You’re at a gathering with people you’re meeting for the first time or on a first date, and this question inevitably comes up: “What do you do?” — as in, “What do you do for work?” Lately, I’ve wondered if, in part, this question is what motivates us to work — or find work others would consider commendable — because of the fear surrounding not having an answer. Or rather, not having an answer that a person who doesn’t know you well enough would find valid or be impressed with. At least that seems to often be the case for me.
Those feelings of anxiety have become especially acute for me during the pandemic. As someone who graduated from college last summer and who has struggled to find full-time work a year post-graduation, the thought of answering, “So, what do you do?” triggers some unease. I knew that as the country lifted some pandemic restrictions, there would be an expectation to meet up with people in outdoor settings again. And I would think to myself: “What am I going to tell people regarding my (failed) job-hunting results? Or regarding my currently ambiguous career trajectory?” After the pandemic threw a wrench in my long-term education and career plans, I didn’t know the answer to those dreaded questions.
What was I to say when people asked me about a job I didn’t have?
I’m certainly not alone in having these fears. Maurina Tycer, 23, another recent college graduate, says that talking about job prospects with people she’s not close to can breed a lot of insecurities for her. “I don’t like talking about my job status with anyone who isn’t my parents. A lot of people ask just to compare [job] situations,” she says. “Even I’m guilty of doing that. I’ll look at people my age or that I graduated college with who have what many would consider ‘impressive’ jobs and wonder — when am I going to catch up?”
Brianna Blackman, 23, who graduated from college in May 2020, also feels uneasy when unfamiliar people ask her what she does for work. She says, “I don’t want or need the added pressure from someone who isn’t doing the work to help me toward my future goals.”
Nazanin Moali, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, explains why being asked “What do you do?” can make us so uncomfortable. “The root of what makes this [question] anxiety-provoking is the fear of judgment,” she says. “In our capitalistic society, there is a big emphasis on identifying someone’s worth based on their current job along with their associated status and [income].”
Moali, too, believes that we often feel pressured to give an answer that is “right” and will therefore uphold people’s initial impression of us. “The other party’s interest in wanting to get to know you better may be elevated or lowered by your response to the question,” she says. Consequently, “when people lose interest in you because of your perceived ‘lack’ of the required status, you may feel social rejection.”
So we should try to deviate from asking others this knee-jerk question — even if it seems harmless or isn’t fueled with bad intent — for the way it conditions us to associate our sense of self and self-worth with our job. Throughout my experience in navigating young adulthood, I’ve been working to rid myself of the idea that having or not having stable employment gives me a higher or lower status than the next person or makes me any less or more deserving of grace.
Questioning people’s employment status can be especially burdensome for women, particularly women of color, who have accounted for a substantial loss in the workforce since the covid-19 pandemic hit. A Pew Research Center study published in June 2020 found that 11.5 million women across the United States lost their jobs from February to May of that year. The same study showed that Hispanic and Asian women experienced an even greater loss in employment last year, with Hispanic women’s presence in the workplace declining by 21 percent. More than a year later, millions of women haven’t rejoined the workforce and probably won’t be doing so anytime soon.
Moali gives another reason why having to explain employment status can be particularly unpleasant for women. “Although asking about one’s status may create anxiety for both genders, it tends to be more stressful for women [as] there are several different social scripts of what is meant to be a ‘successful’ woman,” she says. “Unfortunately, these social scripts often contradict one another.”
For example, some people may measure women’s success by their proximity to traditionally male-occupied job positions, while others value women who are dedicated to their family responsibilities first and foremost. Because of this, “Women tend to get anxious in response to ‘What do you do,’ as there is no consistency in how they will be perceived — there may be no ‘right’ answer,” Moali explains.
When we’re between jobs, being asked about our job status can bring anxiety. If we find ourselves recently fired or laid off, being asked about work can bring shame. We know the longer a person is out of the job market, the harder it is to return. Navigating a pandemic makes this process even tougher, and we should be mindful of that as we begin to socialize again.
Besides, as our collective sociopolitical awareness progresses, younger generations are prioritizing a healthier work-life balance. For example, asking “What’s your dream job?” is a question more people are divesting from, as they believe no one should dream of labor. Or maybe we shouldn’t always be guarding our privacy about our paychecks. In truth, being transparent about our salary with friends or co-workers can be a good thing.
Why not drop those get-to-know-you questions that inevitably focus on what we do for a living? Instead, we could replace them with ones that allow us to get to know a person in a way that is more meaningful and more intentional and that comes across as less disingenuous.
Olivia Crandall, 30, a writer and illustrator, has adopted that strategy as she, too, is uncomfortable when asked what she does for work or about her career plans. So Crandall takes opportunities to subvert employment questions by instead asking people, “What have you been up to lately?” According to her, “this opens the door to talk about what feels important to them while being unintrusive.”
Moali provided additional questions people can ask while breaking the ice, such as “What are some of the things you are looking forward to doing each day?” Or “What do you wish you knew more about?”
Initiatives like these are small but impactful efforts toward building empathy and, most importantly, withholding unfair judgment and supporting one another while we navigate unprecedented tough times. Job hunting has never been an easy task for most people, especially those with marginalized identities. In understanding this last point, I’ve stopped trying to come up with an embellished response to any job/career questions from people who don’t know me well, even though my answer remains relatively the same as it did a year ago. As the pandemic continues, I’m finding it increasingly necessary to be easier on myself and others — with the hope that I can encourage other people to do the same in a way that makes a difference.