pathways out of asking 'what do you do?'23 Jun 2019
if you know me well, you know that i hate the question “what do you do?” the reasons for that hate are myriad and i wrote some of those thoughts up a few years ago. some reasons i’d add to that are:
- what people usually mean when they ask it is “what do you do for paid work?” if more people just asked that and not ask the shorthand version, i think i’d hate the question less. it’s the embedded assumptions that get to me
- some askers of this actually care about way more interesting things, but aren’t sure what else to say to get a conversation going because we generally don’t learn about how to have good conversation in school
- in some contexts/from some askers, it’s a question of class signaling and/or human-worth signaling. the question beneath the question is really “how much are you worth? is it more or less than me? how do i relate to you based on how much our society values you?”
my friend maureen, likes to play with the question by filling in something fun that’s more along the lines of a question she actually wants to talk about.
“what do i do for fun? well, i read a lot…”
backing up to that second bullet, i think there are lots of people who actually want to know things way deeper than the question of what do you do for paid work. here’s what i imagine is actually happening:
caption: photo of a sketch of two concentric circles. the outer circle has the words “what do you do?” pointing to it. the inner circle has the words “almost any other question”
people really want to get to more core info about this new person they’re talking to, but don’t know how.
in this moment, i think it’s actually critical we learn to break out of this question. i think our ability to have small talk while we are facing a mix of global challenges never faced before is literally killing people. i also think, from an organizer’s perspective, often what we are wanting in conversation is to know to what someone actually cares about.
given all of that, i’ve thought a lot about pathways out of that awful, awful question over the past few years. some thoughts:
- sometimes when people ask me what i do, i directly ask back why they asked me that question. i generally get one of two responses: a) “oh i was just starting small talk.” from there, i usually launch into a conversation about small talk (which is 9/10 times more interesting). b) they respond with a deeper question. then i answer the deeper question.
- most times i’ll just offer a different question and answer that:
- what’s important to you?
- why do you do what you do?
- what are you dreaming about?
- sometimes i do what maureen does and fill in a different thing that i think is more interesting. “what do i do for [unpaid work, healing, self and community care] is…”
anyway, i used to say “go deep or go home” back when i was in my tallahassee christian community. i still think that’s true, but now it’s like an existential planetary intention.
words / writing / post-processing
510w / 15min / 10min