The question has become loaded with so many layers that it’s impossible to ask genuinely. “What do you do?” In recent years, everyone seems to have an opinion on the appropriate question to ask when you meet someone. In the D.C. dating scene, men say it’s code for “How much money do you make?” (I say that like I’m a part of the “D.C. dating scene” and I don’t spend 99.99% of my time in said scene curating my online dating profile.) I’ve always been offended by that assumption, and have been insistent that the question is a shorthand to learning someone’s identity.
But more and more I’ve been realizing that my point of view was a byproduct of my youth, and that as I get older and closer to the dead end of my job (and I guess the dead end of my life), become disillusioned with my industry, and don’t particularly like the identity I spent my twenties trying to build, I struggle to answer this question.
Eight years ago, I started what I quickly grew to consider a career as a higher education professional. That was always a bit difficult to explain to people, but I was proud to hold court on the many roles and responsibilities at a university beyond teaching. In some instances a job can turn into a career. I went that way at first, and then plummeted back to where I started, like a freefall ride at a theme park. Now I shrug and say, “I work at a university.” When pressed, I will be more specific and say I do “personnel stuff,” which is the broadest possible descriptor of my weird niche pigeonhole job. I’m beginning to understand all those voices telling us what we absolutely should never ask someone.
1) The person you’re asking might not be comfortable with the answer.
I started thinking about this topic a lot a few months ago when I was taking a class and we got a little meta about icebreakers. A stay-at-home mom explained that the question always makes her feel bad about herself. She waved off our insistence that it was a perfectly respectable answer; intellectually she knew she could take pride in this answer, but she wasn’t able to feel proud.
Maybe it’s because mom-emotions tug at my heartstrings, or because I spend a lot of time wishing I didn’t have to deal with office life, but that conversation flipped a switch inside me. I realized…
2) It has more to do with the comfort level of the asker than the responder.
I ask that question because it’s what I’ve always felt most comfortable answering. I rarely ever think about how the other person is going to feel; I think about what I want to be asked. If the standard opening question were “Do you have kids” or “Are you married” I would walk into social situations feeling more on-edge and anxious than I already do. I’ve heard that in certain rural parts of the country the standard question is “Where do you go to church?” Where I am from (South Florida) and where I live (D.C.), even if someone could answer that question, they would take a moment to wonder about your agenda before answering.
Lately I’ve started asking people what they do because I’m looking for ideas, or I want to live vicariously through them. I have to keep reminding myself…
3) That job is probably not all it’s cracked up to be.
I know being a stay-at-home mom is not like being a Real Housewife. My own mom was one for several years and she struggled with loneliness, financial insecurity, and a rough re-entry when she got divorced and had to find a job again. But I still talk to stay-at-home moms and think “what an awesome life.” For a year I worked at a Very Prestigious University and people were impressed when I told them. But I was miserable.
I imagine K-12 teachers experience this constantly. We’ve had it hammered into our consciousness that summers off is not a thing, but I can’t imagine they hear anything other than wow/so rewarding/you’re the real heroes or ugh/I’m so sorry/that must be terrible. I can’t even speculate here that reality is somewhere in between, because from my perspective it is one or the other or both of those extremes. Sometimes a job is just a job, and even though I’ve tried and failed to get high school teaching jobs before, I know they are last resorts for a lot of people.
4) And that’s what makes this question is one of capital-P Privilege. This controversy does not exist below a certain income level. I’d guess that most people in this world don’t define themselves by their jobs. The classic examples of janitors or burger-flippers are so pervasive I can’t even think of any other low-paying jobs.
All of this boils down to the fact that I can’t even begin to pretend I have a solution.
Some smug people respond defiantly with some smugness like “Lots of things! I read, I swim, I go to concerts, I play with my dog…” and I think that’s a not-so-subtle way of calling someone an asshole for asking the question to begin with. They turn their response into a sociological debate, like the people who respond to “Happy Holidays” with “And a Merry Christmas to you!” I get it. We are finishing the question in our heads with “for a living” and they are filling in “for fun.”
But even pointedly asking what someone does for fun implies that they have room in their life for fun. They’re at some dumb cocktail party they don’t want to be at before crashing on the couch to watch four hours of Netflix because they don’t have the energy to brush their teeth. Or they’re at their kid’s baseball game and after that they have to go to a PTA meeting and they never see their spouse because they can’t afford daycare for the baby so they have to work different shifts. Or they don’t do anything for fun because they are struggling with depression and caring for an ageing parent. They work two jobs and can only spend a few minutes a day with their loved ones. Fun is a privilege.
“Tell me about yourself” sounds like a job interview or a date (so I’ve heard) and part of the social contract (so I’ve heard) is that we politely ask each other questions instead of barking demands.
The best alternative I’ve heard is “What’s your story?” When I ask this, I imagine myself as a sassy 1940s lady newspaper reporter, so not entirely my own personality but the person I want other people to think I am. Though it sounds accusatory and I think would catch me off guard as the person being asked, I like the implication that the asker is really engaged in the answer, and I know that they’re really in it for the long haul of this conversation.