Careers, Identity, Alienation: Confronting That Terrible Question: “So, What Do You Do?”

Small talk. Big potential.

Careers, Identity, Alienation: Confronting That Terrible Question: “So, What Do You Do?”
[Image: Flickr user Dino ahmad ali]

When Emile Hirsch isn’t oozing cool on-screen, you may find him waxing poetic on small-talk at the Huffington Post. Consider this deconstruction of that most stultifying of conversational crutches: so, what do you do?


To wit:

I confess, on more than one occasion, I have asked the question and heard back “I party, man!” and instantly felt less inclined to prolong the conversation. Yet oppositely, I have heard “rocket scientist” in reply to the question and my fascination with the person has only doubled. Note: A really interesting answer would have been “I love to party, but I’m a rocket scientist.” And a non sequitur version would have been “I party like a rocket scientist!”

Hirsch, as even-handed as he is charismatic, sees the what-do-you in its negative and positive reading: it could be undisguised elitism or lazy conversation, or alternatively, “a simple and direct question, which could easily split the chat into a variety of different threads to knit.”

Abrasively banal or smoothly inquisitive?

As a commenter on LiveBread said, what-do-you-do is a query that’s “innocently insensitive”: in only a moment, you can provide any number of existential crises-in-waiting. Journalist-turned-entrepreneur Elizabeth Spiers identified 10 different questions that could be loaded into conversation closer that thinks it’s an opener. When they ask you would you do, they may mean:

  1. How much money do you make?
  2. Is what you do significant?
  3. Do you have control over what you do?
  4. Where are you in the hierarchy of your company?
  5. Are you allowed to be creative in your job?
  6. Does your job give you status, professionally and personally?
  7. What does your work say about who you are?
  8. What does it say about where you came from and where you are now?
  9. Do we have anything in common?
  10. Is what you do something interesting we could talk about?

These implied questions lie across the range of reptilian-versus-mammalian behavior: if the intent is to suss out what value you can extract from the other person, then that’s classically crocodil-ian; if the intent is to search out the possibility of connection, that behavior much more aligned with the fur-and-milk tradition.

But if you’re anything like some members of the Fast Company editorial team, you may regularly feel awkward in conversation (especially at conferences, ack!). If this is the case, then “so, what do you do?” can burst forth from your lips before you can even conceptualize the fraught issues lying latent in the question. So, instead, carrying a bundle of conversational kindling in your back pocket might make sense.

Allow us to provide a sampling of three:

  • “What’s keeping you busy when you’re not at events like this or at work?” This angle lets you share non-economic interests and maybe see people’s identities beyond their careers.
  • “What’s your connection to the event?”: Here you uncover mutual contacts, who you can then gossip about.
  • “How did you come to be in your line of work?”: With this approach, you gain insight into how they arrived there–and maybe you can exchange career slalom tips, too.

Hat tip: Medium


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.