You know some of the attendees, but not all of them. Some people are handing out business cards; others are talking to their colleagues.
After getting a drink, you head over to your friend.
Then someone joins you, and after a brief introduction asks, “What do you do for a living?”
We hear this question a lot, we ask this question a lot.
But few of us think hard about what our answer means to others.
The Typical Responses to the Question: "What Do You Do for a Living?"
Some people automatically answer this question with their job title.
Those who respond with a general job title sometimes do it to avoid confusing people, like Anna Daugherty, a Digital Marketing Manager at PITSS America LLC.
“When people ask me what I do, the shortest answer I give is: I'm the marketing manager for a tech company.”
It’s short and to the point, but it doesn’t fully describe what she does or the kind of technology company she works for.
Compare this with saying, “We’re experts in application modernization and digital transformation for legacy Oracle systems,” which Daugherty agrees is a mouthful and often leads to blank, confused stares in conversations.
Others try to be funny or avoid the question entirely.
The truth is, it’s hard to blame people who try to avoid the question with humor. Who knows, they might have tried answering directly before but got tired of explaining the complexities of their job, or the stereotypes they had to deal with.
The True Question
If you think about it, the question “What do you do for work?” can be interpreted in different ways:
How do you earn a salary?
How much do you make?
What is your social status?
Are you richer than me?
Is my job title above or below you?
Is this person worth my attention?
That’s why in some cases, asking someone what they do for a living can come across as offensive.
Situations Where this Question is Offensive
1. A Condescending Tone
Asking this question with a derisive or arrogant tone sends the wrong message. It’s as if you’re assuming the other person is unemployed or earning less than you are.
2. At a Hospital or Religious Service
Places where people might be grieving or facing a challenging time in their life aren’t good venues for such a question.
These people are stressed and burdened with problems, which makes them prone to seeing the question in a negative light. The question might be interpreted as, “Maybe you’re not working hard enough or maybe you’re not earning enough, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened to you.”
3. Cultures That Value Privacy
Asking “What do you do for a living” is offensive in some European countries, because it’s seen as an invasion of their privacy.
As some Quora answers suggest in this thread, work matters aren’t openly discussed with strangers in European countries, and it’s not a culturally accepted conversation starter like in the U.S. They would rather you ask about their preference in vacation spots and sports team, at least according to the thread.
The Importance of Answering Well
Behind the double meanings, this question gives you a chance to shape how people perceive you.
Answer correctly, people will get curious about what you do. If you’re lucky, you might amaze some people and make others jealous. You get instant credibility and new-found friends in whatever event you’re in.
If your answer is boring, you’ll just get a polite nod and the conversation eventually dies down. Then you’ll be standing on your own, wondering what to do or who to approach next.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to answer confidently and get a positive response every time?
Answering Strategies Based on Social Context
Since this question can be interpreted in different ways, you don’t have to limit your answer to your day job. The best answer depends on where and why the question is asked.
Casual or Social Gatherings
In this situation, the question “What do you do for a living” is a conversation starter.
Yes, it’s boring. But it’s safe to ask and people are already expecting to hear it.
You might feel uncomfortable answering this question, especially if there are negative stereotypes surrounding your job or if few people understand it.
Here Is a Conversation I Overheard at a Party
Friend:“I’m a social media manager”
Stranger: “Oh so you spend the whole day playing on Facebook?”
For some jobs, you’re lucky to get a weird or funny response like this. Others just get a blank stare because people don’t know how to react to their jobs.
Worse yet, some job titles make people desperate to leave your company.
Just imagine how some people would react after hearing, “I’m a financial adviser.”
If you’re financially savvy, you probably won’t get scared off. Others are quick to end the conversation, because they feel like the other person will start convincing them to get an investment account or life insurance.
Remember, you’re in a casual event. No one is doing any job interviews or looking for anything to buy. Even if such events offer an opportunity to meet potential clients and employers, that’s not the point of the event.
Next time someone asks you this, try to gauge their reason for asking.
Then tell them what you’re passionate about, and then ask about their interests.
Your Conversation Might Go Like This
Stranger:“What do you do?”
You: “I’m passionate about cooking and scuba diving. What do you love to do?”
Your acquaintance will either:
Tell you what they like doing
Give you a blank stare, because they’re not expecting your response
Reply with their job title, not knowing you didn’t ask the same question
Eventually, you will start talking about the things you love.
Isn’t this better than talking about your job in a party where people are trying to forget about their office problems?
This includes trade shows, job fairs, seminars, training events, conferences, boot camps, and any other event where you meet people for work or business. For freelancers and those working at startups, this can also include network mixers and startup pitch competitions.
In general, you’ll meet two types of people in these events:
Regular attendees: event participants whose primary goals are to learn and meet new people.
Decision-makers: these people could be speakers, business owners, venture capitalists, angel investors, or recruiters. Anyone looking to hire, provide funds, collaborate, or do business with someone they find in such an event is a decision-maker.
Of course, decision-makers don’t attend these events just to scout people. They’re also there to learn and make new connections as well. So they have lots to do and little time to do it in.
Because of this, they try to avoid information overload. Decision-makers only talk to people that interest them, and they’re quick to decide who is worth their time.
Below are two ways you can be worthy of their attention.
1. Focus on a Niche
Focus on a niche to avoid getting labeled as a commodity. Here a good example:
Designer: “I’m a designer specializing in wall mural designs for restaurants and retail stores.”
That sounds more interesting than simply saying you’re a designer. If you say this, people will wonder if they’ve seen your work before.
Here's another niche example:
Health Insurance: “I help Baby Boomers navigate their entry into Medicare.”
This is better than saying, “Our agency sells Medicare supplements,” says Danielle Kunkle of Boomer Benefits. It identifies their target audience and niche, Medicare and Baby Boomers.
Kunkle continues, “People stereotype insurance agents as a sort of used-car salesman, and we differentiate ourselves from this by being educators first and salespeople second.”
Notice the words “insurance” and “sell,” typical words on elevator pitches of insurance professionals, are not in Kunkle’s answer.
2. Mention a Problem You Solve
Talk about the challenges or problems you solve as part of your job. It’s even better if you can paint this problem as a dilemma, an issue with no clear solution.
Example for a Fitness Trainer:
“I’m a Fitness trainer specializing in creating easy and fun exercise programs for clients who don’t enjoy going to the gym.”
The first question you’ll probably get with this introduction is, “How do you do that?” Others might think you create home exercise videos then upload them on YouTube, but either way this response gives you an opportunity to continue the conversation.
You might think these two strategies only apply if you have an interesting profession. That’s why I used commonplace jobs as an example.
Whatever you do, you can make it sound interesting by highlighting your specialty or the problems you solve.
“What do you do?” is a common question in networking events.
Whatever job title or description you use to answer this question barely tells the whole story of what you do. Yet the mere mention of a job title subconsciously triggers people to judge you, based on what they know of your work.
A Couple Clear Examples of This
Job 1: Programmer in Silicon Valley
Stereotype: Cushy 6-figure salary, stares at the computer all day, probably an over-inflated ego
Job 2: Career Coach
Stereotype:“People are either suspicious, or they immediately tell me everything they hate about their careers. Coaching gets a bad rap because it’s easier to tell others what to do, than to make changes yourself”, says Career Coach Carlota Zimmerman.
To avoid stereotypes, think of your answer as the first step in teaching the other person about you and your job. Share something little known about your profession instead of answering with your job title alone.