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What Do You Do: Finding Value in the Question No One Likes

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Several years ago, my friend Verray returned home from a mission trip to the Ukraine full of stories about the former Soviet culture. She talked about the architecture in Kiev. She showed us photos of the babushkas selling vegetables and handmade goods. She described the church services and gatherings with other Christians.

One detail from her trip left an especially big impression on her. Several members of her group attended a Bible study at the home of one of the Ukrainian women they had met. As they began their evening, each participant was asked to share a little about herself. As my friend explains it, after two or three of the Americans spoke, their host stopped them.

“We don’t want to know what you do for a living, what college you went to, or if you have a house,” the leader said. “We want to know you, who you are, your heart, how God has worked in your life.”

As someone who regularly asked people “What do you do?” in order to talk with them about their work, I was confused.

“Do they have jobs?” I asked. The fall of the Iron Curtain was still fresh in my memory. Despite economic growth, was Ukrainian unemployment high? What was I missing? “I mean, they do work, don’t they?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t define them,” Verray explained. “Not like here.”

The Question Behind the Question

Apparently Ukrainians aren’t the only ones who eschew the question, “What do you do?” In an “explainer” piece for London’s The Guardian, former assistant editor—and American—Heather Long describes to an international audience what she thinks is really behind the question so prevalent across the pond.

In the U. S., we’re obsessed with people’s jobs. We want to know all about it. We insist that you tell us what “career tribe” you’re in—white collar, blue collar, or new high-techy collar. What’s your exact title? How do you spend your day? Are you someone who speaks the language of law, tech, finance, media, marketing, education, military, government, the arts, etc.? Basically, we would like everyone to walk around with their business card attached to their forehead, but since that’s a bit over-the-top, we try to glean the same information by asking questions—often lots of them—about your work.

I confess that as someone who values work, I enjoyed hearing about the intricacies of city planning when I was introduced to a man at a party and asked what he did. I discovered that new friends were nurses, teachers, pharmaceutical sales reps, and engineers that way too. Once, I had a riveting conversation about actuarial science by simply asking a friend’s new husband, “What do you do?” I had never met an actuary before.

Occasionally, though, people would respond to “What do you do?” by telling me about how they play in a band or snorkel or write horror novels.

“That’s your job?” I would ask.

“Oh, no, I’m an optical specialist (or computer programmer or lab assistant),” the new friends would tell me. “But that’s not who I am.”

Slowly, I began to understand that not everyone actually likes his job or identifies with his work in the way my question implied. Then there were the more difficult exchanges. On more than one occasion when I’ve asked, “What do you do?” people have given me curt answers, followed by, “I don’t really want to talk about work stuff now.” I’ve also experienced the awkward hemming and hawing that accompanies, “I’m between jobs.” And occasionally, someone will respond with just, “Nothing,” and move on to another topic.

I’ve played the role of awkward responder to that question as well. During periods of hating my job or living between jobs or being so ill I couldn’t actually go to my job, I didn’t know how to answer either.

Out of Vogue

As it turns out, most of us have had enough bad experiences on both ends of that question, even here in America, that according to several online publications, the question “What do you do?” has now become completely out of vogue.

“Are there four words that sound more phony than these, when they’re the first that a stranger says to you?” asks Laura McMullen of U. S. News & World Report. “They seem less spoken than lazily dropped on your head, in four thudding raindrops. And, on cue, you instinctively launch into an umbrella spiel about your title, duties, and is this person even listening?”

Geekwire’s Monica Guzman concurs. “The classic get-to-know-you question is designed to extract information about your job, that thing you spend a lot of your time doing. But it doesn’t work anymore,” she writes. “Let’s kill it.”

Maybe the trouble with this question isn’t exactly as it appears on the surface, though.

The Problem Isn’t Our Work

“The problem is not in asking others what they do and sharing our own vocations,” writes Huffington Post senior staff writer Carolyn Gregoire, “but in taking the answer as a foundation marker of a person’s character and identity. And much like launching into a monologue about how busy or stressed you are when asked about your day, diving right into ‘what do you do’ can be a surefire way to prevent yourself from making a real connection with the person you’re speaking to.”

To say it another way, what if the question, “What do you do?” actually feels offensive because we value work too little, not too much? That is, if we see work as an isolated task, adding value to a person in proportion to his income or status, then the question feels reductionist and reeks of favoritism. If, however, we rightly view all work as a high calling, then in asking and answering the question, “What do you do?” we have the opportunity to talk not only about our jobs but also about our vocations and our passions. In this light, the question also positions us to give thanks and honor God for all the work of our hands.

Asking a Different Question

Joshua Fields Millburn, coauthor of Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists, suggests that the best way to answer the question “What do you do?” is to answer it as if the question were altogether different.

“The next time someone asks you what you do, try this: Don’t give them your job title. Instead, tell them what you’re passionate about, and then change course by asking them what they are passionate about,” Millburn writes.

“Think of this shift as changing a noun into a verb,” he continues. “Instead of giving people a title (i.e., a box to put you in), let them know what you enjoy doing—what you’re passionate about—and then discover what they enjoy as well. The conversation will morph into something far more interesting, and you’ll learn a lot more about each other than your silly little job titles.”

Lately, I’ve started asking different questions when I meet people for the first time. I still want to know about the work people do, but I don’t assume they currently hold a paying job outside the home or feel the same way about their work as I do. So I ask, “How do you spend your time?” Sometimes, I say, “What’s one thing in your life that you are excited about?” And occasionally, I just ask, “What do you do for fun?”

And more often than not, after I’ve had a chance to get to know the person I’m talking to, the conversation eventually turns back around to our work after all.

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What Do You Do?

If you sit with someone long enough, included in the initial small talk (“Where do you live?” “How do you know so-and-so?”) someone in the conversation will inevitably ask, “What do you do?” What are we looking for when we ask that question? And what do we hear when we’re on the receiving end of that question?

What we do is important stuff in this world, and God desires greatly to be invited into what it is we find ourselves doing every day. God takes delight in the work of our hands. But do we sometimes confuse what we and others “do” with who we are and, especially, who we are in Christ? Would our question change if we thought about it more deeply? And what about our answer? How about you? What Do You Do?

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