What do you do?

As a person between jobs this month, I can relate to this but question always felt stupid to me, even while holding a pretty enviable job. What has industrial revolution reduced humans to?


I think that people ask because they don’t know what else to talk about. I remember being asked that question after I quit work to stay home with my kids years ago. The judgmental responses often floored me. A male friend who was a classmate in college told me I was wasting my education. Then when I returned to work many years later, people who asked me that question probably wished they hadn’t … because I would regale them with tales of how hard it is to get a job after raising kids & how it’s not fun to have to work in an entry level job when you used to be a director. So it can be a tough question for the person being asked and for the person who asked!

I don’t think it’s meant as anything other than small talk, but it’s probably best to have a response prepared in advance if it provokes anxiety.


Your children will be grateful for the choice that you made – if not now, then sometime in the future. My wife took about 12 years out of the work force after our children were born; I am grateful for what she did, and I hope that our children are also. (Or they should be when they have children of their own, some day.)


I stopped working before D was born and never went back, even when she went off to college. My stock response is “I’m a professional volunteer”. People always ask what that is and I explain that it started out as being a class mom at nursery school and progressed through the ranks to an officer of the PTA, regional PTA board member, officer at D’s travel sport club, and President of the HOA plus whatever project or group I am currently involved in. People usually make the connection between doing “nothing” and doing all of the things to make their kid’s activities/neighborhood run smoothly that people with “real jobs” are always too busy to help with.


It’s just a question to set the stage for more conversation. It doesn’t have to be related at all to a job. If someone told me in response to “what do you do?”, “oh, I parent, bake and do yoga” I now have three things to talk to them about - parenting, baking and yoga.

It’s not a loaded career question to me. Or it doesn’t have to be.


I’m a consultant plus a help provide care for my 92 year old mom. It all keeps me very busy and engaged.

When I stopped being a part time judge, my S said it was time for me to re-invent myself, so I did.


The alternate questions given such as “what have you done lately?” could be equally anxiety producing in my opinion. And dont even go there with the ramifications of asking someone if they have kids (I have kids from ivf and adoption so infertility struggles are not foreign to me).

I guess when Im asked “what do you do?” I read the room and provide whatever answer seems most appropriate. Sometimes I say I work in healthcare, sometimes I say I work at a college, sometimes I give my exact job title, other times I say I work full time and have 3 teen/adult aged kids.

Being able to engage in conversation face to face with people seems to be a disappearing skill. I’ve learned so much from other people.


In some cultures the question “what do you do” is seen as very rude. I will see if I can dig it up, but I believe I read that about somewhere in Europe.

Here you go:

American Customs That Are Offensive Abroad (question 21)

What bugs me at social events is when my husband and I are standing together and that question is pointedly directed at him and not me. Uh, we’re both structural engineers and co-own our company…


this is so discouraging. you would think in the year 2021 this kind of behavior was long obsolete. I’m always amazed at how pervasive it still is.


I’m a career coach, So when I ask someone this question, I’m actually genuinely interested in what they do :wink:


Re: One of the most common questions in American small talk is seen as rude in much of the world — Quartz

That page also mentions that “where are you from?” can be a problem if it is used to imply that the person is a foreigner (members of visible minority groups are probably more familiar with this type of thing).


Its odd measuring a person’s worth by what they do to pay bills. It’s as intrusive as asking for salary, mortgage payment, sexual practices, criminal history, all of which can be equally interesting conversation starters.

It can be one of the questions during conversation but not the first one or focus of the chat, unless may be you are meeting at a work conference for networking.

It must be even worse for stay at home parents, almost like implying why didn’t you pop and drop the kid instead of being useless, even though poor lad/lady is juggling childcare, housekeeping, driving, accounting, shopping and whatnot without much sleep and babies driving crazy.

It’s also odd to ask where are you from as it alienates immigrants, everyone is from somewhere unless you are Native American.

Probably retired and recent grads/gap years also feel rotten admitting no current industrial tag. It’s like old relatives asking why aren’t you married yet or popped out a baby or two.

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“Where are you from” is standard in south. And once you tell someone where you’re from, they likely can figure about some connection - like 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. My H is particularly adept at this. He will even do it on phone with people that he has no expectation of knowing a thing abou.:roll_eyes:


How about “how do you spend your time/day?”

Give some other conversation starters you approve of.

Who asks this question as stated in the original post wondering how someone pays the bills? Maybe it’s finding out someone’s interests or talents.


That is so true. I have family in the north and south of Europe. A favorite topic of small talk in the North is the weather. You can easily have a 15 minute conversation with an elderly relative on today’s weather. In the South everything is game for small talk. Topics that will lead to a 15 minute argument (I mean discourse :smirk:)are favored and no level of shouting is disallowed. The small talk then ends with copious amounts of kissing and professing never ending love and allegiance. No one cares what the other person does or doesn’t do (with the exception of doctors; they have the privilege of looking at someone’s lump or mole in lieu of small talk).


I tell them I’m a lady of leisure. And I’m the luckiest person ever!

I also like to say I’m my husband’s younger, more attractive wife. (I’m his first and only wife)


“What do you do?” seems like the most generic jumping off point ever. You could say “I’m a gs12 number cruncher in the department of such-and- such”, or you could say “I just read the most interesting book recently! Let me tell you about it!” You aren’t on the witness stand! Answer however you want to steer the conversation!


Actually, it is more that it is bothersome to native-born Americans who are asked in ways that imply that they are not, as in:

X: “Where are you from?”
Y: “[some place in the US]”
X: “Where are you really from?”


What do you do?
Where are you from?
Where did you go to school?

Seem to be the most common ice breaker type questions in our neighborhood too.

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