Do you ever think about how much your personal identity is tied to your career? Probably not, unless you are a stay-at-home mom or dad, out of work or retired. But I can tell you, your personal identity = your career for many people.
The title to this post is a standard question we get asked when we meet someone for the first time or run into an acquaintance we have not seen for a while. It is an easy conversation starter. To be honest, it is often not a question the person is looking for real insight on. They just are being polite, or don’t have a better conversation opener at hand.
But to certain people, it is a tough question. Generally, if you are not doing a paid job, people don’t know how to react to your answer.
For someone who is out of work, it is an uncomfortable question. Your answer is some variation on “I am looking for work”. Then you wonder what the other person thinks of you. Sometimes it makes any follow-on conversation awkward.
I had a client who had a very successful career. At a point in their life, they decided they wanted to do volunteer work as their vocation. They are on a couple non-profit boards. They do major fund raising. They do some mentoring of at-risk youth. But when asked that”what do you do?” question, they did not know how to best answer it. “Volunteer” does not begin to define what it is they are doing. They felt like it was letting other people down.
A stay-at-home parent, even though people understand it as a noble endeavor, throws the questioner off. How do you react? How do you follow up that answer?
As I have spent more time career coaching, I have discovered how deeply embedded our jobs are in defining our self. Being a salesperson, an engineer, a lawyer or a plumber paints a picture for most people. When you tell people “your job”, it is easy for them to fill in (rightly or wrongly) “what you are”. You feel good about answering the question (even if you hate your job). If they truly want to talk about what you do for a living, they have a convenient frame to work from. At least no one is embarrassed.
I find it very interesting that a “conventional” answer to that “what do you do” question, however nebulous the answer, is acceptable. I guess it shows the lack of depth of the original question.
For a person not having a paying job, or not having a conventional job, this “so, what do you do” question really makes things uncomfortable. How do you best say “I am looking for a job”? You are trying to read the other person’s intent, so your answer might vary. You might just be out for dinner or a drink, and have no interest in a conversation about your “situation” (because it is what you are already thinking about all of the time anyhow). The conversation becomes awkward, often because the other person was using that question simply to be friendly, not to seek insight. Now what do you talk about?
I think this points to two things. First, we really should take a moment to think about how we engage others. Using a standard opener question may not lead to insight. Is there a better way to initially engage with someone? We are so quick to say something that we don’t put much thought into it.
Second, isn’t it interesting how we make assumptions about an answer, if it fits something close to what we expect to hear? An “office worker” or “salesperson” can mean a broad range of things. But getting that answer allows us to frame the answer into our own perception – right or wrong.
So the next time you find yourself wanting to ask, “So, what do you do?”, think about if you really want to have a conversations around that. And how it might help or stymie your conversation.