When I’m asked, ‘What do you do?’ I feel I have to prove myself

When I’m asked, ‘What do you do?’ I feel I have to prove myself

April 15, 2023

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You’re at a party, scanning the room for canapes, when someone approaches and you realise you’re about to engage in small talk. You chug the rest of your Bollinger (sorry, your Brown Brothers) and prepare yourself.

You might begin by asking each other how they know the host. A comment or two about the party, or maybe even the weather. You might even admire their frock, or a piece of jewellery.

Being asked “What do you do?” can feel like a test.Credit: Andrew Joyner

And then it comes, as it always does. “So what do you do?”

The question can lead to a certain awkwardness. What if the person doesn’t do anything? What if they’re looking for work? What if they’re retired? What if they’re in a witness protection program hiding from Russian operatives?

When I worked as a transcriber for a trashy TV documentary series about female murderers, I loved getting asked what I did. It was always completely unexpected to my interlocutor and would lead to grisly details about all the murders (poisons and acid baths). I was a walking, talking episode of Breaking Bad.

But when I had a newborn, I dreaded the question. “I’m just at home with a small, dependent creature who has no sense of time and thinks I’m the soft drink dispenser at Subway,” I would say.

I was ashamed, even though at other times I was colossally proud of bringing a human into the world. “I also write!” I would add, like a clause, to assure them I did something interesting when I wasn’t staring at the wall because I forgot how to English.

I remember thinking at the time that there were loads of wonderful alternatives to the “what do you do?” question – why didn’t people use those? How about, “What do you do for fun?” (Wipe that sleazy smile off your face.) Or “What brings you joy?” (if you’re Marie Kondo.) “What are you looking forward to?” (Leaving this party.) One article suggests asking, “What’s the last picture you took on your phone?” (That weird rash on my leg.)

However, asking someone you’ve just met what brings them joy or what they’re passionate about can feel borderline creepy. Like you’re a New Age shaman trying to determine the colour of their aura. It places far too much expectation on the answer, and can send you into dangerous territory. Not everyone is passionate about underprivileged children in Nepal or knitting tiny hats for their backyard chickens.

In Fleishman is in Trouble, Dr Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) is intimidated by his wife’s uber-rich Upper East Side friends.

All the advice telling us not to ask people what they do assumes we have insidious motives: we want to locate their position in the social and economic hierarchy. How much do they make? How distinguished is their job? And perhaps that is some people’s intention (certainly in some circles).

The recent TV adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’snovel Fleishman is in Trouble, about midlife malaise, sees Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) feeling self-conscious at parties because even though he’s a doctor, he’s lower in the hierarchy than his wife’s multi-millionaire Upper East Side friends. Everything is relative.

But I think we are taking this question far too seriously. It’s a device – the Allen key of small talk – to try to open up something more interesting. Something you both might have in common.

How differently would conversations flow if we weren’t so worried about how we were presenting or what we might say next, and could completely tune into someone else’s answer? Even experiences you assume to be mind-numbingly boring, like being a stay-at-home mum.

If you want to ask me what I do, fine, but please ask better follow-up questions. “What concerns do you have about raising children in today’s world? What are your views on home-schooling? What was the most unexpected thing about becoming a parent?”

And if you couldn’t care less, maybe just circle back to the weather and that Dinosaur Designs bangle.

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