You know the scenario. You’re at an old high school friend’s baby shower, and her smug cousin with a Bugaboo and her own book deal, strides over to you and asks you the question you’ve been dreading all day.
“So, what do you do?”
You really don’t want to answer this question and you run through a few smart-arse responses in your head:
“I’ve been unemployed for three months now so I do a lot of the Oprah Winfrey Network and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. You?”
“I sit in a cubicle all day doing data entry and dreaming about my next holiday to Bali with Ketut.”
“I work for ASIO actually. But don’t tell anyone, I don’t want my cover to be blown.”
“Not a lot! Hahahaha!”
But in the end you just mumble a few lines from your job description and avoid eye contact, waiting for her to seek out her next victim. Before you even speak, you feel like your answer is lacking somehow.
In reality you know she’s not a villain. She’s just asking the same tired question we all ask when we meet someone new.
I’m completely guilty of asking this question myself as soon as I’m put in a new social situation with someone I don’t know. It’s a social ice breaker, it’s a fast way to try to find some common ground with someone and, you know, we’re kind of expected to ask it.
But you know what else it is? It’s lazy and it’s limiting and it’s probably stopped all of us from connecting with people better.
Often what someone does for a living is the least interesting thing about them.
This question ties people’s identity and self-worth to their career. And sadly, I think it leads us to subconsciously, and sometimes deliberately, make snap judgements about a person based on what they do for a living. It makes us assess that person’s success based on how they make money and how impressed we are by it. It leads us to make assumptions about a person’s personality, upbringing and goals based on their job and their income.
The way we react to their answer totally gives us away too.
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“Oh you’re food blogger? That must be so much fun.” “You’re a nurse? Can you take a look at this rash on my back?” “You work for the ATO? I’m just going to the bar. See you later.”
Answering the dreaded "So, what do you do?" question can also be anxiety-inducing. There’s a lot of pressure around having the right answer and making the right impression. Of sounding confident about your position or dismissing it as a ‘just’ – for example, I’m "just a telemarketer".
What if you’re unemployed and you don’t ‘do’ anything at the moment, except apply for jobs and try to get by on limited funds?
What if you’re in a job that doesn’t represent who you are as a person at all? It’s just a way to pay the bills.
What if you’re perfectly happy in your career but you’re sick of it defining you?
What if you’re taking a break from your career to raise your children?
We are all so much more than our jobs. We are all so much more than what we do to pay the bills. We are made up of all our hobbies and interests, our life experiences, our connections with our family and friends, our vocations and our quirks.
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So from now on, I’m going to make a deliberate effort to ask people I meet a unique or fun question that might show me a completely different side of them and will hopefully lead to a more in depth conversation.
Like what are you passionate about? What shows are you streaming at the moment? Where would you travel to if money wasn’t an issue? How many times have you watched The Castle? What language would you like to learn if you had the time?
And if you meet me, please feel free to ask me if I have any pets (there’s hours of good stories in that), what was the last book I read, or am I a burrito or taco girl (but please don’t make me choose).