“What Do You Do?”

At some point in recent memory, I’d read that it is a fairly American (U.S.) tendency to ask someone 1) their name and 2) what they do. Are we truly so interested in the work of someone we just met? If their job is in a field we do not understand or don’t have an interest in, we may even tune out their answer or choose not to ask clarifying questions to better understand this new person.

Photo by Mike Jones on Pexels.com

In the piece that I’d read, the suggestion was instead of asking someone, “What do you do?” ask them, “What do you enjoy?” Part of the problem is that we ask about employment so we can judge other people, even subconsciously. How do you feel about a stay-at-home dad? An adult fast food employee? A person unemployed who isn’t even looking for work? A part-time lifeguard in their thirties? Someone who makes money on the side selling Avon or Pampered Chef, or drives an Uber or Lyft? Let’s face it: we all have feelings about jobs and make judgments about people based on what they do. We’re basically checking, “Do you meaningfully contribute to the economy?”

For the first time last night, I asked a new person who joined my meditation class 1) his name and 2) what he enjoys. He was utterly flabbergasted. He said he’d just moved from Oregon to Indiana a month ago, but he didn’t know what he enjoys. He said, “I had the What do you do? answer loaded and ready to go.” I explained why I did not ask what he does, and eventually, he came to answer gardening, short horror fiction, and breweries.

Pretty soon, we were comparing horror movies we’d seen, which were our favorites, etc. and the conversation kept unfolding in a natural way! If I had asked, “What do you do?” and he said (which I learned later) that he’s a stay-at-home dad of four children ages two to nine, I wouldn’t have had anything else to say. I have no children. I could have responded, “Cool, my brother has four kids, too.” But then where would we go from there?

In the future, when you meet someone new, consider asking them what they enjoy instead of what they do.

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

16 thoughts on ““What Do You Do?”

  1. Well that wasn’t what I thought you were going to say, but I love it. What you say is something I became very aware of in my “mum” days. If I met a new mother (ie at school, a play group etc), I was very careful about what I asked because of the whole working-not working mum politics. I would try to avoid asking anything that implied I expected she’d be working, or thought mums should work, but I can’t remember now what I’d ask. I love “what do you enjoy”. (BTW, I worked part-time from when I had children until I retired, even though they’d grown up by then, as by then I had older parents and ma-in-law, and wanted to have time with them – before they started needing my help. By the time they needed help, I was retired!)


    1. It was interesting to me how this guy had it all planned out in his head what he was going to say when I asked him, “What do you do?” Asking people what they enjoy throws them for a loop because we NEVER ask each other that in the U.S. And there’s this new, gross trend of having hobbies and feeling obligated to turn that into a side hustle, so even things we enjoy get tied to money (and often abandoned because it no longer brings us joy). I’m glad that you connected to the parenting aspect. I know stay-at-home dads are becoming more common, but there is still a lot of judgment there. In his case, I knew more about him as an individual before I learned that he was a parent OR that he stayed with them.


      1. Love all this Melanie. I think my son would be happy to be a stay-at-home dad though I don’t think that will happen in the near future. As a teacher, he does have more weeks off a year which is great for them.

        “this new, gross trend of having hobbies and feeling obligated to turn that into a side hustle” I hadn’t really thought this through but I realise that there’s an element of that here too though perhaps not quite so strong. I certainly became aware some years ago of the push to monetise one’s blog, but I think that has settled down. I couldn’t think of anything worse – for a whole bunch of reasons , personal, practical and philosophical.


        1. My daughter and son in law moved down south this year to an 80 acre bush block on the coast. Between them – though his boys mostly live with their mother – they have 4 kids 10-12 and two babies. My daughter got a good job enabling them to move sooner than planned, so he is the home parent. He’s meant to be clearing the undergrowth and fixing the house, but I think his hands are full!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Aww, good for her, Bill! I hope she’s doing well with the new job. Biscuit says the first two weeks, no matter where you work, always suck. That’s always been her rule, mainly because you feel lost and like you don’t know how to do anything (because you don’t, yet).

            With four kids, I do believe that guy has his hands full and he’ll be lucky if he gets his shirt on in the right direction!


            1. I sent you a photo. He’s grumpy all the time, so it’s hard to tell if he’s coping.

              Gee did have permission to work from home, but the kids wouldn’t leave her alone.


              1. I could tell he is a grumpy fella from the photo, but didn’t want to say so. I’ve heard that parents often want to work away from home because the kids can’t stay out of the way. Good luck to them both!


        2. This guy from meditation said he was a middle school teacher and then quit to be with his kids. I wonder if he will go back once they are all in school and then be home with them in the summer. He wasn’t in class this week, so I’m not sure.

          Everything in the States is pushed to make money. I knew a guy who love playing video and his wife pushed him into recording himself talking while playing, which is a common gaming thing, but this was supposed to make his gaming time more valuable because he was “contributing” something. You know who watched his videos? My husband, who was trying to be a supportive friend. I think she basically invented a chore for our husbands. They’re divorced now.


  2. I love this! It is so true that we (Americans) tend to ask about jobs first. I am totally going to try yer “what do ye enjoy” questions when I meet new people. Cause of the pandemic, I still don’t have new friends in the new area that I live in and would like to make some. New tactic to kickstart conversation. Arrr!
    x The Captain


    1. It was bizarrely effective! I hadn’t done it before even though I knew about Americans asking about jobs first. It sort of reminded me of how in grad school everyone asked, “Where are you from? What is your field of study?” To be honest, listening to people talk about their niche studies was…..not interesting. It’s totally weird, but I started making friends with people who have garage sales in my neighborhood. Give it a try, lol.


  3. I’m from Melbourne. I say what school did you go to? That pretty much pins you down. Then you get on to What suburb do you live in? Geez that must have cost a packet. Nah mate, got in early, it was a bargain.

    [The reason I’m writing nonsense is that WP won’t let me log in to my own blog, so I’m trying to trick it by logging in here, after Comments]


    1. Ha, Bill, your comment does not read like nonsense. Actually, I love how you add the rhythm and diction of speaking in Australia. Interestingly, in the Deaf community one of the first questions is, “Where did you go to school?” It’s a small enough world in Deaf culture that folks will network and connect through the school they attended.


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