Why "What Do You Do?" Is a Terrible Question

PIcture this: you just met someone new at a party, and they ask, "So, what do you do?" You start to answer, either stumbling through an ill-rehearsed elevator speech, or feeling excited and proud about a recent accomplishment, but as you talk, you notice ... that the person is not even really listening to you.

Like, their eyes are searching above your head, or darting from side to side, to see who else they can talk to that might be more entertaining than you. Or their responses are like, "Mmm..." and "Uh-huh..." and "Oh, that's interesting."

It's like when you turned in a 15-page final paper for college and put swear words in the middle to see whether or not your professor actually read it and then you got an A. So no, he didn't read it. Wait, that was just me.

This feeling of being boring sucks, right? It makes you feel dumb and frustrated. We've all been there.

But the problem isn't you. It's the question.

"What do you do?" is a lazy, unimaginative question. That's why it's typically the very first question people ask. Hell, it's easy to throw it out and see what sticks. You don't even have to really listen to the answer; you can just nod your head accordingly, and then you can box the person up in a way that makes it seem like you know something about who they are.

It feels that way when you're the one asking the question, of course. But think about when you're the one providing an answer -- does it really make you feel known? Or heard? Or understood?


Saying, "So, what do you do?" is a terrible question for two reasons.

First of all, it's a rude assumption because it anticipates that the person answering the question has a job or an answer to the "do" part. If they are actually unemployed at the moment or recently fired or totally unsure about their passions, you're going to feel like a jerk for asking. 

Second, it's incorrect, because the phrasing (and the fact that it's normally the first thing out of a person's mouth) makes it seem like whatever you "do" is the most interesting, valuable piece of information about you.

(I mean, if you're a cage fighter with Siberian tigers, maybe that's true. So it can depend.)

For example, here's what I do, here are my titles: Senior Communications Marketing Specialist. Yoga Student. Yoga Teacher. Writer. Editor. Community College Instructor. Volunteer. Co-Chair. Runner. And so on.

Those are some of the things that I do. But if someone asked me who I am, I wouldn't answer with any of the above.

But often who we are influences what we do, right? Those aren't completely separate from one another. I'm a truth seeker and storyteller and believer, and that's why I pursue communications work and a yoga practice and relationships with such fervor. The things that I do shed light on who I am, which is ever-evolving.

So in some ways, yeah, who we are is directly correlated with what we do. Yet, our "doing" falls on a spectrum of fail/success, whereas, "our "being" does not.

I like to imagine people as giant slabs of crystal -- you know, the sparkling purplish blue geodes that were for sale in the gift shops during elementary school field trips to the museum. When you pick one up, and tilt it toward the right and the left, each facet glimmers differently.

What you do -- those are your facets. Who you are -- that's your light.

Remembering this difference seems especially useful at the beginning of a new year, when we make lists and resolutions about who we want to be. Then, when someone criticizes our effort or we fall short of a certain goal or completely dive off the wagon ... we feel like a failure. We feel like what we have been doing, or trying to do, is representative of who we are in full.

Brene Brown talks about this in Daring Greatly; she writes,

"Yes, it will be disappointing and difficult if your friends or colleagues don't share your enthusiasm, or if things don't go well, but this effort is about what you do, not who you are."

Once I started thinking about this, I couldn't stop. Instead of asking people what they did, I started saying, "tell me about yourself." The answers were noticeably different, and sometimes people would tell me about their job anyway, to which I would respond, "Cool. But ... What else do you care about? What's been the best part of your day? How are you feeling today?"

And guess what? I had better conversations. I listened more, and I could tell that my conversation partner felt seen and heard, at least a little bit, which made me feel good. 

I also started giving better answers, which made me feel more empowered in certain conversations. If I told someone who asked that I was a writer, and he or she didn't seem interested, it didn't feel personal. It was easier to think, "Ah, he/she probably doesn't care about writing very much. Oh well."

When you stop asking people what they do, you learn more about them. And when you stop acting like your place of employment or job title is the only or best piece of information you've got to offer, you are better able to articulate what you find most valuable about yourself. 

Give it a try. Ask better questions and give better answers.