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The New Dreaded Question: So, What Do You Do?

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It used to be that the small-talk questions most likely to make someone uncomfortable were ones like, “Are you seeing anyone?” “When are you going to start having kids already?” and “Have you met your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?”

But if you’re any of the many people working a side hustle, living the slasher lifestyle or otherwise taking an unconventional career route, there’s another question that can put you in an even touchier and more awkward position:

“So, what do YOU do?”

Things Have Changed

It’s an innocent enough question—meant, just like any other small-talk inquiry, to get to know a little bit more about you and your interests.

But for many of us, what we do from 9-to-5 to pay the bills has little to do with who we are, what we enjoy doing or what brings meaning to our lives. In fact, for some of us, our day jobs are actually the least interesting and meaningful aspect of our lives.

Back in the day (you know, in that glorified 1950s picket fence world that wasn’t nearly as ideal as we imagine it being), chances were more likely that what a person did for a living said something about who they were. If you were a salesman, it was probably because you liked people and had a knack for persuasion. You enjoyed it. It spoke to your talents. If you worked at the family corner store, it was probably because the family business was in your blood and had been passed down through generations. You felt proud to be part of the legacy. It gave you a sense of belonging. Your job was your career, and you stayed in it for many proud decades until the time you finally retired.

Nowadays? Not so much.

While there are still some careers that people go into for love of them (teaching, nursing, police work), the majority of us are some variety of paper pusher or number cruncher who do our jobs solely for the paycheck. Our jobs are not “careers.” We didn’t earn our degrees in Philosophy or Women’s Studies with dreams of going into them. They’re just something we’re doing for the time being until we can get onto a path we truly do care about. And chances are we’ll hop through several of these non-career positions over the course of our lifetimes.

So when a new acquaintance asks us what we “do,” we can find ourselves cringing. We don’t want to answer, “Oh, I’m a junior data analyst in the quality assurance division of a sprocket manufacturing company” only to have said new acquaintance reply, “Oh, that’s….nice,” all the while thinking, “Dear God, how boring!” We don’t want to be asked follow-up questions about data analysis or sprockets because the truth is we spend most of our time at our job counting down the hours until we can leave.

What we do says absolutely nothing about who we are.

So, How to Answer?

Some of us stuck in these non-careers are actively trying to get out. We’re freelancing in our off hours. We’re trying to start our own businesses. We’re working, some of us extremely hard, on the dreams that really mean something to us—but we’re not living off them yet. So when that dreaded “What do you do?” question pops us, it can be tough to decide how to answer.

Do we say, “Well, I’m paid to be a data analyst, but what I really enjoy doing is writing?”

Or do we proudly declare, “I’m a writer!” only to have the other person say, “Cool! What have you written?” and find ourselves admitting that so far, we’ve done a few freelance gigs that earned us about 20 bucks a pop? Which ultimately leads to us being found out as a data analyst, because the other person will inevitably wonder how we manage to stay afloat on an income like that.

Or, do we focus solely on the positives, saying, “I’m building up a writing business” and coyly deflecting any (let’s admit it) rather nosey inquiries into the monetary specifics thereof.

How do we spin our answer to focus more on the activities that define us and make our days worthwhile, not the random activities we perform between the hours of 9 to 5?

If you’ve ever found yourself in this kind of situation, how do YOU handle it?

Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=261700020 Clare Herbert

    This is a very tricky one. I recently wrote a post chronicling all the jobs I’d had in my life to date and it really struck me: there’s no one word that captures what I do. ‘Consultant’ is the most accurate match and it’s so over-used that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

    Great post.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=156741187672272 Cordelia Calls It Quits

      Thank you. That’s a good point–people who’ve worn many hats can have equal trouble figuring out how on earth to answer that question.

  • Pingback: What DO I Do? | Cordelia Calls It Quits

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3109609 Pamela Talley

    “The truth is we spend most of our time at our job counting down the hours until we can leave.”

    That is the saddest and most accurate description of employment for the average twentysomething (everyone?) I’ve heard in the last year. I wish it weren’t the case.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=156741187672272 Cordelia Calls It Quits

      Me too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=169628393054101 Life’s Too Good

    I hate that question. I do so many things – but I don’t want to sound like a jerk when I answer – or clueless ;-).

    For a long time too I didn’t like self-promotion at all even if asked though now I’m a little more comfortable with people knowing who I am and what I do (if they ask) – I wouldn’t have dreamed about setting up a website in my own name so set up http://lifestoogood.net but I recently set up http://AlanChatfield.com to have a place to point people to if they really want to know and now I can use that to show the different things I’m involved in (though it still only has about half of them).

    But normally I just answer something like ‘I’m really good at making tea’ (which I really am).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=156741187672272 Cordelia Calls It Quits

      I love it!

      In all honesty, all people are trying to get at with the “What do you do?” question is to learn a little more about you–so why not just focus on the things that truly speak to who you are and what you love? You can answer however you like; no one’s going to come back and say, “Hey, but I heard you’re REALLY an accountant! Why aren’t you talking about number crunching??” (And if they do, they’re probably not worth talking to anyway.) :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667693260 Denise Gabbard

    Phew– this is a tough one for me…for about five years I have done writing, social media, and SEO– and in my past life I was a Finance Director and Executive Recruiter— so the difference is huge–in a really positive way. I actually enjoy this work! The problem is that lots of people who do not work online (my husband included at times) really have no clue what I do–so it can be difficult to explain beyond the fact that I market small businesses. I think I will try the tea answer that Alan uses…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=156741187672272 Cordelia Calls It Quits

      My husband and I both run across the same issue. I’m a blogger, and he’s a “digital media analyst”–and unless you’re involved in either of those worlds, it can be tough to get people to understand what you do. We try to focus on the fun aspects that we really enjoy (I try to inspire people to live better lives, he tries to make small business more visible and competitive in the huge mess that is the internet). If people are curious and interested to know more, that’s awesome, but some people just won’t click with it, and that’s fine too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1255317808 Chris Hughes

    I tell people I’m an ass model. Which usually leads to other questions, because I’m not… my ultimate answer for them is that I’m an Entrepreneur. I make money from a variety of different sources and my income is not directly tied to my time. It usually ends the conversation and if they want to get into specifics I can tell them about the book I’ve written, the SEO company I own, the info products I sell or the affiliate blogs that make me money on auto-pilot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=156741187672272 Cordelia Calls It Quits

      Ah, passive income! I long to have a little bit of that myself to supplement my “what I do.”

      “Ass model” is definitely one I haven’t heard before, though. You win the prize for best answer, easily. :)