For the love of god, stop asking people, “So, what do you do?”

what do you do

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OK fellow Millennials (and really, everyone, because who hasn’t seen this movie?) … do you remember that scene in Aladdin where Genie (RIP our beloved Robin Williams) is describing what it’s like to be a genie?

His whole form expands to fill the room while he bellows in a deep, booming voice: “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER!” … and then he shrinks into his lamp and concludes in a quiet, high-pitched voice, “itty bitty living space.”

One of my clients and I were reminiscing about this recently because it’s the PERFECT visual for what, quite frankly, is wrong with the way we talk about ourselves (at least in the Western world).

My client, Kayla, has been struggling to figure out how to define herself given that, right now, she doesn’t have a traditional career or paying job (she’s been a stay-at-home mom for a few years).

She was feeling pressured, given that her kids are more self-sufficient now, to pick a career path — she believed that having a “title” again (besides “mom”) would solve her identity crisis and earn her some validation and respect.

Obviously we coached around this and got to the heart of the matter. Here’s what she realized:

“I’ve pushed myself so hard to figure out what I ‘am,’ and that’s absurd because no human’s existence can be shoved down that far. You can’t be condensed that much! I’m an engaging and interesting person regardless of whether I have a job title. And I realize that of all the things I thought I wanted to do, none would have solved that existential problem and made me feel whole.”

I completely agree with her. And to be blunt, I’m REALLY tired of this lame, one-note, arbitrary means of defining who we are as people.

I LOATHE THIS QUESTION WITH THE FIRE OF A THOUSAND SUNS

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m an introvert. I tend to hate small talk and awkward social interactions. I find myself woefully incapable of skimming the surface — I’d rather dive straight into the stuff no one wants to talk about.

Which is why I HATE that the most popular introductory question of all time, at least in America, is: “So, what do you do?”

Listen, I get it. Small talk is awkward for everyone, not just introverts. And we all spend the vast majority of our lives working. It’s understandable that we’d be curious how other people spend their time.

The problem isn’t really the question itself. It’s what the question inevitably represents. Which, to me, is a cultural obsession with equating your very identity as a human being to what you do for a living.

The evidence is everywhere. You can find it in highbrow news sources (“the victim was Jane Doe, 31 years old, an engineer from Maryland” … unless Jane died whilst engineering, how is that relevant?) and frothy reality shows like The Bachelorette (Sasha, 26, Dental Hygienist … as if she has a better chance at love because she cleans teeth for a living?).

The way we introduce ourselves usually isn’t, “I’m Rachel, and I work as a life and career coach.” It’s, “I’m Rachel. I AM a life and career coach.”

I PROMISE I’M NOT SPLITTING HAIRS

The distinction between what and who is really important.

Describing yourself with a verb — I’m a person who does this thing — is way less permanent and weighty. If it’s an action, it’s something you can also stop doing. You can put it down and pick something else up. There’s room for change and growth.

But when you describe yourself with a noun — I AM something — that’s a much more serious and weighty way of identifying yourself. It’s also a LOT harder to change.

When the unspoken expectation is that you’ll find a career that melds into your very identity as a human being — well, that’s a HELL of a lot of pressure.

It’s no wonder that when people feel like they have to BE something, not just DO something, they spiral into an existential panic (like Kayla did).

And to be honest, so much of what’s wrong with our culture has to do with how quick we are to dehumanize other people (“She’s a bitch,” “He’s a pig,” “That kid is a brat,” “Millennials are entitled,” “That entire race is just lazy,” etc.).

It’s more convenient for us to shove ourselves and others into labels and boxes that are devoid of nuance, empathy, or understanding. It takes WAY more time and intellectual curiosity to acknowledge our shared humanity by seeing the people beyond the labels and boxes.

The whole “So what do you do?” question may not seem as malevolent as some of the more blatant ways that we dehumanize each other, but make no mistake, it has its roots in the same unhealthy crap.

LET’S BURN THIS QUESTION TO THE GROUND

A few weeks ago, my friend Joanna called me and instead of asking me what was up, she just went straight for, “How’s your soul doing?”

It was such a good, deep question that I almost cried.

Thankfully, I’m friends with a lot of coaches (Joanna included). We’re literally trained to ask open-ended, empowering questions. But most people aren’t. And that’s got to change.

I want us to challenge the notion that our JOBS are the most interesting thing about us. I want us to see the humanity in other people, beyond what they do for a living. I want us to release the pressure to equate your career with who you are as a person.

So, in the name of all of that, here are X better questions we can ask each other in order to connect as people (instead of walking job titles):

  • What’s something unexpectedly good that happened to you today?
  • What’s been on your mind lately?
  • When’s the last time something moved you?
  • What books/art/film are you really into lately?
  • How did you meet your significant other?
  • Who’s your favorite person to have coffee with?
  • What really jazzes you up about the work you do?
  • How many twists and turns did your life take before you landed where you are?
  • What made you laugh really hard lately?
  • How’s your soul doing today? (Couldn’t help but throw this in here.)
  • What’s the wisest advice about life that you keep coming back to?
  • What’s something small that brings you joy?
  • What are you most hopeful/excited about right now?

We’re all grand, phenomenal cosmic beings. We don’t deserve to be shut into itty-bitty living spaces.

So the next time someone asks me what I do, don’t be surprised if I say something like:

“Um … I take a lot of walks. I revel in good stories, which is why I thought Season 2 of The Crown was off the CHAIN. I do yoga semi-regularly, but I have to drag myself there every time and I will never be good at it. I make a vegan mac n’ cheese that I swear is just as good as the real thing, and sometimes the prospect of having that for dinner is what I’m most excited about ALL DAY. I also coach a lot of really cool people and write blogs where I tend to be snarky but sincere … is that what you meant?” 😉

What about you? Can I give you permission to identify BEYOND what you do for a living? Will you take up the challenge to ask people deeper, more human questions? Come share with me in the comments!

IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE …

How to make your own Rules for Sane Living

Are you a hummingbird or a jackhammer?

What if we told you that you could major in life?

Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)

23 Comments // ADD COMMENT

23 comments

  • Hayley

    As usual, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    In improv and acting training, we’re taught to keep the scene going at all costs, and one of the best ways to do this? Ask open-ended questions. Same at a party. Asking someone, “So what do you do?” can be such a closed-off question. Either they have a straightforward job and you’re left with, “Oh, cool. A nurse. I broke my arm once. (??!)” OR they don’t have a straightforward job and maybe they feel awkward answering, or guilty, like this party acquaintance is going to be disappointed if they don’t say the right thing.

    I’m gonna start spreading the word – there are WAY more interesting questions to ask. 🙂

    • Rachel East

      OMG, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been afraid of disappointing someone with my weird answer to that question, haha. Especially when I was just starting out as a coach and didn’t know how to describe it. Honestly, not asking people this question is a small act of mercy. 😉

  • Ali

    I’m with you! I felt this exactly when I became a full time mother. I used to find myself answering “um… I don’t do anything” or “I’m just a stay at home Mum”. Just!!!! Now I’m back in the workplace I look back at that time and realise it was the time I was most alive, most informed, most interesting as I was free to learn and grow every day. And yet I felt without worth because I didn’t have a job title. Thank you for helping others see they really don’t have to do that to themselves!!

    • Rachel East

      Oh man, I hate when people say they’re “just” anything. Ugh! And especially moms … as if being a mom isn’t the hardest job there is. I’m glad you realized that your worth isn’t defined by your title!

  • Jenn

    Bravo!
    As a Recreation Therapist, I’ll ask folks about their leisure interests, and what makes them laugh.
    Learning the value of leisure, and how to use it to create balance in our lives (i.e. coping technique, social opportunities, reflection, etc.) improves our quality of life…and strengthens our identity.
    “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” -Plato
    Thanks for your blogs!
    Cheers,
    Jenn-

    • Rachel East

      Ahh I had forgotten that Plato quote, but it is SO true! Thanks for reminding me. 🙂

  • Rachel

    I needed to read this today. I did the same job for 8 years and suddenly lost it, and with it, my identity. I’ve been unemployed (not by choice) for two years now, and I can feel the panic and anxiety bubble up inside me every time somebody asks me this question. Thank you for putting this article into the world!

    • Rachel East

      You’re welcome! I hope it inspires you to find new (and much better) ways of identifying yourself. 🙂

  • Audrey

    Oh my gosh! I love this post! Its Audrey from the Passion Profile Short Course! Anyway, I am very similar to you Rachel. From when I was born up until I was eight years old, I was an extrovert. However, after that I totally became an introvert. I have always hated this question because it is something I have been dealing with for a while which was one of the reasons why I took the course this past fall. Also, I have and still do hate small talk especially when it comes to speaking with extended family members or acquaintances. Anyway, I liked your response for the next time someone asks what you do, which is something I think I will try. Recently, someone asked me that question and my response made me feel self-conscious. However, I am sick of feeling that way which is why I still read these posts and why I am reading Brene Brown’s books!

    Have a good day/week Rachel!

    🙂

    Audrey

    • Rachel East

      Hi Audrey! I’m glad this one resonated with you. And I’m so glad you’re reading Brene Brown — she’s really the queen of this stuff! 🙂

  • Matt

    You both write a lot of good, insightful stuff. I appreciate it and I benefit from it. But I don’t usually take to the keyboard to comment on it. Today I couldn’t not do that.

    Who I am vs what I do for work. Particularly at first meeting, people prefer not to differentiate between the two – and it’s a crime against humanity. Literally.

    Our culture would have us believe that our utility defines our value. For the entirety of my adult life, my identity was virtually synonymous with my career.

    Once the career ends however, that leads to a significant existential crisis.

    Even for myself, and within myself, redefining “who I am” apart from career can be a challenge.

    You really hit the nail on the head and you said it all very well. I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to acknowledge the truth of what you’ve written.

    I will be attending a large dinner party this Saturday where I will know virtually no one there. Part of me is dreading it, part of me sees it as a challenge to see how well I can navigate the event without relying on career identity.

    You will be there with me in spirit and I will be mindful of the thoughts you’ve shared.

    And you are right – we all need to open our eyes to a more truthful way of experiencing each other.

    Matt

    • Rachel East

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Matt! I love that you’re going to put this into action on Saturday–good luck!

  • Taylor

    Thank you for this. I absolutely hate the “What do you do?” question and always struggle to come up with a good answer. Most people have fancy titles for what they do whereas my title is very generic. I can feel the judgement from the “fancy title” people and it’s a horrible feeling. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who loathes the “What do you do?” question.

    • Rachel East

      Given the number of comments on this blog, it’s safe to say that you’re not alone, Taylor! I’m beginning to think that almost everyone hates this question, regardless of whether they have a “good” answer or not. Maybe it’s because all of us secretly want to be seen for something more than our title, regardless of whether that title is “impressive” or not!

  • Jan

    Hi! As always I LOVED your post. Love your question ideas and love that you tackled this topic. For the past 2 years I have done volunteer work (while working out which way to jump in my career next since having kids). I have really enjoyed this work and learned HEAPS from it. Well I may as well have said I did absolutely nothing with my time because it turns out volunteer work is perceived to have NO value or interest because it is UNPAID!! Much like parenting!! Apparently any experience I gained wasn’t real world enough and irrelevant because it wasn’t in a ‘real workplace’. The conversation often ended at that point as interest factor waned from my interviewer. I often wished people asked me what I loved most about how I spend my time. Sometimes I just told them anyway. Yes, it is time people realised ALL life’s experience is EXPERIENCE!

    • Rachel East

      I love the “what do you love most about how you spend your time?” question! And it’s a real shame that some of your interviewers were so uninterested by unpaid work. In the grand scheme of things, I think you dodged a bullet with those people. Who wants to work for people who can’t see the value in ALL of life’s experiences, paid or not? And who made the rule that getting paid for something makes it more inherently valuable, anyway?

  • Mia

    I love the perspective of answering the question “so what do you do?” as an open ended question rather than indulging it as the what is your job question that it is really intended to be. With a simple change in perspective on this, it can be seen as a challenge to be creative with whatever pops into our minds to share in that moment. It really can be as open ended as we want it to be by answering it however we want because all of us “do” all kinds of stuff. It doesn’t have to mean your job or business or volunteer work or TV watching or whatever, defines us. And rather than dispise the question, welcome it as the paradigm shifting opportunity it can be with some entertaining pattern interrupting answer like yours Rachel. 😏

    • Rachel East

      Exactly! As long as you’re willing to not take yourself too seriously, and play along when people are thrown off by your answer, then I think you can have a lot of fun with doing this differently than everyone else. 🙂

  • Jennifer

    I can so relate! I’ve hated that question since I started living on my own. Before I would just say “just” before whatever I was doing at the moment and I have said before “I don’t do anything.” It took therapy and realizing my self worth to see that I’m more than a title and I do a lot of interesting things even though it’s not my job. I would minimize all my accomplishments. Now when I’m asked that, I proudly say what I can do even though I don’t have a job in it or don’t do it all the time. So glad you wrote this article! Thank you!

    • Rachel East

      I love that you answer this question by telling people what you *can* do! That’s brilliant. 🙂

  • SCB

    Thank you so much for this. At this time, since it’s so late, I am not quite thinking through what I could answer in place of “I am a mom”, because that is my life, day in and day out. However it is food for thought, and hoping tomorrow I can come up with a better answer.

    • Rachel East

      It’s totally OK that you couldn’t come up with an answer off the top of your head! It’s a big question. Take your time, and I’m sure something authentic will bubble to the surface. 🙂

  • Diana

    First of all, wonderful blog, and great contents. Really quality writing.
    I read a lot on your blog, I have never left a comment before, but now I felt I had to say my two cents..
    I do not agree that a title does not define us. It does. When someone has worked for years to reach a title,his job and title does define him/her. I tried to see things from this article’s perspective, I just can, it doesn’t feel honest to my inner self/convictions.
    A job dignifies, working elevates us. And, if one has the luck to study and the luck to make it well, it is what validates you for a 90%.
    I wish I could be convinced of the contrary, but every time I try, I feel my guts telling me: it is not true. You are only unhappy and bitter for not having succedded, in spite of all the hard work. It is just envy, bitterness…most of all pain.
    But, title and job do define us for a 90%. It is what we do, reflects one’s ability to built his image in the world, his ability to climb higher and higher, to fulfill ambitions.
    Unfortunately… for me 😉