“What do you do?” It’s a question we’ve all been asked and been guilty of asking when having idle talks with strangers. I cringe a little inside when people ask me that question, and cringe much worse when I ask it. And of course, what we’re really saying is I can’t think of any other way to get to get to know you, and it’s easier to make a sweeping generalization about who you are based on your job, rather than having a creative, meaningful conversation. And also, how much money do you make?
Nobody likes this question. Even if you love the shit out of your job, which I do. As much as I find my job exciting, the job itself says almost nothing about my identity. Sure, if you tell someone that you’re a marketing associate, it might indicate that you’re somewhat creative. But does it tell someone that you’re creative AND you want to start your own company? Or that you’re creative AND you have an obsession with monkeys? No. Of course not. Unless you’re at a professional networking event, there’s almost no upside to talking about your job. It is simultaneously a conversation starter and a conversation killer.
Having lived in the DC area for the last 18 years, I found that people here ask each other “what do you do?” more often than anywhere else in the country. The question rarely comes up when I’m traveling to other cities, and has never come up while traveling abroad. It’s an epidemic, an antiquated link between occupation and identity. And I get that people usually come to DC, chasing their dream job and want everybody to know that they’re working in the office of Senator So-and-So. And I’m glad. But if that’s all that defines you (highly unlikely), then I don’t want to know you until you get more interesting.
This has to stop, and it starts with you. So here’s a suggestion: next time you meet someone new, think about what’s important to you about connecting with or befriending someone? Get creative. Ask them not what they do for a living, but what they would do if they had a million dollars? How they would prepare for a nuclear holocaust? What three items are on their bucket list? What’s one thing you should check out when visiting their hometown? And then maybe, just maybe, after a while, you can ask this super interesting person, what they actually do for a living. You might be surprised by the answer.
- Eric Wang