It has become the de facto small talk opener. It’s an automatic question with an automatic answer. More often than not, its meaningless fluff, and it’s a question that is almost always answered poorly.
Perhaps it’s because we live our lives in comparison to others and our professions are an imprecise-yet-accepted way of defining how cool we are and where we rank on the imaginary social spectrum that we’ve decided exists (spoiler: it doesn’t). The better your job, the better you are right? So we start our conversations and our relationships with strangers by establishing where we rank and whether we deem ourselves worthy of the other’s time.
If asked “what do dogs do?”, the response wouldn’t be “serve as pets to humans”. You’d talk about all the shit that dogs do to make themselves happy and live a wicked dog life. Why is it then that we have chosen to define ourselves by the revenue-generating tasks we perform and not by, you know, what we actually do.
There’s nothing wrong with the question — the problem lies within the automated response. Imagine: “Hey, nice to meet you. What are the specific tasks you perform in order to make enough money to provide for yourself and sustain your lifestyle? Also, how special do you feel?” Unfortunately that’s not far off the undertone of the present-day “what do you do?”. Responding with your job title doesn’t even answer the question. It leaves us to infer what your daily to-do list looks like based on our knowledge of your profession. Not an ideal conversation piece.
You should care about who people are and their profession is certainly a big part of that, but people do lots of things and chances are they’re more excited to discuss their non-work interests than their 9-5. Your hobbies are things you ‘do’ and, more importantly, they more accurately describe who your are. That was the intent of the question in the first place, before society turned into the contest it is today.
If asked ‘what do dogs do?’, the response wouldn’t be ‘serve as pets to humans’.
The next time you’re asked what you do, dig deeper into the question. You’ll surprise the other party, but you’ll also learn more about who one another truly are. “What do I do? Do you mean professionally? Socially? Philanthropically? I do lots of things, what are you curious about?” God forbid the small talk grow to be medium-sized.
You’ll notice that when people have jobs that are perceived as being better (whatever that means), they’ll dive right in and express how great it is. If someone is still working on finding their path or in transition, they’ll share with less confidence and add qualifiers. “I’m just such and such right now”. They’re embarrassed because they’re playing this popularity game despite the fact that they might be pursuing something they actually care about and their passion is a work in progress. No way is right or wrong. How do you want to define yourself? Is it by what your business card says? Maybe the banker and the artist both love curling, but the conversation never gets there if they decide they’re not compatible based on their job titles.
For some people, what they do professionally is their passion. It is how they want to define themselves. That’s amazing. If what you’re creating is truly a combination of what you do and who you are, awesome, keep it going. If you’re still working towards it, don’t feel the need to express who you are as a person by what you’ve chosen to do to provide for yourself. You’re not one thing, you’re a whole bunch of awesome things. You get to choose how you present yourself to the world. Try defining yourself by who you actually are, and help others express themselves to you in the same way. It’s something to add to the list of things you do.