I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.
I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.
Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.
However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”
Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.
Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.
So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.
If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.
Floyd King says
I very much enjoyed your article – Stop asking “What do you do for a living?”
I have often felt that people attach too much of their identity to their job.
What happens if one loses their job tomorrow?
It does not change who you are.
(Might change your lifestyle a bit).
So what is the best 1st question you have been asked when someone first met you?
Floyd King III
Christopher S. Schneider says
It’s spot on.
The job question is hard for people who don’t want to be qualified by that measure. And, as you suggest, does invoke the “who is better” feelings.
In job interviews, we often ask “what keeps you busy these days?” Even for those with traditional employment the answer is usually not their job but something more interesting!
Nagesh Belludi says
I agree, that’s a great question. Asked directly or indirectly, it gets folks to share what their priorities in life are at that moment in time.
I’m bombarded with this question constantly and It’s so annoying especially in this day and age. With covid, the high unemployment associated with it, the great resignation, the rise of the gig economy, and the wider access to work from home jobs, this has changed my outlook on the job market. Some people are taking this time to take advantage of people who were deeply affected by covid who were laid off, decided to leave work, or decided to work from home as an excuse to make these individuals as indecisive and lazy rather than people who were disadvantaged and have no direction. It’s a major social crisis we have faced in our society. I was just getting ready to start a job search, completed a degree at my local community college, was volunteering every day, and had plans to travel, then covid hit and shut all of that down. Here I am in the beginning of 2022, collecting SSI, pondering about my future and what am I going to do about work. I still live with my parents who keep pressuring me to get a job because of in their view, people when asked “What do you do for a living?” make me more of a sociable person rather than a dud. Well, I am glad to see this article posted because it’s outrageous that this is the society we live in today. Sometimes, I’m taking a walk or at a bar trying to enjoy myself. and get asked the question we’re talking about, I feel like I want to smack that person across the head or tell them to f*ck off. Last month I had a person ask me the what I do a living question at a bar I hang out at and right after she talked to me, she told the bartender that she hates her job so much that I going to quit at the end of this week. Not kidding at all. With that said, now is the time we should more empathetic, understanding, willing to offer suggestions and advice, and network with people who could need your help rather than interrogate them about a needless topic of conversation which has put so many people on edge. The world has changed and people need to make choices that should be able to make themselves happy and not others happy. It’s time to be more understanding of people’s choices and less critical of their choices whether not you agree or disagree. It’s time to get to know people based on their interests rather than their professions. We don’t need to be nosy detectives who think that money is more important than life itself or that not having a job won’t guarantee you and the person asking you the question is going to be your friend by the end of the day. There are other things where can meet people with similar interests instead or to do something social like volunteering, support your local businesses, joining a club or an organization, working part-time at a local shop or cafe, starting a business, creating a blog, starting a podcast, do research on a topic that fascinates you most, go to concerts, attend a church service now and then, pick up an art form like painting, drawing, or photography. travel, get active on social media sites like Instagram or others where you can find and connect creative and innovative people. There is so much you can meet people where you can have similar interests rather these days that the question that goes nowhere in keeping and maintaining a conversation.