Getting Past, “So What Do You Do?”


Within the first few minutes of meeting someone for the first time, you’re likely to be asked some version of the question about what it is you do. When you’ve got a job or career, it’s a comfortable question to answer, especially if you enjoy your job. However, when you’re out of work and can’t find a job, that question can be irritating because for many, it’s hard to answer and not feel some embarrassment or even shame. A solid answer and we feel good, a vague answer or stating we’re unemployed and we feel bad. Why? Because either way, we can feel that we’re setting ourselves up to be judged.

The work we do is of course only one aspect of who we are as a person, but it’s the one thing that keeps coming up early in those introductions when first impressions count so much. I suppose it’s asking about something that’s viewed as a social norm and not too invasive. However, if you’ve ever told someone you’re between jobs or out of work and had them quickly walk away and begin a conversation elsewhere, you know that feeling and isn’t a good one. You just know that you’ve been judged and deemed in some way not up to par.

Like I said though, our occupation is only one part of who we are as people. Some of our other pieces include the state of our finances, social life, housing, spiritual, emotional, physical or mental health. There’s our use of personal time, beliefs, personal philosophies, values, leadership styles, the way we interact with the natural world, places we’ve been, accomplishments, hobbies, intelligence IQ, However just imagine your reaction if someone introduced themselves and said, “Hi, I’m Dave. So generally speaking, how healthy is your investment portfolio?”

The curious thing is that people with what society might regard as a prestigious job – say a Family Law Lawyer, Chief Executive Officer, Coroner or even a Teacher, aren’t automatically better people than the rest of us. They have problem marriages, dysfunctional families, stresses, mental health issues and challenges just like you and me. But still we start those conversations with asking about what someone does for a living.

If you listen to people talk about themselves, you can clearly hear them share what they want you to know. If they keep bringing up their job and the work they do, they might be doing so because this is an area they feel comfortable and proud talking about. They believe that this aspect of their life is one you’ll judge them favourably by and walk away with a positive impression of them.

Now when you’re not working but would like to be, talking about your unemployment can have the reverse effect. This isn’t an area where you feel on solid ground in a conversation and your fear of being judged negatively and leaving a poor impression is heightened. We constantly hear how making good first impressions is important, and we know this ice-breaker topic is likely to come up, so consequently some people will avoid social situations completely to limit the number of bad first impressions they’ll make. This ‘feeling bad’ about not having an answer to share with confidence and pride just reinforces our feelings of not fitting in until we’ve found work once again.

There’s some irony however in that the percentage of adults who have at some time in their lives been out of work is quite high. Being laid off from your job is something typically beyond your own control. When a company moves or shrinks its workforce, it’s well beyond your ability to keep your job. Still, when at that social gathering, it would seem weird to say, “Hi, I’m Joan and I was let go 6 month’s ago for reasons beyond my control and I’m now unemployed.”

This is however, part of a great answer if you’re introducing yourself at a job fair for unemployed people looking for work. Imagine what a relief it would be to be in a room surrounded by others out of work, where everyone is in the same predicament. Asking, “What do you do for a living?” would be replaced with, “So what kind of work are you after?” The feeling is more positive – you’re after something – being proactive.

Wait a second…maybe we’re on to something here…

Just imagine you meet someone for the first time and they ask you, “So what do you do for a living?”, and you said, “At the moment I’m pursuing work as a _____. It’s a great fit for me personally and I’ve got the education and experience. If you have any connections or leads I’d appreciate being hearing about them.”

What do you think? Instead of feeling embarrassed or dreading the question because of a weak response, you’ve taken an assertive position. You’ve told them what you’re after and you’ve shifted their thoughts to whom they might know, how they might help you, and all it takes is one person to give you a name that could lead to that next interview that results in a job.

Why, you might even give them your contact information, or ask for theirs and follow-up in a couple of days with a call or an email. Try it once and it’s new and awkward. Twice and it’s easier; often and you’re an assertive networker.