Take Two #126: Doing vs. Being

By Kyra-lin Hom

I loathe the small talk ice breaker, “So, what do you do?” You know it. You've been asked it. I'm sure you've even asked it of someone else. As for me, it seems I'm asked that question every single time I meet a new person with very rare and exacting exceptions.

What do I do? Well, let's see. I eat. I speak. I breathe air. I've slept on my side for years but still can't seem to get the pillow just right. I occasionally dress up like a fantasy character and run around swinging a sword. I like rock climbing and walking in the rain. I read and study and write and generally spend way too much time online-- oh! Oh, I'm sorry. You meant 'what's my occupation?' Why didn't you just say so?

That line of inquiry, sure, is relevant when you're building your social network and mingling with other 'professionals.' But in social situations it is at best a habit-formed routine and at worst a smug who's who rank and water-testing jibe. If it's the former, I suggest you put more creativity and earnestness into your pitch. If it's the latter, you are being very rude. Ask something such as, “What do you enjoy doing with your time?” instead. It shows more personal interest and isn't wrought with social connotation. If you really are curious about their profession or wage-earning occupation, be direct. Work it into the conversation later when it is appropriate and not invasive. Plus, if they are the kind of person who wants to tell you, I guarantee they'll find a way.

Perhaps I'm being harsh. There was a short era of American history during which the majority of careers were callings (or at least lifelong commitments). I certainly won't argue that 50 years in one field tangles that occupation right up with who you are. But that mentality has been dying. According to the US Census Bureau, random cross-sectional surveys of American workers over the last 15 years revealed that about 25% of those surveyed had been with their current employer less than 12 months.

Starting in 1979, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the employment of 10,000 individuals (ages 14 to 22 years as of 1979) over time. To date, the average number of occupations per individual in this study is 10.8. Researchers predict that the 2007-08 economic crash is only further destabilizing the work environment. Anecdotal evidence supports this.

All of that aside, asking someone forthright, 'what do you do?' is assuming a correlation between that individual's value and how they make a living. Whether you intend it to be so or not, the question is judgmental and, especially now, invalid. It is begging for evasive action right from the get-go because how many of us can answer wholly, definitively and with our heads held high? I have entire different versions of my answer prepped depending on a) the crowd I'm in and b) how talkative and friendly I'm feeling.

Does it diminish my intelligence to say that I'm working with a temp agency right now? No, but it absolutely can feel that way. Does that make me insecure? Yes, a bit, but who isn't? More than that though, what have you really learned about me by asking such a vague question? What does my working with a temp agency actually tell you? Almost nothing. And especially nothing without me divulging more information about my living situation than I may want to a total stranger. Do you get my point?

The question is awkward, potentially rude and invasive, and actually ineffective at getting to know this new person before you. So outside of specifically appropriate 'networking' situations, let's shelve this outdated phrase and invent something better.

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