Imagine you’re in a social situation in which you’re meeting new people – perhaps a party or other gathering. As you make eye contact and begin to engage in conversation with these new acquaintances, what is the first question that is likely to be asked in your interaction?
In my experience – and according to many others I’ve talked to – the question, “So, what do you do?” is often the first utterance exchanged between people when they first meet.
The Inevitable Question
How do you feel when this question is asked? Engaged? Curious? Bored? Defensive? Perhaps it depends on who’s asking, and where? For many folks I’ve seen in therapy, it’s a question jam-packed with assumptions – some of which are understandably distressing. Let’s face it: the question “What do you do?” can literally be answered in a limitless number of ways.
The reality is, people “do” a lot of things. Many people eat breakfast, send and receive text messages, laugh, play games, swim, take care of others, create art, dream, sing, brush their teeth, and wash dishes. Yet when the question is posed within the context of meeting someone for the first time, we know that “do” means: “What is your job or occupation?”
Despite the endless list of things we could be enquiring about when we ask the question, “What do you do?”, our culture is particularly interested in knowing what others do to pay the bills. If we read between the lines, the curiosity behind this question points to how we’re taught to value people based on their occupation. For example, someone working as a doctor, lawyer, airline pilot, or successful business person is likely to be regarded more favourably by most than someone who works as a hair stylist, telemarketer, liquor store employee, or grocery store cashier. We’re taught to make all sorts of assumptions about who people are based on how they earn money.
That process of passing judgment is directly related to the anxiety that many people feel in some social situations. As individuals, we all know that we have many more skills at our disposal than those we use to bring in an income (my ability to make a mean plate of spaghetti has little to do with my job as a counsellor). We also generally want to be regarded in a positive and dignified light, especially when meeting new people. Unfortunately, the question “So what do you do?” is likely to fall short of inviting people to share the coolest, most interesting things about themselves. When we lead with that question, we’re far more likely to pigeonhole people based on assumptions we have about their particular line of work.
For example, a man in his early 20’s told me about how he feels anxious when asked what he “does”. When we started to explore why he responds that way, he described how his job as an entry-level retail employee says very little about who he is as a person. When I asked him more about his concerns in those situations, he explained how he feared being judged as somehow deficient for working a job with little prestige and not really knowing of another occupation he’d like to aspire toward.
When I asked him to share more about things he actually enjoys doing, he described his interest in art and showed me some photos of pieces he had made across a number of mediums. He spoke about his art with a vibrancy that was far less present when we talked about his retail job, and I couldn’t help but ask what it might be like to say “I’m an artist” when asked that inevitable question – even though it’s not something he’s currently paying his bills with.
Resisting Being Misunderstood
A big part of why some people find the thought of being asked what they “do” distressing is that their worth as a person is reduced to one aspect of their life. For those whose lives have followed the linear path from student to professional life, talking about what they “do” may not be much of a concern, but for folks who have taken an alternative path (for any number of reasons), the potential to be misjudged as somehow deficient is ever present. Given the implications this holds for someone’s dignity, identity, and social reputation, it is totally understandable why some might feel anxious talking about what they “do” with new acquaintances – if they believe what they “do” doesn’t represent their goodness as a person.
From my perspective, the problem in these cases is not the anxiety the person feels, but the notion that they don’t measure up because of how they pay their bills. Like all emotional responses, anxiousness or despair say a whole lot about what’s important to us. If it’s personally meaningful to be accepted and understood on one’s own terms, rather than by cultural assumptions about how we earn money, it makes sense to feel uneasy or distressed in situations where misjudgements might occur.
Shaking Things Up A Little
Some questions I might offer up to someone experiencing distress in response to being asked “What do you do?” are:
- If you got to choose what people asked you when they first meet you, what would you have them ask?
- What aspects of your life or your personhood are you most proud of that the question “What do you do?” fails to touch on?
- If you were to take action against how people are evaluated according to how they earn money (and how much money they earn), what sort of questions would you ask people when you first meet them?
- What are some ways of responding to the question “What do you do?” that might disrupt the way it’s taken for granted in our culture?
- Is there anyone you admire whose value might not be accounted for if they were asked, “What do you do?”
If you feel uneasy in social circumstances, or anxious about judgment