Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"What do you do?"

I'm still kind of musing on the bachelorette party. My last post probably made all these women sound like a bunch of superficial cows, which they really weren't. Some have children, some have successful careers-- or at least so I've been told by Fifi. The weird thing was that in the course of the whole evening, I didn't learn what any of them actually did for a living. The closest I came to this was a chat with a woman sitting next to me about what'd we'd majored in in college, but then, perhaps due to the nature of parties, or perhaps due to the guests at this particular party, there was no other discussion of work, at least not at my end of the table.
We talked about food, weight, makeup, plastic surgery, Jimmy Choo bags, Christian Louboutin shoes, dating, relationships, children, the bride, the groom-to-be, and the possible uses and caloric content of the edible undies.

It's funny, the question "What do you do" is seen as kind of a cliched New York cocktail party question, indicating that we are more obsessed with work than with the rest of life. I always feel a bit self-conscious if I ask the question, but sometimes it just seems like the natural next step in a conversation. Do you think it's weird to ask this of someone you've met at a party? Do you feel like it's a thinly-veiled way of asking about their financial status, or just a way to find out more about their life?


Anonymous said...

While I understand that its a good opening with a stranger, questions that begin with "where are you from?", "what do you do?", "where do you live?" (as in the neighborhood), really bug me, because I think the answer could reveal class issues. I prefer "how do you know the host?" as an opening. Also as I hate social gatherings, I think all events should involve reading books.

When I used to live on Rittenhouse Square (one of Philly's wealthy neighborhoods), I often got a lot of admiration just because of where I lived.


Anonymous said...

I think it depends on the person. Some people like being asked, some people don't.

For me, it depends on the situation as well. When I was a teacher it was easy, because I could say "I am a teacher" and most people could relate to some extent. Now I do several things, mostly online, and if the person asking has no interest/understanding of the internet then it seems to cut the conversation short.

Charles said...

I don't think that the "what do you do for a living" is an inappropriate question, but I do think it can be a showstopper if it is the opening question. Whether fair or not, people do tend to make judgments based on career and it also tends to shut down conversation if it is an awkward answer.

I tend to like to ask people what they do in their free time, which if they respond "what free time" you learn a lot. There is a lot about class whether we admit it or not.

beth said...

I'm glad you posted what you DID talk about at the party! I was wondering about that, but it sounds like fun, if a kind of crazy evening.

Asking what a person does is always a mixed bag - it's partly honest curiosity, partly a stab at getting conversation flowing, partly nosiness, partly looking for common ground.

I tend to fall back on questions like how they know the person we have in common, what they do for fun, what part of the area they live in, where they're from, but after a while it feels *obvious* to ask the work question!

Rad said...

I think if your really interested in getting to know someone, it's a perfectly suitable question. It should not make a difference in how you treat a person, but it is defenitely something worth knowing in the course of conversation. What if he is a union rep and you are a member of a union, this can lead to a whole array of topics that you normally would not get into.

Anonymous said...

I think it's okay to ask the job question but I usually try to avoid it unless it comes up naturally in conversation.

This reminds me of a conversation I had at a BBQ last summer... I was chatting to a friend of the host and the subject of travel came up. He proceeded to talk for about 5 minutes about how he's travelled all over the world because of his job, and how his job lets him travel all over the world, etc.

Me: Wow, you're so fortunate, what do you do?

His reply: I find that such a cliched question and women are always asking me that. I prefer not to say because it shouldn't matter what I do.

Now I'm not the world's most patient person, but this arrogant reply really turned me off so I snapped at him: Frankly, I don't really care what you do, but you brought up the subject of your job and talked my ear off for the past 5 minutes. I was just being polite. Now, if you'll excuse me, I see someone waving at me.

And you know what, I still don't regret it!

MissGoldBug said...

Anonymous-Wowzers! I always wished I had the cojones to tell someone off like that who really deserved it! The smart thing to say always comes to me after I have left the party, when I am lying in bed at 4 in the morning it pops into my head!

Madame X... some of my favorite cocktail questions are:

What book(s) are you reading now?
Where have you travelled lately?
Where did you go to school and why?
Tell me about a turning point (for better or worse) in your life?
If you had the chance, what would you tell yourself 10 years ago?
What's your favorite website?
What do you hope to be remembered for?
What's your favorite class you've ever taken?
If you could be any celebrity, who would it be?
Favorite ice cream flavor?

Before I go out, I review my q's and then I feel armed! :)

As for the "what do you do for a living" question-I've asked that and been asked that. Whenever I launch into what I do, people's eyes glaze over and they stop listening to me... Awwww.

So, I guess I kind of avoid asking it... unless you're in a situation like anonymous... where you're kind of required to ask.


ChiefFamilyOfficer said...

I think it's a socially acceptable question too, although maybe if it's awkward, as you say, I would go with "How do you know (insert host/guest of honor name here)?" I think that if you are genuinely interested in the other person and aren't making judgments, it's probably not going to come across that way. On the other hand, if that's what you're going to do (make judgments, I mean), I wouldn't go down that road. I like the suggestion about asking what someone does in their free time - I think I'll try that next time I need a question.

By the way, I'm dying to know what happened on your friend's date!!!

Anya said...

Hi Madame X, I seem to remember reading that Isaac Bashevis (sp?) Singer, the author, used this two-part question when he met someone new: "Who do you live with, and who do you love?" (Or if he were being grammatical he mighta said "whom," I guess.) I like those questions but I think they're both forward and could be a bit off-putting, unless you're a very confident and slightly exhibitionist small-talk maker.

I agree that the "What do you do?" question is fine if it's genuinely to find out something interesting about someone, rather than to gauge where they fall on the social scale. I've had some interesting conversations with everyone from investment bankers to guys who get the dents out of cars, neither of which I knew anything remotely about before asking them that question at a party.

Thanks for your entertaining and informative blogging.

Anonymous said...

I once switched jobs abruptly from kind of a cool-sounding nonprofit job to a boring-sounding corporate-esque job. I was the same person with basically the same life, but I noticed that I immediately got a much different reaction at parties when people would ask what I did for a living. Actually, the interested reaction I used to get at parties is probably what I miss most about my old nonprofit job!

Anonymous said...

For me, asking someone about the profession is a way to gauge their intellectual capacity and to determine what would be appropriate conversation topic. After all, our professions in many ways do reflect who we are.

Anonymous said...

I think asking that question to someone you just met means she just want to know you better. Maybe she was just only curious..or maybe she ran out of questions to ask..

SavingDiva said...

People love to talk about themselves, so I think "What do you do?" is a great way to keep the small talk going. It's a polite way to inquire about a person and to find another conversation topic.

Anonymous said...

I like to think "What do you do?" is just a way to find out more about someone you don't know. Most people "do" something, and so it's appropriate for people you know nothing about. Ideally, people are prepared for that question because they hear it so often.

That said, I still haven't found the right answer. I'm one of those people who get the glazed-over response. In the past, I've definitely gotten the oh-you're-an-idiot response.

Generally I go with the humorous "bureaucrat" or "pink collar worker" and only go into details if they keep asking. A similar strategy is to say, "my day job is ..."

When I was reading what optioned unarmed said, I thought (s)he must have changed jobs for a reason, so maybe there's a cooler angle from which to approach the description. In that vein I could say something like "I advise people on how best to fit various shapes of pegs into various shapes of holes, some but not all of which match perfectly." That describes what I do so much better than saying "I work with the computerized degree audit system for a university. But I'm not a programmer."

I wonder if optioned unarmed could say "I used to have [cool job], but I switched for [good reason]." (I used to work with Clean Water for Everyone but I changed jobs so I could be in town for my kids more. I used to work with Grandmas Against Long Commutes, but I switched jobs to get regular hours so I could have more time to paint." Then (s)he could get the good responses again!

Another strategy is to answer, "I'm sorry, that's classified."

The main character in "About A Boy" has trouble with this question, too. His answer is that he does nothing because he lives off the proceeds of a song his father wrote, and he can't stand that song, but people can't help singing it when they hear it. You never really can tell if you're asking a difficult question until it's too late. You just have to risk it and apologize if necessary!

Anonymous said...

I often ask people what they do for a living. It often leads to very interesting discussions and one of my fave things, networking.

Anonymous said...

I think asking people what they do for work is a fine question. Sure, some people may be asking as a way to judge/size other people up but that is usually evident from their tone/way they carry themselves. I think most people do work and we spend a significant amount of time doing it that it is an area that we would naturally be interested. I know for me my job can sound a bit boring so I tend to hate when people ask what I do because I don't think most of them really care. Who knows.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends how it's asked.

Most of us spend all day at our jobs, so a third of our time X 5/7 = about a quarter of our life. So to ask a person what occupies 1/4 of their life is not an unreasonable question to ask if you are interested in getting to know them even a bit.

But I've been asked what I "am", and then, based on the response, been asked in the next breath if I make any money. Not cool.