How to answer the question, What do you do?

Right after college, I was playing a bazillion hours a week of volleyball to get on the pro tour, and reading a book a night to make up for the fact that I was tortured for eighteen years by having to read what other people told me to read. But when people asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I work at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in arbitrage.”

It's a good answer, right? I had choices: I could admit to reading like a crazy person. I could admit to trying to be in professional sports but not quite there, or I could give an answer that impressed everyone: I work in currency arbitrage. In reality, I was so incompetent at this job that when currencies went wild after the Berlin Wall fell, I lost a few million dollars for a few violent traders. The only possible reason to keep a dyslexic, literary, arbitrage clerk around was because she was good looking. But I wasn't good looking enough. I got fired.

Immediately I focused on getting on the pro volleyball tour. At that point, “What do you do?” questions did not get “I'm getting a job in a children's book store because I worked in the family book store for ten years and I can tell you the publisher of any author–quiz me.” Instead, I said, “I'm moving to Los Angeles to play professional beach volleyball.” To me, the book store was a step back to support volleyball, which was a step forward.

Describing my move to LA over and over again to prying relatives and concerned strangers actually made me believe it. How you answer the question “What do you do?” is important because it frames your story for you in a much more visceral way than it frames it for anyone else.

Recently, I had the problem again. I was sort of working at my startup, Brazen Careerist, but not really. The company got a new CEO and was moving to Washington, DC , and I was staying in Wisconsin and marrying the farmer.

“What do you do?” came up a lot because I was redecorating the farm house and traveling back and forth between DC and Madison and NY and Darlington. People in cities asked me what I was doing because clearly, I was not full-time at Brazen Careerist. And people in Darlington asked me because clearly I did not have a life in Darlington.

After trying out a lot of answers that came out poorly (like, I'm working at my company but not really) I came up with “I'm taking a few months off my job to decorate the house while I'm moving to the farm.”

It was a good answer. It was true, of course, but there are lots of true answers this type of question, and not all truthful answers are effective answers. It was a good answer because it reminded me that moving to the farm was a huge job. But also it made me realize that I had given myself an enormous education in interior design in a very short period of time.

I learned about Steampunk styling from hundreds of hours on the Internet. I absolutely fell in love with the idea of repurposing old things for new things, and seeing old in a new way.

I learned about color theory and practice from Maria Killam, who spent hours on the phone with me until I understood when orange on the fabric swatch will look red on a sofa (and why you should never do color on your wall without a consult from an expert).

I obsessively guarded against having anything in the house that did not have a use. All things had to be special and beautiful but nothing could be there only because it was special and beautiful.

When I told people I was decorating the house, they were happy for me. And worried for me. Because I am not going to make a living as a decorator. But the best answer to the question “What do you do?” is “Here's what I'm passionately learning right now.”

If I had answered in a way that focused on my worries about not knowing where my career was going, then there would have been nothing to talk about. But when I answered in a way that revealed my excitement about the house and everything I was learning, then there was a lot to talk about.

I tell you this to show that everyone has trouble answering the question at some points in their life, but the more comfortable we are being lost, the faster we can get unlost, and this is a good example of why—you can tell yourself better stories about yourself.

So here are some steps to help you get better at the process of answering the question “What do you do?”

1. Understand the question.
Assume there is no hidden, evil agenda. Assume the person asking simply wants to know more about you. Of course, only people who have a good answer to the question themselves end up asking the question of others, but still, it's a reasonable question.

2. Focus on a differentiator.
The problem with getting to know someone is that if you ask people, “What's important to you?” you won't learn anything. Because 90% of people will say things like family, friends, learning, being kind, or other routine things — the things, actually, that are on my refrigerator, in the first photo.

You get to know more about a person by asking how they spend their time. Because, while we all have similar goals (really, I bet the same few New Years Resolutions are made by 80% of all people) we all try to reach them in different ways.

This actually reminds me of the opening of Anna Karenina. “All happy families are the same, and each unhappy families is unhappy in different ways.” The modern version of that is “all goals for attaining a happy life are the same, but all the paths to not reaching those goals are misguided in different ways.”

So the question “What do you do?” is an attempt to find out what makes you different. Which means that everyone has an answer.

3. Don't focus on your job.
This is not a job interview—it's an attempt to get to know you so the person can connect with you. So you don't need to go straight to your job for an answer. Some people have a job that does define them. Some people do not. Once you realize you can go either way on this, you can come up with the best answer for you.

4. Focus on where you spend your time and energy.
If you work at Starbuck's to support your marathon training, you can say you're training for a marathon. That is interesting and will immediately spark a fine conversation. Plus, you show that you are someone worth getting to know—you set challenging goals for yourself and you work hard to meet them.

5. Focus on what you are learning.
A career is not an earning path, it's a learning path. So if you tell someone what you are learning about now, they will not actually care what your job is. What you choose to learn, and what interests you, actually says way more about you than the type of job you have. Some people learn a lot on their jobs, some people learn more away from their jobs. Where you learn is not as important as what you learn.

If you are not learning anything, and not doing anything special, ask yourself why. You can do anything in your free time. Make it matter.

6. Don't be defensive
Remember that people are asking to be kind. They are trying to create a connection so that you can talk to each other about things that matter to both of you. Surely that is appealing to you as well. So be helpful with your answer by being vulnerable and forthcoming instead of defensive.

7. Ask about the other person.
Sometimes we get so stressed answering the question that we forget to actually make conversation. Ask the other person what he or she does. Then find common ground. At work or at a cocktail party or talking to someone we wish we didn't have to talk to—being interested in both ourselves and in someone else is one of the most important things we can do.

Posted in Finding a career, Networking
116 comments on “How to answer the question, What do you do?
  1. Adriana says:

    Wonderfully said, P!

    I frequently see bloggers commenting how they dislike to be asked this type of question. When I ask, it’s genuinely to be able to find some common ground so we can entertain ourselves in a party.

    It’s perfectly OK to me to receive as an answer, “I am writing a novel” or “I’m starting a band” even if during the day you are working at a coffee shop to pay the bills. No need to be defensive or annoyed by the question, people!

    • Tian Yuan says:

      Another way to look at this question is a opportunity to talk about what you and the person asking has in common, think about how can you respond to continue the conversation?

      If your answer is deadpan “I work in accounting”… it’s essentially a conversation killer, where as if you started to talk about your passions, eg: I’ve been learning about photography – you may have a line of conversation beyond your usual “how’s your job” thread.

    • Web Design Company says:

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    • Web Design Company says:

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  2. Steven Grant says:

    Well written and useful post, Penelope.

    When I win the lottery you can decorate my house. That teacup lamp is stunning.

    I the movie “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” Robert Downey Jr. ‘s character was asked that question at an LA party by someone who obviously could care less. He told them he invented dice when he was younger and has never had to work since.

  3. Grace Boyle says:

    Sometimes, the question is hard for me to answer. I have a clearcut job, but I actually do SO much more than just a job title.

    My friend and I once experimented and asked men and women: “So, who are you?” Almost all the men answered with their job title, a very masculine answer, also they were brief. All the women, talked about their passions, their relationships and what made them smile.

    A similar question, in what do you do but really distinct between two genders. It was fascinating.

    Furthermore, not everyone has a typical job or role. Maybe they do five different things, they freelance, they’re a mother, they teach yoga and travel, etc.

    I think that not being defensive is very important. It’s a common question we ask to get to know the other person, find some commonality and understand what you’re all about.

    • Pen says:

      Ha, interesting! I have brainstormed with friends to try to come up with a good question as an easy-to-ask alternative to “What do you do?” Because… yeah… I don’t really think that one’s job necessarily defines one’s self (it may, in which case the askee is perfectly free to answer with that info), but that question seems to be a bit leading in asking about job — at least in our culture.

      On the other hand, we didn’t want a question that was all woo-woo, like “What moves you?” or something. We just wanted a good, solid, quick question that showed we were interested in a person – whichever facet they wanted to share.

      We never did come up with a really perfect one though.

      • Lisa says:

        I always liked the question, “So, what’s your story?” If asked the right way, it can generate good and interesting responses.

        Nice post, Penelope. I will remember and quote this one.

      • Laura says:

        I like to ask, “So what are you up to these days?”

      • Susan says:

        I love “What’s your story?” It implies a journey and really that is what we are all doing…traveling through life with interesting stops along the way.

  4. Penny says:

    Hmm. Although I’m passionate and excited about it, I’m just not sure “I write about sex on the internet” is how I really want to start a lot of conversations. But when people ask, that’s really how I want to answer. But unfortunately, most of the people who ask are far too conservative to have a stimulating conversation starting off on that note. Which is kind of unfortunate for them, actually.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      As someone who writes about sex on the Internet, I feel qualified to answer this. First, don’t underestimate people. It’s insulting to them that you think they somehow can’t handle it. Conservative people can have wild sex lives. And wild people can have conservative sex lives.

      Second, if you think you can’t tell people what you do, then you should examine why you’re doing it. Really. I think we should all be proud of our work.

      Penelope

      • Penny says:

        Oh absolutely! And I am very proud of it. It’s not the only thing I do, just the newest thing I’m doing. It all depends on the audience. The anonymity is part of the charm though. I like walking through a party and wondering if one of my readers might be there. And also if they wonder if I am there. It’s titillating to think I might be their dirty little secret.

  5. matt says:

    Great post.

    old things new. loved the hand crank mixer… in a frame and the naked wooden ironing board as side table.

    my grandmother had a bamboo bird cage (ancient) like your red one. eventually she put a tiger figurine and a bird like creature which of course answered the question why the cage bird sings, there’s a tiger in the cage.

    i usually say “i’m an exotic dancer” which works for a few seconds if not a laugh.

    i simply respond, b/c most people ask b/c they have nothing better to ask, “i’m passionate about…”

    thanks for a great post.

    matt

  6. Dave says:

    Anna Karenina, not War and Peace. /pedantry

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh no! This is such a disturbing error! I don’t care about typos, but I do care about this. I am fixing it right now. So upsetting.

      Penelope

      • Rachel says:

        Anna Karenina/War and Peace: Did you look this quote up? Because using “all” in the second part of the quote is a grammatical error and I would be surprised if it were in print somewhere… (I know you probably don’t care about this kind of error, but to me it’s as glaring as the fact that you said it was a different book.)

      • Penelope Trunk says:

        Rachel, I know I say I don’t care about grammar. And mostly it’s true. But in this case, I just love the opening, and I want to get it right. And I didn’t look it up. I have it in my head. So I think I’ll just go with my gut, that you’re right, and change it.

        Penelope

      • Rachel says:

        Thanks! Really, there’s no excuse for not looking it up, it’s so easy to google it! I just googled “happy families” and your page was the first result, so that’s even more reason to get it right. The second part should be “each” or “every”.

        Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

      • Rachel says:

        Sorry, I googled “happy families are all alike”, obviously not just “happy families”.

      • Rachel says:

        Oops, I just realized that was not an actual search I did. Grammar is my strong point. Internet is not.

  7. Roberta Warshaw says:

    Ooooooh. I love what you did with the ironing board! The photos are fantastic.

    I can’t wait to be able to say “I’m retired”. I play with beads and ride my bike. Not necessarily in that order.

    • Retired Syd says:

      I retired 3 years ago, and believe me, nothing stops the conversation faster than answering “I’m retired.”

      I’m learning to be more creative with that answer.

  8. Lauren V says:

    Your house looks gorgeous! I’d love to see more pictures of what you have done (before and after, maybe), and how you decided on your end design. Perhaps it’s not immediately relevant to career advice, but I’m sure you could find a way to tie it in.

  9. Margaret Goerig says:

    Nice suggestions for dealing with a question I am not too fond of. My friend, Brent, and I had a conversation once about it, because I told him that when I lived in Spain, no one asked that at parties, and Brent said that he always tried to ask instead: “What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you since I last saw you?” It’s a good question that could be changed a little in order to ask people you’re meeting for the first time.

  10. Erica Peters says:

    I explain what I write about, and then I always (always!) undercut myself by explaining that of course I don’t make any money from my writing. Every time, I tell myself, as I open my mouth – “don’t mention the lack of money! They don’t care!” And every time, it comes out anyway.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      This is totally great self-knowledge, Erica. That you know where you undercut yourself is more than half the battle.

      And, this is great interview fodder, too. We do this stuff throughout an interview, unconsciously, if we don’t listen to ourselves as carefully as Erica does.

      Penelope

  11. Kathy Williams says:

    My son introduced me to your blog which I appreciate. I am your polar opposite. You have complete freedom to say whatever you want…for whatever reason is not important. We can all use a little more honesty.

    Kathy

  12. Irving Podolsky says:

    You got me to thinking again, P. And what I’m thinking, is that we define ourselves based on “social proof” from others. For example, can I tell people I’m a writer if I have yet to publish a book? Can I even state that to myself? Isn’t selling book copies the REAL PROOF that I’m a writer? Or at least a “professional” writer? Or how about getting PAID to do a task? Any task. Someone else must VALIDATE my identity by considering my services valuable. Only then can I feel honest about it. Hobbies? Guess they don’t count. Which means that very few of us are proud of our play time.

    So it seems to me, that we tell ourselves that we need OTHER people to accept our proclaimed definition before we can accept it ourselves. That’s not fair, is it? And I for one am trying to break way from this convention.

    Irv

  13. Harriet May says:

    Although I have an interesting job, in everything else I feel so stuck now (and even at work I often feel inadequate). And I’m trying to get myself unstuck by struggling against it, so of course that is working like quicksand. I feel like I never do anything whole-heartedly with any consistency. For example, I got crazy about running in high school to the point where I nearly got banned from the school gym for my health’s sake. And then I gave it up almost completely, so now I am back at square one trying to get that fitness back. So after eight years of “being a runner” I still don’t quite feel like I am. And that makes me feel stuck.

    I think I’m going to join a running group.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Harriet, I think where you are unstuck is in your commenting life. For the last twenty posts you have written such good comments. You always make me think a little more. I’m not saying that this is your most genius one (there have been better) but this is the one that makes me want to say that often we are being great at something that we don’t expect to be great at, so we don’t even notice it’s happening.

      Penelope

      • WizardoftheWesternWorldH&M says:

        About this: “often we are being great at something that we don’t expect to be great at, so we don’t even notice it’s happening.” Sometimes it’s the family who don’t notice . . .

        Remember the children’s books by Noel Streatfield? The “shoes” series, one was Dancing Shoes and one was Ballet Shoes and one was Theater Shoes, and so on. (These were referenced in “You’ve Got Mail” when she visits the new mega-store, Fox Books, and she’s in the children’s department.)

        In one of those books, as I remember it, a younger brother is a fabulous natural pianist. Naturally (for that era) the parents wanted him to become a concert pianist.

        But instead he became a pilot — airplanes being much newer and more exciting things then.

  14. Sally says:

    My first reaction to this is: you are not what you do.

    It seems like an American phenomenon that people will ask the question as a way to start a conversation or break the ice or get to know someone. In other cultures the question comes off as a bit rude. It would be an interesting exercise to meet someone and try to get to know them without asking the question what do you do.

    That said, I like your advice, because we are always being asked that. I am completely uncomfortable with it and always digging around for something to say (I usually do what Erica does (above) before I can edit myself.)

    • Pen says:

      Yes! I commented above as well, but the whole question drives me nuts (not just when it is asked of me; but in general) because of its not-so-hidden implication that you are what you do/your job is the most important thing.

      Well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but couldn’t we ask a question that does not “lead” so? Argh!

      I think the question needs to be changed! But then, I have no doubt it will continue (in the US anyway). I have yet to come up with a catchy alternative that does not sound too obviously weird. But I would love to!

      • Penelope Trunk says:

        Pen and Sally,
        The whole point of this post is that the answer to the question “what do you do?” does not have to be about your job, per se.

        But if you think who you are is separate from what you do, you are delusional. Who we are is what we do with our life. How we choose to spend our days. What we do with our minds and our bodies from minute to minute. That’s who we are.

        Ask yourself why you have such a huge problem with that. Maybe you don’t like how you choose to spend your time?

        The question is not “how do you spend every second of your life?” because honestly, no one cares. The question is, how do you spend time that excites you, keeps you interested and passionate? Because that is what is interesting to other people.

        Just because it’s an American question doesn’t make it wrong. And maybe it means that Americans ask it because the Horatio Alger ethic makes us all believe we really are responsible for how we spend our own time.

        This is such a good comment from me. I should have put it in the post :)
        Penelope

      • Sally says:

        Penelope, yes a great comment! I guess I meant more specifically: you are not your job, you are a lot more than that, and you gave some very good advice about how to answer the question ‘what do you do?’ If, for instance, you are not happy in your job or you feel that it is not congruent with who you are, you should cut to the chase and talk about what excites you, as you point out. And then think about why the question makes you so uncomfortable and what you can do about it. Just like participators in the blogosphere, I think people often just want to hear or give you the good news and if you don’t feel so great, it can make the question awkward. I like the Horatio Alger be responsible for your time concept too. I didn’t think of it that way,(more like, positioning and stereotyping=my paranoia probably) and that is why I enjoy your blog and your comments.

      • Sally says:

        I think I should have been more succinct: you are not your job, you are a lot more than that. And if you are not happy in your job, you can answer the question in ways that you suggest in this post. You can also examine what makes you so uncomfortable about the question and how you can change that. Just like folks on the blogosphere, I think people mostly want to hear or express the good news, so it’s good to have something to say about your passions. I like the Horatio Alger be responsible for your time concept, too. I wasn’t thinking of it that way (more like positioning and stereotyping, probably my paranoia)and that is why I enjoy reading your posts; you are always pushing in a different direction than my tiny mind sometimes goes. :)

  15. Leslie says:

    I love your enticing use of color in your house. Kudos.

  16. WizardoftheWesternWorldH&M says:

    Some years ago I found a better question to ask, than “what do you do?”

    The specific moment was at an 80th birthday party for a relative. There were about 15 or 20 of us in a smallish den, and into the room swept A Presence. A woman who was, herself, around 80 — but incredibly interesting.

    I found myself standing next to her a few minutes later, and — here’s the question — because I knew she wasn’t actively working for a living, I said, “Tell me about yourself.”

    Tell me about yourself.

    And her reply? “I was born DURING the San Francisco earthquake . . .”

    Yikes.

  17. me says:

    Here in DC – The Ego Capital of The Free World – everyone complains that the “What do you do ?” question is a trite, obnoxious conversation-starter.

    But I’ve never felt that way. And your post illustrates EXACTLY why I like to ask/be asked this question …. Thanks.

  18. Mark W. says:

    I’d like to sit in those two chairs in the photo above. They look very comfortable … and stylish.
    My grandfather was an upholster and interior decorator (wallpaper and draperies mostly) and had his own shop. Unfortunately, he closed it up before I have any good recollection of it. However I do have some photos of it, one of his chairs, and a sofa that he made for my parents. It’s stuff that I don’t think I could give up.
    The grandfather clock on your wall reminded me of a rather large ornate clock that my grandfather bought for my grandmother and transported by train from NYC on his lap. It sort of works (for a short time when wound up by a key) and it hangs on my brother’s (or more correctly my sister-in-law’s) dining room wall. I like old things and especially those old things whose history has some meaning to me. The old clock above was professionally appraised but judged to not be worth that much … at least to the appraiser. :)

  19. Debbie Phillips says:

    ooooooh, P, the tea cup lamp. Exquisite. Trade you anything for it (except husband and cat)!!

  20. Adriana says:

    Nice post Penelope! I am going to put this to use right now. I work as a “Process Improvement Engineer” which is basically a conversation stopper. I am not very passionate about it either. Instead, I am going to say that “I design medical devices” because this is what I want to do professionally, and what I spend most of my time studying.

    Maybe you’ve seen this already, but I came across it in my study of HTML. It’s a color pallet chooser: http://colorblender.com

  21. Ann says:

    I’ve got an old wooden ironing board in my attic…what did you do to get your’s to look WONDERFUL?

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      I bought it that way. But I thought it looked so easy to make wood look that gorgeous. So I have a work table from the mid-1800’s and I tried to refinish it and I pretty much destroyed it. So now I am really recommending a professional.

      Penelope

  22. KB says:

    Thank you! I am never answering this question with “accountant” again.

  23. Marlena says:

    I, like many others, can relate to this article. But I wanted to pop on and comment on how much better your pictures are! I know that you were looking to better that skill, and over a few posts it has really improved. Great work!

  24. Brigitte says:

    Penelope – This is your best post in months. That is, of course, if “best post” really means “post most relevant to my [the reader’s] life at this very second.”

    And that Anna Karenina quote is one of my favorite quotes in literature of all time.

  25. hsg says:

    This is a great post. Really great.

    But! I REALLY wish you hadn’t pulled out that Anna Karenina quote. It’s such a massive journalism/blog cliche – seriously, once you start noticing it, you see it everywhere. You’ve even used it yourself before on this blog at least once or twice.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. I use it on this blog all the time. I think the reason I use it so obsessively is that bloggers write about stuff that is going well for them. Or stuff they have a good grip on. And it’s so insanely boring. I think the the whole self-publishing world has created a deluge of good news. And I just want to drive home how incredibly boring that is. We all know what success and good news looks like.

      Penelope

      • Jenn Sutherland says:

        This is why I read most every comment on this site – nuggets like “bloggers write about what’s going well for them…and it’s boring.” I’d never thought of it that bluntly before, but it’s true. The posts I write that tear at my heart…those are the ones that are most popular, most commented upon. Going to make more honesty happen online this year – thank you for the inspiration, Penelope!

      • Laura Brown says:

        You articulated why I read your blog. It’s about the messiness of the journey. (And because your writing is so well-crafted.)

  26. amy parmenter says:

    First, freakin’ love the photos, the colors, the ironing board. Don’t know if I love the idea of eliminating things that are special and beautiful but not useful. Isn’t something useful if simply looking at it makes you feel better? If not, then we should all have very limited wardrobes, a timex watch, and a toyota — which btw — would be fine with me. But I digress..

    I think a person’s feelings about the question ‘so what do you do?’ is a direct reflection of how they feel about what they do. If you love your job, or the way you spend most of your time, then you would welcome the invitation to talk about it. My father was an artist but worked for the government as a manager to pay the bills. He absolutely hated that question and, of course, he hated his job. If he had been painting or drawing all day — I’m pretty sure he would have been more than happy to talk about it.

    Just one more reason to move toward making what you do a reflection of who you are.

    Thx as always,

    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm.com

  27. Patricia says:

    “I obsessively guarded against having anything in the house that did not have a use. All things had to be special and beautiful but nothing could be there only because it was special and beautiful.”

    Where’s the bird?

    You may think me petty, but we’re about to move into a tiny house – 396 sq. ft. – with 5 dogs and 3 cats. In my world the imperitive of usefulness is more than a lovely sentiment. I’m not complaining. Our move is by design to meet economic, life-style, and aesthetic goals.

    Unless the admittedly special and beautiful bird cage has an off-purpose use that is not apparent, I cannot help myself in pointing out it appears your obssessive guarding against anything that did not have a use may have failed, at least once.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      There are three bird cages hanging from the center of the room and they work together as a chandelier. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the chandelier lights and have the right lighting for the rest of the room.

      Still, though, you would enjoy my weekly romp through the house where I ask the type of question you just asked in an effort to throw out more stuff.

      -Penelope

  28. Laura says:

    I have never had a job I wanted. I am terrible at getting paid. But, since I have stopped trying, I have let some hobbies and projects develop from pleasant procrastination to full blown passions. When people ask me what I am doing, lately I tell them I am researching and writing a role playing module based on the anglo-saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th century. I feel so excited that I can tell people something interesting and I am so excited about my project, that I can talk about it for hours. I am even thinking about making a blog for my history and gaming interests and seeing where it might take me.

    It is so awesome to feel like everything I like about my life isn’t just a distraction from the mundane but vital business of survival. There is no need to be embarrassed about wasting all my time with projects if I can take them seriously and make them seem respectable.

  29. ROFLCatDown says:

    What do I do?

    I help sell social isolation in the guise of communication and community.

  30. Ash says:

    Do you really use that wooden ironing board?

  31. fd says:

    1. excellent advice – i’m going to try to bear this in mind from here on out.
    2. i love the styling in your house, you’ve done brilliantly.

  32. Shefaly says:

    Penelope, I do not think people ask this question as an ice-breaker with a genuine intent to listening to the answer they weren’t expecting; most people just want to establish where they are with respect to the other person on the criteria that matter to themselves. Cynical as it may sound, remembering that always means one can have fun with the answers. I wrote about it in 2007: http://bit.ly/g2Z0nO.

    But my aim in life is to have more creative ice-breakers. I am experimenting with a few and will write about it when I have a handful that work without needing to judge the other person on some random criteria.

    • Pen says:

      I think you’ve hit on why I don’t like the question (which Penelope commented on above but I could not reply to that). It’s because I don’t like what I do (in work or play); it’s because when I ask OTHER people, I want them to know that I’m NOT one of those people who is just trying to place them on the hierarchy of “power” or what-have-you.

      Instead, I want to convey the idea that I’m interesting in their lives, what they are up to, what makes them tick, etc.

      Now if I say “What do you do?”, sure, they can choose to answer creatively; but I don’t feel that’s the same thing as asking it in such a way that I communicate that I, too, am looking for more than the typical “buttonhole” answer. I want to do my part in changing it as the asker and not just the askee :)

      But yes, when people ask what I do, I don’t only say what I do for my job. I answer in a variety of ways (sometimes including my job; just depends what I feel like talking about).

      Pen

      • Pen says:

        Egad, Typo City! Sorry!

        It’s *not* because I don’t like what I do (in work or play)

        and… Interested, not interesting.

        Sheesh.

  33. Life with Kaishon says:

    I really loved this post. I have never been to visit before. Today when I saw your link somewhere I just had to click over. Such a creative blog name. I love how you wrote about our ‘careers’ and basically our lives. Your home looks beautiful. You are decorating so prettily. Wishing you all the best this year in your new home.

  34. Don says:

    I like the house pictures but wonder how does the farmer feel about all the redecoration. It looks like a house from a magazine. As for the post, wow did I enjoy reading that. I find I answer the what do you do question differently depending on the mood, location, and time. I usually just tell them my job but sometimes I go through all the things I do in a typical year until I realize I am providing far more information than the asker wanted. I am a very quiet person but you get me started and you would think I am in the first conversation with someone in a month. So what I answer sometimes is: “Wow, how much would you care to hear?”

  35. Jason H. Parker says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s coming at a time in my life where I get asked this question, or some variation, frequently.

    It really does boil down to our passions, doesn’t it? And, yes, sometimes it is okay to take a step back, career-wise, to pursue something about which you are truly passionate.

  36. HopeinNH says:

    I like to ask people, “What do you do for fun?”

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      I think this means a mom of a newborn would have to answer: Nothing. I mean, taking care of a baby in the first five months is absolutely the most difficult thing in the world. And a mom does it because she loves the baby but not because it’s fun.

      I’m sure there are many other examples of this. Taking care of a dying parent, for example. Or working 18 hour days to ship a software product that is behind schedule and sucks but must ship anyway.

      Not all things in life are fun. But we choose them for a reason. That’s why it’s better to say what do you do than what do you do for fun. It’s actually presumptuous that someone is in a position in their lives to choose stuff for fun.

      Penelope

  37. Kathy B. says:

    Hi Penelope…I HAVE to comment on not having things in a home that are only “special & beautiful” rather than “useful”. I have a shop full of things that are what I consider “special & beautiful” but may not be terribly useful to most. But what if their purpose is to make someone love to come home at night after a hard day or to have someone appreciate the beauty of a piece that has survived generations. For me, whether it is in my shop or my home, just looking at something that someone handcrafted many years ago or used their talent to create it 6 months ago soothes my soul. Isn’t that useful in it’s own way? Kathy

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, this is an interesting point. I really really hate clutter. It’s extreme for me. For example, my bedroom has nothing to hold clothing in. I just throw out clothes if I have no room for them. Another example, I have no dishwasher because I wanted an empty kitchen. And now I am, I have to admit, sick of washing dishes.

      So I think there are lots of ways to look at the world so that it is beautiful and not clutter. Or useful and not clutter. It’s just I can only see clutter. I love having empty space. I love throwing stuff out.

      Penelope

  38. Deborah Schultz says:

    I loved this post because it gives me permission to answer honestly when asked the question. Why I need permission is of course my own problem. I just never thought that people were actually interested in what I was passionate about. That however seems to me the perfect answer and maybe even the real question.
    Even if it seems a bit too intrusive, if we follow what do you do? after receiving a dull answer, then what are passionate about seems that it would at least induce excitement and an interesting answer.

  39. Judy Martin says:

    This post is refreshingly different. I’m so much more interested in what floats people’s boats – that what they do for a living. What gives you joy? What’s rocking your world these days.. ??? That’s what I want to know.
    Great decor… I picked up an idea or two!

  40. Kirsten Keane says:

    As someone who just got a full-time job out of college and still isn’t sure if this is even this industry I want to be in, this was a fantastic post. It’s so hard for me to explain to people what I do since I haven’t even figured it out yet! Plus I don’t want to sound fickle and flaky when I see someone once a year and each time I have a different job/interest. This was a really good read. Thanks!

  41. Ian Anderson says:

    Penelope, that really helped, thanks!

    I am a builder by necessity, a humanitarian by choice, currently working for a coffee shop chain in Norway after being a house husband in New Zealand for two years……

    But my passion at the moment is the web, blogging and reading posts like yours :-)

    Life is for living, but if you do, answering the question “what do you do?” gets harder and harder.

    I desperately need to work on my own “elevator pitch” !

    Stay well ;-)

  42. Sandra says:

    One day I had arranged to get picked up by a gentleman who was leading a (Native American) sweat lodge ceremony. One good thing about living in the bay area, is that you can think, I’d like to. . .(fill in the blank) and you can probably do it because it’s available. Anyway, he picked me up, I’m in the car with a couple of other people. One of the guys, making typical conversation asks me, so what do you do? I’m about to answer him, when Fred (Native American, sweat lodge leader/teacher), turns around and says to him (in a kind way), in Native American culture it’s rude to ask someone what they do for a living. I thought, interesting, although I didn’t ask why it is rude. Anyway, I really like the idea of saying I am learning to/about something. For example, you can say I am learning to be more patient just as well as saying, sailing or systems programming. Personally, I am much more interested in engaging in conversation about sex, politics, religion–the topics we are taught not to bring up in polite conversation–than asking someone what they do (as their profession/job).

    • Brad says:

      It’s not just Native Americans who consider the question rude. I don’t ask that question anymore since I received the painful reply “I’m unemployed.” Yes, he could have replied with a BS euphemism instead, but why should he have to?

      Any of the non-employment-specific alternatives mentioned in earlier comments is preferable.

  43. IMA2FOUR7 says:

    Thank you so much for this post. If the color of your walls wasn’t enough to brighten my day, the content sure was!
    Although I have milked this admittedly stolen response: “I am a leading economic indicator” for several years now, clearly it is time to change from humor to happiness!
    I love the line about talking about what I am passionate about learning since I find these conversations so disarming. I have really needed this since these conversation have in the past made me defensive. So from now on, I will reply that I am passionate about learning algebra (it is unbelievable if you knew me, but it is true). I really am and am proud of myself for doing it).
    This takes the sting out the conversation for me and puts the ball in my court. As a single mother, raising 4 children on my own, having gone back to school to earn a masters degree in elementary education while teaching Hebrew School twice a week, I was lost when answering that question. I needed your brazen career answering advice. Thank you again. Now if only I could find some time to throw more things out!
    You made my day!

  44. Donna Banwarth Montoya says:

    Insightful and so helpful! You give power to those (and especially recent college grads or current students, who I work with) to be true to themselves and their situations and not feel the intimidation of living up to expectations or impressing others through a true-but-not-fully-representative answer about who they are, what they’re doing, and where their passions and goals lie. Thank you!

  45. Nick says:

    This post (in a round about way) make me ponder further, ‘Just what is it bloggers do, in terms of driving your product i.e. your blog content?’ I don’t know how much of your income is derived from the blog, but as Dooce (another blog I follow) becomes more and more of a gateway to shopping and consumerism (as she doesn’t have the extreme interpersonal to share – except for perhaps parenting), I wonder if that’s the direction you’ll go down. It seems readers (myself included) are drawn to the more personal side of things, and as your life goes through more and more ups and downs, readers are more intrigued. But if you were to truly find a level of contentment, are we left with decorating and shopping? Don’t get me wrong, it seems to be a run away success for Dooce. And I think people want to see contentment in others (with the exception of the cast of Jersey Shore). Anyway, not sure this post makes sense. I’m just watching this evolution of my two favourite blogs, and they both seem to say, ‘When all else fails, go shopping.’

  46. mike says:

    I like to ask ‘when you aren’t working, what do you like to do for fun?’
    That stays unobtrusive but inquisitive. Focuses on the ‘fun’ parts of a common ground connection. But gives them the option to go for describing any fun they have as passion or hobby, or take the work part of the question and describe what it is since I raised it. Example – “working as a nurse I don’t get much free time for fun but I love to bowl” or “I’m retired so work doesn’t take time so i do alot of hunting”, etc.
    People can comment either way or both – their work since i brought it up, or their fun/passion since that was the original question.
    Allows the conversation to bounce either way, hopefully easier to find common ground – a person generally brings up what is most on their mind/passionate about first.

  47. Tzipporah says:

    Great advice, thanks.

    I guess I’d answer, now, “I help people explain complex ideas in intuitive, easy-to-understand ways.”

  48. Donna @ Comin' Home says:

    Hi Penelope, I’m a friend of Maria’s and thought I’d drop by. :o) I really enjoyed your topic! I know we, homemakers, aren’t supposed to like answering that question. And some are quick to take offense. But the fact is that just saying,”I’m a homemaker–and proud of it!” would probably end the conversation right there. If asked that question today, I would talk about teaching homemaking on my blog, designing and sewing fabric art, writing music, and learning photography…OH yeah..and home schooling. My challenge, because I’m so excited about what I do..is to ask for and listen to what THEY do. You are correct in surmising that most people have a hard time coming up with creative ways to get to know a little more about a person, so I try to help.

    BTW, I use antiques for decorating too and I LOVE the stunning way you use them!. You certainly do think ‘outside the box’. This is hard for me. Maria also chose MY wall colors, and hopefully, sometime in the next three months, I’ll get to paint!

    PS. Intriguing comment by Nick. I’ve seen the same thing on other blogs about the shopping and selling. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that. People ask me, all the time, why don’t you have ads? Don’t you realize you could make money? But my blog is ALL about the personal and practical. That’s one thing I love about Maria’s blog is that you learn something every day and even though she occasionally ‘advertises’, you know she’s just sharing a great resource…her professional services.

    I’m anxious to avoid blogging that turns into ads, linky parties, shared videos, and nothing but gorgeous home photos much as I enjoy the photos. Focusing on content is a rare attribute as blogs get bigger. Yours seems great to me! But I am a new follower–I need to read a few more posts. If they are anything like this one, I’m hooked!

  49. Rachel Turner says:

    It would be nice if people stopped thinking it was good conversation to begin chats with the following questions:

    What do you do? As in work…so awkward if you are trying NOT to work in the traditional sense. Very hard to explain in a sentence.

    What are you going to do? Like if you’re unemployed, you get asked this a lot. I tell them, I’m not sure, but I’m pretty confident I will still be alive somehow.

    What are you going to do with that major/degree? As in, you spent four years studying THAT! How does one use Global Studies in the real world?

    Why hasn’t he popped the question? Translate – why have you been dating someone for eight years and not gotten married – you’re abnormal.

    I find these kinds of conversation starters in general not only lazy (can’t you find something else to say or ask?) but also very nosy. Hang out with someone for any length of time, and I’m sure you will have all these questions answered.

  50. BBell says:

    Hi
    I always enjoy your posts, but sometimes I think I enjoy the comments from your followers more. It’s always interesting to read something and form my own opinion, then read through other people’s. Also, for this particular post I’m enjoying finding out questions that people would prefer to be asked. My interpersonal skills could always use some tweaking and a post like this goes a long way!
    Thanks!

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