What Do You Do?

Here’s a typical conversation at a cocktail party.


Ben: Hi I’m Ben, what’s your name?

Craig: Hi, I’m Craig. Ben, what do you do?


What do you do?

This is often the first question we ask someone (in America) when meeting for the first time. We want to know what they do for work. Never mind that the labor force participation rate is 62.7%, which means that 37.3% of the people you ask this question to don’t have an answer. Maybe they are retired, or they stay at home to take care of young children, or they had to stop working to care for an aging parent. Maybe they were recently laid off. Ouch! Perhaps they are independently wealthy and choose to volunteer rather than “work”. Or maybe they’re like many millennials with college degrees who can’t seem to find a job in their chosen profession. There are many reasons that people are not currently working in a full-time paying job worthy of conversation at a cocktail party.

Why are we obsessed with what people do?

I happen to be one of those work-a-holics who loves to talk for hours about my work, but the fact is that most people don’t enjoy their work. A recent Gallup poll found that 85% of workers were “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces”. Read between the lines: they hate their job. This makes it all the more perplexing that we are conditioned to ask this question as a litmus for learning about a new person.

Here’s one of my all-time pet peeves. My husband and I are at an event together and introduce ourselves to a group. They shake both of our hands, we all exchange names. Then they immediately turn to my husband and ask, “So, what do you do?” As the conversation continues, they never ask me the same question. Really? In 2018 we are still assuming the wife doesn’t DO anything for work?

By the way, staying at home to raise young children IS A JOB. It’s a very difficult job requiring high skill, endurance, patience, stamina, and advanced mental strength. Parents need to start listing this on their resumes. I’d be infinitely more interested in a candidate who lists stay-at-home parent as one of their prior jobs.

My first job in financial services was sales assistant at a brokerage firm. Sales assistant is a glorified term for a secretary. Long after I moved up the ranks at work, I had a habit of telling people who asked me the “What do you do?” question that I was a secretary. It was a fun prank the often resulted in more interesting conversations with strangers. How would the man in the suit in a mid-town Manhattan bar during happy hour respond to secretary versus my actual job? I’m not advocating dishonesty, but I don’t think we as a society have to continue to ask this question of new people first, every time. We don’t need to define people by their jobs.

More importantly, aren’t there more interesting things to learn about a person that what they do for a living? What if we are completely missing out on an amazing conversation by wasting time talking about our jobs? If someone is going to become a friend, you will eventually find out what they do. I think it’s time for a new question. I plan on asking people what book they are currently reading.

When I meet new clients, I spend a lot of time learning about their lives. One of my first questions is often about their family members. Who matters most to you? Whether it’s their children, grandchildren, spouse, siblings, or pet, I learn so much more about them with this question that with “What do you do?”.  Another question is about what they do for fun. If 85% of people hate their jobs, it’s important for me to know how they’d rather spend their time. It is my goal to help clients accumulate and preserve enough capital to make them comfortable spending more of their time doing things they enjoy.

So how about we stop asking, “What do you do?” and start asking more interesting questions.

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