What do you do? A seemingly benign question that we ask so automatically. In most other countries it is considered the height of rudeness to inquire about a person’s vocation before learning about them as a person. We ask this question in the US first because we attach the answer as a part of another person’s identity.
What are we really asking underneath the simple “What do you do?”? How do you make your money? How much money do you make? Do you make more or less than me? Are you more or less important than me? Where do we rank relative to one another on the socio-economic scale?
In asking, we immediately assign value to a person and decide our attitude toward them. We create an instant division and hierarchy. The true purpose of a meaningful conversation is connection, sharing, exchange, and relating. Imposing a class structure from the onset stunts the depth of connection possible.
This is not an entirely original observation. I loved The Minimalists examination of this phenomenon. Once I became aware I began to see this practice at play all around me. Meet and greet actually means swap titles and perform a cost/benefit analysis of this interaction.
Even though I see the “What do you do?” exchange for what it truly represents I still find myself falling into the trap. This question presents far too easy an opportunity to build oneself up. I used to take pride in my answer of Engineer, Design Engineer, or Mechanical Engineer because of the abilities and intelligence that those titles imply. Many people are impressed by someone working as an engineer at 23 or 24 and I seized most opportunities to proudly declare myself as such.
When I was traveling, and soon after, I answered by describing how I had left a good engineering job to travel the world. I was using the opportunity to proudly declare how free, independent, and committed to my own well-being I was. I proudly declared how little money I made because of the implied freedom and courage in such a choice.
Now I find myself describing my many jobs but being quick to caveat how I left an engineering job, traveled, and now I am building my own business. I proudly declare these because of the implied independence, focus, and strength.
I thought that since leaving my corporate job with a impressive title and large salary I was immune from the trappings of the “What do you do?” exchange. I took pride in the fact that my answers were different and that I was bucking the trend of the typical line of questioning. I now see that while my answers became more unique, they still fell into the same original pattern. The problem was not my title or answer itself, but using the question as an opportunity to proudly declare something. To present the primary piece for the identity the other person will assign to me.
Other people will always build their view of our identity based on what we communicate to them. Communication, though, is much more than just words. Most of us choose our words strategically to directly give (or indirectly imply) the type of qualities and identity we wish the other person to assign to us.
Step Outside the Question
Rather than feed a person labels or titles, give them something deeper. Re-directing the question and your answer to something you are passionate about shares more of who you truly are. This eliminates the possibility for them to assign socio-economic value and immediately creates a conversational landscape that allows for more genuine connection.
Most of us light up when discussing our passions and a deeper part of our true self shines through. Discussing your passions gives another person the opportunity to better understand and relate to you.
Return your redirection back to them and ask “What are you passionate about?” Chances are that they will default to their conditioned response to “What do you do?” Ask again. They might be taken aback at first but will ultimately appreciate that your interest in what drives them supersedes your interest in how they earn money. Take a genuine interest in their answers. This typically is not difficult. It is far more captivating to speak to someone lit up by their passions than simply someone giving the well-worn description of their vocation.
In re-directing this standard line of questioning you will break the attachment between your title and your identity. You demonstrate to yourself and others that you are not your job. You open the door to more meaningful connection and growth. At the very least, you set the stage for more interesting and captivating conversations.
“So Justin, what do you do?”
“Well, I do lots of things, but I’m really passionate about writing, coaching, and teaching. I love to skateboard. I also love to move and learn and discover new ways to move. What are you passionate about?”