“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 DréoLicensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Musician, designer, developer, social media nerd, amateur writer + designer of games, tea drinker (recently turned coffee snob), comedy addict, reluctant activist/gov't policy nut. Sometimes the locals call me "Adam from the internet."

  • Christian Valenzuela

    Oh brother.. dont you think you’re being overly sensitive and a bit of a baby, actually. Unfortunately, we live a a working society, its everything we go to school for and may not exactly be what defines us, but it is pretty close. Of course there are always those exceptions you mention where they may be out of work for a very good reason but can’t say that’s likely to be a high percentage of society and should stop people from trying to get to know what they’re about.

    Seriously if you dont like being asked what you do then don’t participate in western society. Its very much a status gauge, yes, but people should have the stomach to be asked that simple question without having it be something negative. If ur not able to do so or have to lie you should understand that even people with careers have had jobs before they got there, or know people have temporary jobs for different reasons. It almost insulting to think the people asking dont know how life works, and that is possible to be working less then their means at that point and time, most all of us have been there, and if you’re not grown up enough to know that then you have bigger problems.

    On a personal note I think u give people too much credit, most people want to do more but dont care or dont know how to apply themselves, if others can figure it out so can they. This is why so many have jobs they dont like, and special circumstances aside, you get out of life what u put into it. You dont like your job, step your life up.

    • a_w_young

      Thanks for responding.

      Firstly, no to the being too sensitive or being a “bit of a baby”: I “deal with it” just fine, but the more it happens, the more I think about others who have it a little more difficult than I do.

      It is incredibly easy to avoid. Rephrasing the question(s) in the slightest way can really change how the people on the receiving end may feel. Why wouldn’t we aim to be more sensitive?

      “Sensitive” is a word that has been given a negative connotation, but when I suggest it’s something to strive for, I simply mean looking out for/making life just a little more enjoyable for other people.

      “Seriously if you dont like being asked what you do then don’t participate in western society.”

      For many people, it is because of their participation in “western society” that such a question might be a rough one. A lot of people find themselves in difficult circumstances after a series of tragic events beyond their control.

      I’d rather know what interests them than what menial task they do or don’t do. If work is a thing that brings them pleasure, they’ll tell me.

      Most people are used to being asked these questions. I think we’d both be surprised if we discovered how many people are uncomfortable answering these questions (and how often they lie as a result). I simply propose that we ask better questions. It’s not a big deal and makes conversation more rewarding for both parties.

      • Christian Valenzuela

        Bro, I already said circumstances aside, you have to understand that the majority of people that don’t like their job didn’t get there by random unfortunate circumstances, it’s for bad judgement. You give people too much credit, the more you work at different places and meet people you find that they just don’t know/care enough to strive for better, sad to say.

        Like, you mean well for others feelings.. lol and that’s a good thing I guess, but most these people are grown adults that don’t need some nameless blogger defending their honor and dignity, no offence at all. I guess you’re right, it’s a nice sentiment, and when u ask and they have a shit job it makes it all awkward for a second, but then you remember you’ve had shit jobs too, so you don’t think much about it, that’s why I said its not a huge deal to baby everyone’s self esteem. Sometimes I ask cause I specifically know they have a shit job ahah, but that’s just me ; )

        • a_w_young

          You may be onto something with some of that first bit, it’s something I’ve thought about often. More reason for me to ask them about things they enjoy talking about or are actually interested in. If they want to talk about work, they’ll bring it up.

          I’ve had my dream career/job, and I’ve had terrible jobs, and no job, and lots of jobs at once and pursued my own business plans too. Lots of stories worth telling came out of those things. And I do like talking about them sometimes.
          I just think people are more interesting and have more fun if you ask them something that lets them talk about something that for many people, is the equivalent of asking them about their bodily functions and other things they do to survive. It’ll come out eventually anyway, on their terms.

      • paul m

        I agree with the article you have wrote but like a lot of things today people have no manners.
        For example: are you having any more children? is a frequently asked question and it has become the ‘norm’ to ask this. Are you on good money? How much was your new car? Was your holiday expensive? How do you afford that? etc………. By the way who in their right mind actually CARES what you or anyone else does for a living?

        • a_w_young

          I’m completely with you. I’m not going to suggest that I myself have become some sort of perfect example of authenticity and treating others with the dignity they deserve, but I am trying to aim a bit higher and would like it if we all could more often.

  • Kwaku Danso


    • OS Ogbe

      Yes seriously

  • Steve

    Hey Adam, sorry to comment here…but all my comments are now held for moderation in the Observer… any chance you have anything to do with that? I know people have asked you about it before…

    • a_w_young

      Definitely not. I feel your pain though. There have been times where the oddest comments were held for moderation or even deleted.

      I don’t hit the flag/report button unless someone is being abusive or weirdly personal.

      • Steve

        Frustrating, I just tried again… here’s my comment. Feel free to delete at your discretion..

        I’m not talking prescriptions that ran out so they turned to the street…I’m talking hardcore street drug use.
        I don’t need to spend time talking to anybody, one of my friends growing up died of an overdose in his 20’s… there isn’t millions of reasons…it’s easy to say that when we don’t do drugs. The last thing he said to me was he wished he had of listened to people and never started in the first place. It’s not that he couldn’t stop…he didn’t want to, he liked getting high too much.
        That’s why I am a hard ass on addiction

        • a_w_young

          That’s terrible, and something that would stick with me too. Sorry this happened.

          You’re allowed to be a “hard ass on addiction”. I’ve known people who have struggled too. Why they start isn’t always the same, and even though you’ve discounted prescriptions… that is how some of the “hardcore street drug use” does start. You’ve addressed that though.

          Regardless of all that, I’m all for harm reduction and addiction management strategies. A lot of times we focus on making what’s really a medical problem into a legal one. There’s no single silver bullet though, needs to be attacked at many angles.

          I went to one of the city-wide meetings where everyone from health professionals to law enforcement spoke to the challenges surrounding this a couple years ago. It was pretty revealing about the problem in our town in particular. And nobody has a singular answer, aside from all agreeing that it takes co-operation and treating everyone like human beings.

          • Steve

            Thanks for that.
            I think it may be because I am at work and leave the text window open to appear busy to others 🙂 , that it’s locking it…then flood control keeps me from pasting it into a new window.

            Thanks for finishing this here… I’m still locked out of that topic at the moment.

          • Steve

            I just tried commenting on an unrelated topic…. held for moderation. I guess my views/opinions are not liked very much