Meaning, Context, and Culture: Banishing “What do you do?” to the realm of other meaningless questions

As I’ve previously written about, How are you? is a meaningless phrase: a weightless vehicle for context and tone.

Then there’s the opposite problem: words that carry too much weight, leaving no room for context.

“What do you do?” is such a question.


When this question is asked, the questioner is specifically asking:

1. How do you earn money? 

(Or, if you don’t earn money because you’re raising a child, how your spouse earns money, or, if you’re unemployed, how you want to earn money.)

2. What life decisions have you made? 

(Not just your current title and current company, but your occupation generally. Certainly this says something about you!)

3. Where are you going next? 

(Because jobs are seen as mere steps on a ladder, and presumably you want to keep climbing, right?)

4. How do you compare to me? 

(Because now that person has created a situation where it’s awkward if you then don’t ask “What do you do?” too.)

5. What should we talk about next? 

(Rarely is “What do you do?” the end of a conversation. The question was asked in order to find a way to keep the conversation going. Perhaps the noblest of the reasons.)

I’m 34 years old, and until very recently, I had to either answer “I’m in school” or “I’m trying to…”

Now I can say, “I’m a professor.”

Of course, I much prefer saying the latter — you know, being an actual noun.

But in none of these cases was my answer, in any way, reflective of what I “do.”

Because I don’t do one thing. I do lots of things. And we all do lots of things. We’re more than our jobs, more than how we earn money. (In fact, I would argue that if we’re just “doing” one thing, we’re suppressing our aspirations, missing the chance to turn them into actually-achievable goals.

Prior to college, I decided that I liked Teaching and Mentoring, so I’d be an elementary school teacher.

Then I decided that, because I also liked Writing, I’d be a high school English teacher.

Then 9/11 happened and I decided that, because I liked Writing and (now) Politics, I’d write speeches for political candidates.

Then a family member went to prison and I became interested in the Law. And because I still liked Writing and Politics, I’d become a lawyer and maybe, someday, a politician. (Makes me cringe now.)

In law school, I decided that, because I still liked Mentoring and Teaching, I’d tutor the Law School Admissions Test and the Bar Exam.

After law school, because I realized that I liked Research — and that I liked Politics, Writing, Teaching, and Mentoring more than practicing the Law — I decided to become a professor of public policy.

Although I’ve chosen my profession, and although my answer to the “What do you do?” question will be the same for the foreseeable future, under the surface, I’m always changing.

So I’m always listening.


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