Why I Hate the Question “So, what do you do?”

It never fails: You encounter new people and the first question they ask is, “So, what do you do?” Occasionally you’ll encounter people that seem to ask this question out of a genuine interest in you and your life, but most of the time you can tell that it’s their way of quickly sizing up your social status, paycheck, and your potential worth to them.

I hate this question for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not have a socially acceptable answer. What do I do? I “do” a lot of things. I write, design web sites, take pictures, cook, clean, run marathons, make jewelry, do landscaping, read, do needlework, care for my family, manage th

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22 Responses to Why I Hate the Question “So, what do you do?”

  1. Brenda says:

    I just tell people I’m a ‘Domestic Engineer’. It might actually be nothing but at least it sounds like an important nothing???
    Then I will ask what they do, as most people prefer to talk about themselves anyway.

  2. deanna says:

    This is only a problem if you actually care what people think when you answer. Anyone that judges is probably not someone I am going to get along with anyway, so this is never an issue. People are free to pigeon hole me if they like, but there is no reason for me to worry about it.

  3. Annie Jones says:

    When someone asks me that, my stock answer is “What do I do about what?” That usually catches them off guard, and somehow makes the entire conversation that follows a lot more lighthearted.

  4. Alexandria says:

    I agree to some extent, but I think you read too much into it, personally.

    I have struggled with this a bit since my spouse stays home. So anyway, any time you say a man stays home, everyone wants to offer him a job. That’s what I have learned.

    It used to annoy me, but in the end we turned it to our advantage. He does some work on his hobbies so now when people ask what he does we just go with that. In the end I find a lot of people ask that question because it is just natural to network. I found it wasn’t as productive to say he does “nothing” as it was to mention the things he does do. In the end he gets more work that way – as more people understand what he does do. I think in your case it is much the same. I don’t think it is always necessarily people sizing you up. Genuinely they just want to help and understand.

    However, if my spouse was not interested in ANY paid work at all, I know it would be a lot worse. It would make just about every social meeting ackward. For that it is a shame the way people react sometimes. To have that kind of freedom really should be admired, but it just isn’t in our society.

  5. Pete says:

    I attribute the “What do you do?” question mostly to mindless smalltalk habits. It’s one of those standard cliche ice breaker questions that are taught by many, both in the business (Sales Leads 101) and social worlds.

    I do agree that the question is often used to size up people in business settings. When that question is asked of me, I try to quickly judge whether the person is sincere vs. just rattling off a scripted line or looking to add another client to their CPA firm. Robots get a nonstandard answer from me, intended to wake them up.

  6. Hilary says:

    I’m guessing that when people ask “What do you do?” they’re asking “What do you do to make money?”, right? So for that, you could say that you’re a freelancer, since the things you describe are on a per article / per photo / per website basis.

    But, of course, if you want to spark discussion, that answer won’t do. I’m sure Miss Manners has a lot to say on this subject.

  7. lisa says:

    This is actually an American thing. I’ve never encountered it living in Europe.

    I agree with you. Too much emphasis put on a Title which really doesn’t say anything about the person.

  8. FruWiki Meg says:

    I don’t mind the question. If they want to know, I have plenty of things to say on that topic. However, what I cant stand is when I tell people about all the different online projects I’m working on and then, after all that, they have the guts to ask me: “So, do you have a job?” GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

    The funny thing is, in this area, saying that I was a house wife would probably be miles better than saying that I do anything online or as a writer. But while I am a work-from-home wife, I don’t dare insult the true “domestic engineers” by calling myself one. My husband is actually more domestically inclined than I am, which is certainly a blessing for us both.

  9. Fish says:

    You can always tell them that you are a human being, not a human doing ;^) That usually confuses them.

    I hate that question too, and then hate myself more when I answer something stupid like, “I’m just a mom.”

  10. Lisa says:

    Interesting that you don’t just say you are a free lance writer/photographer and do other odds and ends between jobs. It would be easily understood by the masses.

  11. melwrc says:

    Most people don’t ask “what do you do?” to size you up. It’s a conversation starter for most. Most people spend at least 40 hours of their week working, so it’s natural to be a first topic when meeting someone. I ask the question regularly. I’d be annoyed if I got one of the many glib answers being suggested. You have no reason to be ashamed or defensive for being a freelancer with a variety of income streams. Now if someone follows up your answer with a jerk response, feel free to act however you want. Just don’t be the first one to act like a jerk.

  12. jj says:

    I think this is definitely more of an American thing. It does come up in conversations in Europe but it’s never the first thing people ask you. Plus, talking about work is boring!

  13. Texas Girl says:

    I admire you for living the way you do! This world today is far too materialistic and if more of us lived like our grandparents did, simply, debt-free, the world would be a better place.

    Personally the worse question to me when I meet somebody, after they find out I’m a SAHM, is “What does your HUSBAND do?” Now why on eatth would anybody care to know that unless they want to find out how much $$ we have?

  14. Sue LaPointe says:

    Jennifer -

    Thanks for an excellent post – I’ve looked at this question, too. Mostly the responses I get now are “Wow! That sounds interesting!” Having such a ‘mysterious’ job also comes in handy when I’m out networking… chances are that if they don’t know what it is, they don’t need (or think they don’t!) my services.

    I’m going to post a link to your post in my blog:
    http://buildathrivingwritingbusiness.blogspot.com/

  15. kathy says:

    I always have fun with this one too. I photograph weddings, I do post-processing for another photography studio, I raise my daughter, and my husband and I farm, oh, and I have a herd of goats. I am also starting nursing school in the fall. My favorite answer at the moment, just because of the looks I get and the conversations it starts, is simply “i’m a goatherder”.

  16. I got asked that very same question recently. I replied “I go to the beach, read a lot of books and usually get drunk by 5″.

    All of a sudden everyone wanted my job!

  17. Cheryl Cavender says:

    When forms ask for “Occupation” I put down “Domestic Administrator”. Definitely a more accurate description of what I do compared to “Stay-At-Home Mom” (I’m on the go and not home much) or “Housewife” (I’m not married to my house, I’m married to my husband.) Most people reading “Domestic Administrator” love the term (doctors, nurses, tax prep.)

  18. Dody says:

    Youe an independent contractor, that
    s what you “do”. AKA self employed.

  19. arize arize says:

    Just smile and pretend that you didn’t hear the question. In fact, I do this often when I run into guys who are interested in showing off their new mundane stuff. I simply smile and act like it is unimportant to me. And it is unimportant because it is not a goal of mine.

  20. Rachel says:

    I totally understand how you feel about that comment. I write screenplays for film and while I’m still “a newbie”.. which really means I haven’t technically sold one yet… Working at selling screenplays is a full time job in of itself. I have an agent and good connections, but you still have to be flexible and available to make calls, smooze, and generally take charge of your goal. When I tell people I’m a writer.. they think books like you said. Even if I say I’m a screenwriter they say, “Do you have anything published?” And then the irritation of wanting to scream… I said SCREENwriting. lol.. and then I find myself back at that position of.. how do I answer that question. Eh, I figure sticking with writer works. Who cares what all those people think anyway! :)

    Thanks for the article!

  21. Caroline says:

    I smile and reply: “Whatever I want.” Leaves ‘em guessing. Serves ‘em right for being nosy.

  22. Paul says:

    This problem is in your own head. Simply say “I do lots of things”. Personally I would find this intriguing. If a person considers you a bum because of this, you need to question whether that is really a fair or accurate assessment. It is not. And therefore you should not put yourself in the position where you feel you have to justify yourself to them your worth.
    So many people would love to escape the rat race but wouldn’t know what to do to make ends meet. You managed it, be proud of it. The people who think you need a dull 9-5 to be considered worthy of their approval are frankly not worth knowing.
    Be aloof, do not bow to anything if it does not agree with your own logic.

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