ago with that phrase,
'wasssssuuup?!' and look where that got us.

Until we get to a better place more subtly, perhaps we can just add some creativity to the standard answer. 'Well, I'm in my fifth year as a junior assistant vice-president at a plastic widgets manufacturer ... but I do it with an electric and rebellious intensity which I hope will inspire future generations!'
Kevin - 8/18/2004 1:15:07 PM
Jenny, Hilarious!
Ingmar, I'm going to test-drive the butcher line and see how it flies.
Todd, Maybe core values was a poor choice of words. I think Anita may have gotten closer with 'what is your status in the community.' (I'll be more of an optimist than 'How much money do you make?')
And Danielle, that question you pose is the real gold. You can tutor my kids any old day.
Jenny - 8/18/2004 12:32:13 PM
Hmmm...I still think the best answer to the 'What do you do' question is, 'About what?'

Ingmar Bornholz - 8/18/2004 11:54:02 AM
Well, everybody has his own pattern and criterias on how to find out about a person. Some do it with the question for your job, others might ask you what kind of beer you drink. Just to ask 'What do you do' is quite superficial. And every time someone asks me this I know he´s not the kind of person I would like to go on holidays with. But, that´s the job. And one has to play the game. If they ask you the next time you might say 'I´m a butcher.' Maybe that makes it more interesting and funny ;-)
anita - 8/18/2004 11:19:11 AM
I find myself agreeing with both of you. Asking 'what do you do' is no different -- or less acceptable -- than asking 'where do you live or where do your kids go to school?' All three questions are potentially ways to ask the same un-askable question: 'How much money do you make and what is your status in this community?'

We have an interesting column in the printed version of Worthwhile written by a woman who was asked the 'what do you do' question repeatedly after losing her top executive post at a major company. Her growth trajectory is compelling.

I love reframing this question -- at least in our own minds -- as 'what do I want my life to stand for.' If we started our kids off thinking this way, we might have a different world.
Todd W. - 8/18/2004 10:58:15 AM
Wow, that's wildly optimistic. I think very few people really want to know about your 'core values' when they ask 'what do you do?' I think they actually want to know what your job is or else they wouldn't ask the question. So why stick your finger in their eye and point out that they are shallow people for being so focused on careers?
Danielle LaFleur - 8/18/2004 10:57:17 AM
I was pondering this very same subject two nights ago on my personal blog (www.klickatat.com) Although I didn't aquire any mind bending conclusions I figured maybe it was time to rephrase the question from 'What do I do with my life' to 'What do I want my life to stand for?'


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