It’s no one’s fault and we’ve all done it. You meet someone new, and after exchanging names and handshakes, one of you asks- “so, what do you do?” And as vague as the question is, we all know exactly what’s being asked.
What is your job?
At this point, it’s basically a societal reflex. I fall back on it myself all the time- ‘so, what do you do?’ Hi there, what do you do?’ It’s straightforward, it’s mindless, it’s an easy way to get a conversation started because, presumably, everyone has to make a living.
But it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize just how open-ended of a question “what do you do” actually is. I drink water, I try to sleep 8 hours a night, I write and make art in my free time. I wear pants. I re-read my favorite books while simultaneously reading new ones. I call my family when I miss them. There are hundreds of ways any of us could answer the question correctly.
So why is it that instantly, and without exception, we all default to answering ‘what we do’ with how we make a living?
It’s a well known truth that as a society, we’re all obsessed with work. We take pride in hustling and effort, we don’t use our vacation days, we often neglect our own well being in the name of our careers. Our language and understanding around “what do you do?” is simply indicative of what we prioritize. And although it’s just a handy conversation starter for our roommate’s sister’s birthday party, falling back on “what do you do” isn’t exactly harmless.
If we have the opportunity to begin understanding who another person is and the first thing we ask is how what they do for work, in a way, we define someone by their job- because a job is not what someone ‘does.’ It’s just how someone makes a living.
Our language matters. Asking someone you’ve never met off the bat “what they do” perpetuates the notion that our job defines our worth, our value, and our happiness. When it’s the first thing you ask of someone, it feeds the grave misperception that our career is the defining feature of our significance, and in doing so, makes so many people feel less than if their career is not the most fulfilling aspect of their life.
Much more practically, in every scenario, asking “what someone does” begins the conversation with an assumption. The person you’ve met might be unemployed, or supporting themselves unconventionally. Their job might not be their passion, or they just might not be happy with their job. Their job may be out of necessity versus choice.
But of all the reasons why we have to stop asking what “someone does,” perhaps the most important one is this- it is incredibly limiting. Who we are is so much bigger than our jobs or our career, but more often than not, it is the first and the only thing that is put on the table when we have the opportunity to show another person who we are.
Of course, there are many people who are lucky to spend 40 hours a week in a way that is perfectly in sync with their values and who they are as individuals. But for every person, our lives are so much more than how we make a living. It is our relationships, our habits, our desires and dreams, our guilty pleasures and quirks that make us who we are much more than how we earn a paycheck.
If you’re on board to throw “what do you do” out of your go-to small talk, I can promise you two things. One- you’re on your way to much richer, more memorable conversations. Two- it won’t be an easy habit to kick. A reflex is a reflex, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to be asked the question the next time you meet someone new.
Instead of dutifully asking it back, take the opportunity to really try and get to know someone for who they are as a person. Instead of “what do you do,” Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air starts all of her conversations with the following sentence.
Tell me about yourself.
Why? Because it “lets people lead you to who they are,” versus starting off the conversation with an assumption or by putting someone in a corner with a pointed question.
Here are some other open ended questions that can invite others to lead you to who they are:
- What makes you laugh?
- How do you spend your time?
- What did you do today?
- What’s something you love?
The next time you get to meet someone for the first time, ditch “so what do you do” and try one of these questions- or your own!- to see where happens. Just maybe, you’ll get a glimpse of who someone really is.