“So What Do You Do?”


When meeting people for the first time, one of the questions that comes up inevitably in the first few crucial moments is some version of, “So what do you do?” The question is really an abbreviation for, “What’s your job or career title?”, and if you don’t provide the name of the employer, that may be the next question to be asked.

So given that so many of us ask the question, my question is, “Why?” I mean what is it that causes us to ask people whom we’ve just met, how they occupy their time and derive a living from that? The question of what we are doing is really connected of course to the income we derive which in turn indicates how we support ourselves financially. Make no mistake about it.

Imagine for example you overheard a conversation where someone asked, “So what do you do?” and the reply you heard was, “Oh I love to garden, take in the football matches and watch the sun go down on the back deck each night with a warm drink in one hand and my spouses hand in my other.” Well that might be all well and good and carry the conversation for the next few minutes, but something interesting would occur shortly after. “But seriously, what do you do? – I mean career wise.”

It’s as if the initial answer wasn’t taken as a serious response; was the person avoiding answering the question? Technically of course they weren’t; they answered the question in the way they wished. If the person doing the asking wanted a specific answer respective of an occupation, then the question should have been formed to ask, “So, what’s your job title?” Doesn’t that seem unnatural and perhaps a little invasive?

We all, “do” many things. We shop, dress, eat, read, rest, relax, laugh, cry and thousands of other things. But when we are asked, “So what do you do?” there is this implied understanding that the question really be poised is about occupations.

Okay so that being the case, why is this of interest to us when we meet someone new? At the root of it I suspect is a desire to assign some kind of value to the person based on our own value of the work they perform. If you think a Cashier is a rather non-noteworthy position, then meeting a person who is a Cashier may cause you to place the person into a category based on your own value system. Meet a Photographer, and you might then say you’d like to see their work – and why? Because once you’ve seen the quality of their work and their preferences for subject matter, you then assign some kind of appreciation (high or low) for not only the quality of their work, but the quality of the person.

Now is this fair? No. You may suppose that clothing models are superficial, self-indulgent and perhaps not all that intelligent. Were you to actually meet one and have a conversation of any length to get to know the person behind the runway model, you might find yourself correcting your initial assumption. And it works the other way doesn’t it? You might revere a person with what you think is a job of great prestige and engage them in conversation only to find them evasive, unsure, boorish and shallow.

Still, when we meet people, we start a process of gathering information and clues that collectively permit us to form opinions based on our own experiences. The more information we gather, the more our opinions become formed on real data rather than guesswork and suppositions. We gather information on how people dress, their posture, their smile (or lack thereof), where they live, who they know, what car they drive, their environmental consciousness, their income level, so why not the jobs they hold?

Young and old do this. Suppose you were given a list of occupations held by people in a large room without being able to first enter the room and look around. Who would you like to meet and have a conversation with based on nothing more than knowing their occupation. Are you equally anticipating a chat with a housewife and a rock musician? Without knowing either or seeing either, you’re own upbringing and personal view of each may lead you to prefer one over the other. And if it were a small business owner and an Accountant, would you care? Maybe and maybe not.

For you personally, whether you are employed, unemployed or underemployed, think carefully then about your personal response to the question, “So what do you do?” What impression do you want to make initially on others? Even if you are out of work, would you answer the question, “I’m unemployed”, or would you come back with, “Carpenter by trade specializing in historical restoration work.” Which of the two responses might generate interest in the person who asked to want to know more about you?

Here’s the best thing about the question, “So what do you do?” YOU get full control over what first comes out of your mouth and the confidence or lack of pride which your body language will communicate in answering. Do yourself a huge favour and spend some time carefully crafting a good answer. Then practice so it comes across the way you want it delivered.

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2 thoughts on ““So What Do You Do?”

  1. Fantastic article, Kelly – I tell clients about this a lot in my work, encouraging them to practice an answer that makes them feel confident about who they are and what they do – they don’t have to tell people everything, just enough to keep the conversation going. Much harder for some than others!

    Like

  2. I tell people I am a Customer Service Rep. Usually they want to know where I work. I tell them I learned my skills in call centers and and am looking for other positions to use these skills. If you have to tell people you are unemployed at least it shows you have some worth.

    Like

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