No one seems to particularly like the question: “What do you do?”
While the query — a mainstay at cocktail parties, weddings and anywhere else where Americans mingle with strangers — might seem like a “neutral icebreaker,” it’s actually pretty invasive, says Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of “The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change.” It sneakily probes for highly personal information: education level, values and interests, social status, salary.
“It’s a way to see how people are doing in comparison to yourself,” says Connor Manning, who works as a museum attendant in Los Angeles. When people ask Manning about their work, they say, they constantly feel like they have to “sell themselves.” (Manning, who identifies as nonbinary, uses plural pronouns.) Manning said most people they know in L.A. also resent the question.
“What do you do?” has been around for decades, likely ballooning after the post-war period when Americans started to leave blue-collar jobs en masse for college campuses and office buildings. But recently more people — millennials and Gen Z’ers, in particular — seem to be interrogating our reasons for asking it, says Shell.
“People simultaneously hate it while participating in it,” says Manning. I asked nearly two dozen people how they felt about the question, and the overwhelming majority said they yearned for an alternative.
The primacy of “what do you do?” stems from a deeply held, distinctly American belief that a person’s work is central to who they are, says Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who specializes in labor markets. In other countries, he says, it’s different: Europeans hardly ever ask a person about their work.
“Americans have an extremely career-oriented model for life,” Cass says. “It’s like the saying goes: We are living to work instead of working to live.” As a result, more and more Americans believe their job needs to do more than pay the bills. “If you’re not changing the world ... if you have more of a blue-collar job, we think that is somehow less worthy of respect.”
This way of thinking has been perpetuated by popular culture, Cass says. Through much of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the Emmys for best television shows went to sitcoms about working-class families: “All in the Family” chronicled the life of a foreman at a loading dock; “Taxi” focused on a taxi driver; “Cheers,” a group of people who owned and worked at a bar. In the early ’90s, he says, popular TV shifted, honing in on the lives of urban professionals in big, mainly coastal, cities: “Law & Order,” “ER,” “The Practice” and “The West Wing” attracted sweeping audiences. Shows used to focus more on the main character as he or she related to their family, rather than the workplace, Cass says. Since then, it’s often been the other way around.
Popular commencement addresses haven’t helped, either. Shell and Cass each cited Steve Jobs’s famous 2005 Stanford commencement address and others like it. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” Jobs told a sea of graduates. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
These kinds of messages are making millennials feel that their work has to both reflect their identity and qualify as “impressive,” says Cass.
Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of management at Yale University, has noticed that young people, especially, will describe their work with whatever names or terms they think will impress the most people. Instead of answering “what do you do?” with a description of an occupation, Wrzesniewski says, they’ll often offer the name of a company, perhaps a surer way to convey the high-status nature of their job. But somewhat ironically, she says, a company name actually tells the listener very little about what the speaker actually does every day.
“If you say, ‘I work for the World Bank,’ I still have no idea," Wrzesniewski says. "Do you answer phones, do you set economic policy? It’s not clear.”
The real problem with “what do you do?,” Cass says, is that people are rarely in a position to give the kind of answer our culture has made them believe they can be proud of. It is entirely unrealistic, he says, to imagine that everyone will land a high-status job that reflects their personal values. For the vast majority, a job will just be a job: a way to make money and provide for a family. “What do you do?” — and the layers of fraught social subtext now attached to the question — can make people feel there’s something wrong with that.
It can be particularly difficult for stay-at-home-moms to land on an answer, says Lisa Endlich Heffernan, co-founder of the parenting blog Grown and Flown, who left her job as a trader on Wall Street to stay home with her three sons. For a while, Heffernan would tell people about the job she used to have, knowing they expected her to say something more than “raising children,” which most of her friends did along with their office jobs.
Every time she said she “used to be a trader,” she says, she felt “hollow” — like she was making up an identity for herself based on one that no longer existed. “I’d tell myself, ‘Your identity absolutely can be being a stay-at-home mom,’” says Heffernan. “But I felt like I needed more of an answer.” Looking back now, she realizes that she probably didn’t.
When people answer “what do you do?,” they’re usually thinking far more about how others will perceive and interpret their answer than the answer itself, says Heather Vough, a professor of management at the University of Cincinnati who is conducting studies on this exact question. She interviewed 29 people who self-identified as entrepreneurs. But when asked how they’d respond to “what do you do?,” only two of the 29 said they would describe themselves as entrepreneurs to a stranger. The interviewees, Vough says, expected people to have one general idea of an entrepreneur: an aggressive “Shark Tank”-type contestant who dreams up a product and gets rich overnight. They didn’t see themselves that way, so they chose not to use the word.
“Because [our jobs] are so close to our identity, people are very inclined to want others to see them how they see themselves,” she says. “So we think: In order for me to continue feeling like I have this identity, I need others to verify it for me.”
At the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, priest Alisa Lasater Wailoo has banned the question “what do you do?” She asks her leadership team not to use it and encourages new church members to introduce themselves in other ways. Especially in a city like Washington, D.C., she says, she worries that members of her congregation might define their worth by the rank and prestige of their professional position. Wailoo considers it her personal mission to teach people: “You have worth just as you are.”
Note: This story originally misstated the date of Steve Jobs’ commencement address.