What do you do? (self = job?) And how are you?

“So, uh, what do you do?”

It’s amazing how often this is one of the first questions people ask you in an attempt to break the ice. Not “so what do you do for fun?” or “what makes you smile?” or “what excites you?” but “what do you do?” with the unspoken but very clear focus on “…for your job?”

This seems to be more prevalent in America than elsewhere, and frankly I think it’s pretty stupid.

Yes, we spend a lot of hours at work, so it’s an inextricable part of our lives. But is it (or at least, should it be) who we ARE?

When I was unemployed, I practically dreaded meeting new people. It got to the point where I was almost ready to blurt out, “Hi, I’m Adam and I’m unemployed. And I don’t care what you do. So can we talk about something other than jobs, please?”

* * *

Adding to the confusion, even when I was unemployed, I was still making quite enough money from odd consulting gigs and affiliate/ad income from my sites to make ends meet. So I wasn’t exactly broke and unemployed, but it was too complicated to explain exactly what I did.

Nowadays, it’s no better. I manage a huge AdWords account for a Canadian Telecom company, I help manage and design Customer Communications for a startup, and I’m designing an online community for an online music company. All at the same time. Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s actually pretty rewarding and interesting stuff. And yes, it’s a pain in the ass to mention all three gigs when people ask “What do you do?”

So I started saying “I’m a consultant.” But of course, then I get one of several responses (either direct or implied):

“Oh, so what kind of consulting?”
“What consulting firm do you work for?”
“Heh heh, so in other words, you’re unemployed, right?”

Given my 60+ hour work weeks, the last one particularly annoys the heck out of me.

* * *

Sometimes I’m just silly about the whole thing. Twice, when asked what I do by a (hopefully unmarried!) female next to me on public transit, I responded with, “Flirt with hot women like you on Caltrain.”

Luckily, I did not get slapped. I also did not get any e-mail address or phone number (then again, I didn’t ask). One of the women was particularly amused. The other gave a look that was a cross between “you weirdo!” and “um…. righteo then.”

* * *

Okay, so what’s the solution here? How ’bout we come up with more holistic questions? Personally, I’d like “What are you passionate about?” because if anyone says either “Um, I love my work. That’s about it” or worse yet “Um… I don’t really have time for passions” then I know it’s time to pull out my portable music player and magazines and/or feign a sudden loss of hearing.

Other possibilities for parties / commutes / networking events:

“So what are you looking forward to this weekend or this summer?”
“When you’re not at work or on this train, what do you do?”
“What’s the most interesting place you’ve been?”
“So, a Jew, a Pollock, and a black guy are on a plane…”

Okay, so I’m kidding about the last one ;-).

* * *

And while I’m ranting about stupid or at least over-used questions, I’ll note that I’m no more fond of the whole rushed “How are you?” crap, either (though, yeah, I do it unconsciously anyway). Once again, this appears to be mostly an American idiocy, and just makes us seem even *MORE* superficial to the rest of the world. Because, let’s face it, except for your friends and family, no one really CARES how you’re doing at the moment, especially when their primary interest is typically getting you through the [grocery | tickets | whatever] line as quickly as possible.

So who started this stupid custom and what the hell were they smoking? Why don’t we just say “Hi!” or “‘morning” or “Welcome” or even — here’s a radical idea — just smile?

I swear, the next time someone — especially a surly someone — asks me at the checkstand how I’m doing, I’m going to answer thusly:

“Well, my hemorrhoids are kinda acting up, and I think my third wife is cheating on me. But my heartburn’s been better lately. Thanks for asking! How about you, Mike?”

Maybe if enough of us did this, we’d be able to collectively kick this stupid custom to the curb? Or at least we’d provide some entertaining or at least initially disarming charm to others’ lives for a wee bit, eh?

Then again, I learned in undergrad that someone actually did a controlled experiment in this space. More than half the time when the tester responded with a 10-15 second atypical answer (e.g., something other than “Fine, thanks” or a nod), the checkout person CALLED A MANAGER OVER. I kidd you not. They were so taken aback that someone dared deviate from the usual comfortable scripted routine that they simply didn’t know what to do and they freaked out.

So on second thought, at least if I want to get out with my frozen goodies unmelted, maybe I better just suck it up and go with the flow. But don’t we all savor just a little rebellion against pointless customs and habits?

Or maybe it’s just me. Oh well. Have a nice day! 😉


  1. Hm, people in other cultures ask “How are you?”  It’s not strictly an American pattern.

  2. Coming from an Australian perspective, saying ‘how are you?’ is virtually a requirement when starting a conversation because it seems rude to just jump into whatever it is that you want to talk about. I suspect that this varies a lot from culture to culture, though.

  3. (Hey, I’m an Aussie too…)

    My standard response to people asking me “How are you?” is “Great!!!!”  (Said with enthusiasm).

    Guarantee they reply with “Really?”, to which I say:

    “No, not really.  But there’s no point saying how I really am, because no one really wants to hear that…”


    “No, I’m just saying that.  But if I keep saying I am, eventually I’m sure to be right.”

    [When you said you were an Eagles fan, I was going to say “Me too! I own every one of their albums…” then I realised you meant the Philadelphia Eagles.]

  4. Ignore the last part of the comment – that was supposed to be entered into another blog.  Serves me right for reading too many blogs at the same time…

  5. Well, I think this goes like that in every culture, I know in Brazil this happens the very same way and I have to say I completely relate to this post, it’s even hard to explain to my family what it is that I do and they often think I’m unemployed when I’m actually running a business and hiring people and so on. And I think it’s ridiculous how much people think it’s important to link who we are to what we do for a liviiing, so, yeah, maybe I’ll start giving different answers myself, and btw, Adam, “What’s the most interesting place you’ve been?” 😀


  6. I usually say pretty much what Alicja says. Next time I’ll try, ’ Actually, I have chronic depression, but how are you?’

What do you think?

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