“What do you do?”
“Where do you work?”
Within a couple minutes of meeting someone, this is something you’ll usually be asked. Someone you just met is asking what you do in exchange for money. Would we ask someone we just met “Hey, how much cash is in your bank account right now?”
Probably not. Is this different than asking people what they “do” ? Not by a long shot. We mean well, but it is insensitive and probably a bit rude.
It’s what we’ve been taught to do and we’ve all done it. Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided that if we want to get to know someone or even just participate in the act of conversation and social exchange, one of the first things we need to do is figure out what job/career/status they currently hold.
Why do we do this? I’m not exactly sure. I think there’s a number of reasons we are overly concerned with identity, status and what our economic relationship to other people is. More importantly, however, is that we consider what these questions may mean to those we are asking…
When you ask someone “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?”, you are asking something very personal of someone you just met. You are placing importance on the “what” they’ve been relegated to being and not “who” they are. For some people, they might be the same thing. For many others, not so much:
They may have a job they don’t like. They may have been laid off or not having any luck at finding a job. Maybe they’ve had a personal struggle and have been out of work for a long time. Mental health or other physical health issues may be a barrier, things that aren’t really comfortable for a light chat at a social event. It might be a matter of a lot of pain and difficulty and something they don’t want to speak honestly about. They may feel compelled to lie or tell you a watered down version of what is actually a very sad story just to satisfy your question. We put a lot of emphasis on jobs and status, and someone may not feel “impressive” enough. It’s an uncomfortable question for most people, aside from the percentage of us that are really proud of what we do.
In my case, I never know how to answer this question because during any given week, there’s a dozen different things I am “doing”, both for work and my own enjoyment. I’m not sure any of them sum up who I am *or* who I want to be, and I’m certain you don’t want a list of all the things I do in full detail. I have many unrelated projects on the go at any given moment, creative endeavours, research for ideas on policy I want to bring to government, improvements to my home, multiple business plans, video games I play, a small coffee hobby and so on. In my past and present are a handful of successes and failures, complicated emotions and tough choices that come with them. If I tell you what I “do”, it is only a version of me and you’re probably not any closer to knowing who I am. You won’t know the career I once had put every ounce of my soul into before it fell apart, or the future I’m after. You’ll instead have a small parcel of truth that you will define me with. I can manage, I have answers I use, but even when they are truth, they still feel like a lie.
I know that what people asking really want though is a job title, and maybe an anecdotal description of the job that is fun to listen to at a party. I am not my job. A lot of people would love to not have one so they can spend time on things they’re more passionate about, or at least to switch to something they are interested in. For others, it’s not pretty.
It is really easy to avoid asking these questions in a social situation. You can ask things like “What do you like to do?” or “What’s been keeping you busy lately?” or basically any question that gives them the opportunity to tell you about the life they are after rather than immediately asking them to share a version of themselves that has been shaped by societal judgement or convenience.
We should probably re-shape how we meet and categorize people anyway. If I ask someone what they do, and they tell me they are an accountant or a hockey coach, they immediately go in my “I have nothing in common with this person” box. I like to go the extra mile to find out more about them, but it’s easy to see how I’ll never really get to know a person or discover unknown common interests or anything else of value if I make it all about “the job”.
I also want to foster hope in people. It’s never too late to achieve most of the dreams we have, big or small. I don’t think reminding people what mundane expectations the world has of them constantly helps.
Photo: Pile of sheets by Johann Dréo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Copyright 2013 A.W. Young