Why We Ask, “What Do You Do?”

One of the most common questions we get asked when we meet someone new is, “So, what do you do?” The second, ‘do’ referring of course to your line of work, your job or career. Not as popular a question in other parts of the world perhaps, but here in North America, second only to questions about the weather.

The obvious reason for the question is a desire to know what it is you do. “Oh you’re in IT; interesting.” This isn’t the real reason behind the question.

People I have found who ask the question have two distinct reasons for doing so. The first has to do with enabling conversation. When you meet someone, you don’t yet have much to talk about; you have no shared experiences to sustain a conversation. Asking someone what their job is provides a point from which subsequent questions evolve. If the person says, “I’m a Teacher”, we access our memory first for what a Teacher is, and second for our own experiences with teachers. We then ask about the grade level, school, years of experience, why they like it, challenges and what’s it like to be at the front of the room etc.

If the job is unusual, or we’ve never met someone with that job title, we have no memory files to access, so we shift to questions intended to obtain information. “What exactly is that?”, “That’s a new one for me, what exactly is it you do?” or “How did you get started?”

The second reason some people ask the question, “What do you do?” has more to do with evaluating the person themselves; their importance by association with the job or career, and likewise their social standing. Hence when someone says in reply to the question, “I’m a Supreme Court Judge actually”, we react differently versus, “I’m a Telemarketer”. Did you instinctively rank one of the two professions above the other? What were your criteria in doing so if you did? Was it the income level, the prestige of the job, your own experience with Telemarketers or Judges? Maybe how they are portrayed on television?

What however, about the person who has no job or career? Those who are unemployed, between jobs, laid-off, receiving social assistance, disability or getting employment insurance benefits? Knowing that we judge and are judged by the answer we both hear from others and give ourselves, this opening to a potential conversation with someone new can bring on stress and a feeling of awkwardness.

What we fear is the exchange that goes:

“So what do you do?” (I’m interested to know)

“I’m unemployed.” (The truth)

“Oh…” (Not interested. Bottom ranked. I have to get away.)

Now before we unceremoniously blast the person who now wants to leave and pronounced judgement on the unemployed person; we all do this. Even if we are the empathetic person who sticks around, asks more questions of the person as to their skills, past jobs, prospects etc., we still evaluate people in part by their attachment to some kind of employment. So we may peg all Entrepreneurs as go-getters and risk-takers. All Politicians as corrupt, all Philosophers as great thinkers, all Artists as creative etc. In truth however, Artists do get stuck for ideas, Philosophers may over think, some Politicians serve their communities well and some Entrepreneurs play it safe and are actually risk-adverse.

For the unemployed person, the problem really comes down to finding a way to answer the question truthfully but still maintain some dignity in the answer. So we hear, “I’m a Stone Mason by trade”, or “I’m exploring my options at the moment.” This last one indicates you’ve got options to explore, so anyone using this one should be prepared for the likely next question which asks what those options are.

Here’s some irony for you. Many unemployed people avoid conversations – especially with people they are meeting for the first time for the very reason that they may be asked what it is they do. However, networking and talking to people is one of the very best ways to find out about new opportunities, job leads and maybe be put in touch with someone who can help them find work. Still, it’s a sense of pride that keeps some from sharing their unemployment. They tell themselves they’ll circulate more and be more sociable once they have work and by association are better judged by those they meet.

Consider however that this is a tougher economy we are in at the moment. Many people have been, or know someone close to them who is out of work. It is because of this that there is more empathy for people who are either out of work altogether or under-employed.

Imagine if you will, being asked, “What do you do?” and instead of apologetically saying, “I’m out of work at the moment”, you said…

“I’m so glad you asked. I’m between jobs at the moment but I’m optimistic, always on the lookout for any tips, job leads, suggestions and opportunities in the ___________ industry. It’s mentally tough, but I’m committed to keeping a positive attitude; the one thing no one can ever take from me. Would you be interested in hearing of my skills and experience?”

You’ll impress and surprise many people with your assertiveness and attitude. You will in short, become memorable.


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