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“So, what do you do?”

When you’re unemployed and want to work, it’s awkward to start off a conversation as you’re introduced to someone new with this question asked of you. Yet, invariably, it seems to be one of the first things they ask you after walking over and saying hello. You’re hoping to make a good impression and the last thing you want to do is share something which exposes you to being viewed in a negative way. The result, you feel bad; they’ve zeroed in immediately on the one thing you’d rather not talk about right off the top.

People generally ask this question in the first minute of meeting someone and there are a few reasons we do. First and foremost, it’s a routine habit for many and it’s easy. When we first meet, we have no history spent together, no frame of reference to ground a conversation in, we’re unaware of any shared interests or views of the world. We’re looking for context; something we can ask that isn’t too personal, is acceptable to ask at a first meeting and we’d rather listen in those first two minutes than do much of the talking ourselves. Getting, rather than giving information empowers the person who asks first.

The empowerment comes having gained the advantage of having more time before they volunteer anything about themselves. Knowing what it is you do work-wise, they can respond to the same question, (for you’re likely to ask exactly the same question in reply) and so what they’ve really done is script the first exchange of information in a predictable way that makes the awkwardness of meeting less so. Ironic isn’t it? They’ve likely got a job and to eliminate their own awkwardness, they ask the very thing that makes it awkward for you!

Now on the other hand, if you’re quick, you can ask the person you’re meeting what it is they do, and when they’ve told you, you can pre-empt their asking you what you do by saying, “Wow, that’s quite interesting, tell me more.” As people often enjoy talking about themselves, you can forestall their asking of you by showing great interest in them and then voluntarily sharing something about yourself, such as a personal trait, general interest, passion or hobby.

But let me point out something to you, or remind you of just in case you’ve forgotten. There is so much more that defines you in addition to your employment status – what you do.

Your identity; how you see yourself and how you are seen by others is not solely comprised of your job/career. You may have other roles; mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather. You may be a weekend gardener, a woodworker, have a love of food and cooking, a flair for interior design, a book junkie, a church-goer or workout at the gym daily. You could be a caregiver, a fundraiser for a local charity, someone who works to improve the environment or the supporter of a healthcare cause. Maybe you’re a runner, a volunteer in your community, a good friend and trusted holder of secrets. You could be a singer in the choir, a leader in a youth organization, a helper on school outings, the watchful eyes of your neighbourhood, a patron of your local library, a supporter of a political party, and the list is endless.

The point is, there’s so much more to you – to all of us – than solely the job we get paid to do. Allowing others to define us by only one factor – our employment – is to sell ourselves short. But don’t blame others for seeing us this way. It’s our job – yours and mine – to first see the many roles we have. We have to see value in ourselves before we can expect others to see the same value in us. If we fail to share some of the many other facets that make up our identity, we can’t expect people to see us any other way but that which we share. So in other words, answer the question, “So what do you do?” by saying, “I’m not working at the moment”, and you’ve provided the person asking with only one piece of information for them to put you in some context they can understand. As unemployed is not generally a favourable situation, it’s them that feels awkward; and it’s their own awkwardness at how to proceed that often has them excuse themselves and move on.

And here, all the while, you thought it was only you who felt the situation awkward. Nope. Not true.

So you’ve got a choice; you always have a choice. You could state your unemployed and then go on to share something you’re passionate about or involved in that gives them the opportunity to respond favourably to whatever it is you share. Or you could just share what that passion or involvement is like this exchange:

“So what do you do?”

“At the moment I’m really concerned with the environment and so I’m involved with some community initiatives making our local area more sustainable for the future.”  No hint of unemployment, no shame or embarrassment and you’ve given the person asking something positive to respond to. Dignity preserved.

In advance of meeting others, you could also consider what YOU’LL ask them other than their own employment status. They too might be loathing the same question!


Eventually, You HAVE To Talk To People

Typically you’ll find I go out of my way to help people cut their anxieties when it comes to the job search process. The title of today’s blog however, has likely raised the stress meter for a few people who struggle with holding conversations.

Yes, there are a lot of people who have difficulty interacting with others; which ramps up even higher than normal when the conversation is expected to be a lengthy one and about them personally. “I don’t like talking about myself”, is a common opening statement I hear often with people who find the interviews and conversations associated with looking for work to be so intimidating.

Now some are great at texting and email. Here at a keyboard, they are more at ease communicating. If they had their way, they’d apply for jobs and be hired based on the qualifications and skills highlighted in their resumes without having to go through the in-person interview.  While some of these types are looking for jobs where they have extremely little interaction with other employees and the public, there are others who will do well once they get hired, become familiar with their new settings and co-workers, and only then do they communicate easier.

Can you feel empathy for such people? I mean, it’s hard to fully grasp what it must be like to have such an acute anxiety about talking to others. Most people I know find job interviews stressful, but job interviews aren’t something we go through every single day of our lives. Face-to-face conversations on the other hand, well, most of us have these many time a day, each and every day. Constantly being in a state of anxiety and heightened stress has to be taxing on both the mind and the body.

Every now and then I’ll hear from someone who was so debilitated on a given day with the fear of being in a conversation that they skipped their job interview altogether. Even though they both want a job and need the income, the barrier of talking to someone they don’t know for 45 minutes to an hour where they are expected to do a lot of the talking just became greater than the desired outcome; a job offer.

It’s not unheard of for some of these people to become physically ill and throw up before job interviews. Their stomachs are churn, their skin becomes tingly and they sweat heavily. The palms get clammy and simple things like eye contact and saying, “Hello” become major challenges.

There is no quick fix I could pass on here in a blog. However, there are some ideas and strategies that tend to help which I can recommend. For starters it can help to look at a job and deconstruct the interaction you’ll have with others. For example, you might balk at the idea of being a Cashier. All those people lining up to interact with you all day long! However, when you break things down, much of your conversation with any one of them will likely be a brief greeting, asking if they want a bag for their purchases, and telling them the total due. Many customers aren’t going to expect or really want much more than that. So while you might be meeting people all day, you’ll only have short, scripted conversations with any one of them.

Looking at a factory job or on an assembly line, your interactions are likely to be restricted to those on your immediate team and perhaps the Security Guard who lets you in and says goodbye to you on your way out. Focus on your work and you might find you fit in rather well, even though there are people around you who are busy doing their jobs.

It can also help sometimes to clue others in to your anxiety. Telling an interviewer that you’ve come to realize that your best work is done independently, and that you like to keep to yourself doesn’t mean you’ll always get shown the door. There are many jobs where the most desirable employee is one who can focus on their work and go for extended periods without the distraction of conversing with others.

Thinking of the above, it raises the important point of making sure you’re going for the right kind of fit when looking for work. This isn’t true just for those with conversation anxieties, but for everybody. In this case, you may do well in a job where you control your surroundings. Take the Potter working with clay in a workshop, a farmer working in a vast field, a Conservationist working in a forest, a Fish and Wildlife Biologist working in a wetlands.

Just walk down any street these days and you see people with ear buds listening to music or podcasts who in so doing, shut out others around them and send the message that they don’t wish to be disturbed. Technology might be tolerated or even encouraged in some jobs if it helps you do your work better.

Of course, sooner of later you do have to talk to people; we all do. One thing to try is short conversations in small doses, where over time you increase your confidence and reduce your fears. Little things like saying, ”hello” to people you pass on the street instead of silently walking by. It might not sound like much, but it’s a small step.