I’ve never loved this question, because I am not conventional. I have a hard time answering it. I often have itinerant jobs that don’t really represent what I feel “I do,” and if I answer the question by saying “I’m a poet” or “I’m a writer” or “I’m an artist,” either an awkward silence ensues, or a lot of assumptions that eventually lead to an awkward silence ensue. One of the assumptions, for example, might be that I make money off of being a poet or a writer or an artist. Another might be that if that’s what “I do,” I must be a “success,” I must be well-established and -published.
Anyway, my frustrations with the “What do you do?” question has begun to exceed the bounds of my own personal baggage.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how weird this question is.
Like, if an alien interpreted this question, what do you think it would answer? “What do you do?” I eat and sleep and poop. I walk the dog. I get lost in thought a lot. I go to the grocery store almost every day. I sit in a room and use my larynx to make guttural noises that other English-speakers understand, and I make those noises into a shiny, thin, small black box, and I stare at a computer, mostly motionless, for many hours, and write and speak in symbols, edit and create ideas with these symbols, but I’m not actually doing much of anything with my physical body in the physical universe.
What do I do? I sleep, I sit, I shit. I chew, I slurp, I swallow. My organs perform their mysterious and wondrous duties. I walk from room to room. Sure, my mind has a purpose, usually, but my body — it’s just walking from room to room. Place to place. Picking up, putting down, standing, settling. I am mostly still. The eyes turn in their sockets, the head turns on the neck, my fingers twitch over the computer keyboard, my arms jerk subtly around the steering wheel.
Now, someone who works construction or makes cabinetry or even who flips burgers — those people are doing something all day. What do you do? I flip burgers, I fill fountain drinks, I dip fries, I dig holes, I lay concrete, I build objects. I scrub. I cut trees, I move cattle. I scan items for folks at the grocery store, I stock, I pack, I ship, I deliver. That’s doing something. It’s not abstract. It’s real, it’s physical, it’s bodily, it’s planetary.
And I’d argue all this actual doing demands more—more grit, more patience, more skill, more tolerance, more dedication, more focus, more emotional and spiritual intelligence. More able-ness — more ability — than the mind-work we tend to associate with “profession.”
I’m beginning to suspect that this common “What do you do?” question is a touch elitist. I’m suspicious this question is particularly common in certain circles in which someone’s job is considered her profession is considered her life’s work is considered part of her character is considered so much more than a source of money to trade for goods. In which when you ask the question you feel you’re giving someone an opportunity to brag or dish on themselves in a crucially important way. Jobs that require a long study in traditional higher education, degrees, certificates. “I’m a teacher,” “I’m a podiatrist,” “I’m an accountant,” “I’m a banker,” “I’m in business management,” “I’m in law,” “I’m a microbiologist for Dow Chemical.” “I work for Pew,” “I’m a life coach,” “I was an analyst for a while but now I’m retired and make pottery.”
Do you know what I’m saying? Why is one of the first questions I’m usually asked when mingling at a party “What do you do?” and why is this meant to insinuate “How do you make money?” and why is this supposed to be one of the most fundamental and interesting things about me and why is it expected that I’ll have a simple answer for the question—in other words, that I’m some kind of conventional professional?
And if I was mingling in the kind of crowd I’m always in when I get asked this question, and I said “I’m a gas station attendant” or “I’m at the McDonald’s on 46th” or “I’m a housekeeper” or “Construction,” would that land any better than “I’m a poet”? Awkward silence, maybe a touch of pity. Ugh.
I don’t think this question is consciously meant to be code, like a head-nod, to see whether one belongs in a group. I don’t think. But it often feels eerily like the askers are searching for a password I must have in order to be accepted into their circle.
I’ve been in some circles where this question doesn’t operate. I ran chairlifts at a ski hill once with a bunch of unconventionals, fun and funky mostly young folks from all over the U.S. and the world. I worked at an outdoor store in the mountains for a while with a dedicated staff of mostly older folks, people who had organized their lives around play rather than work. Work was just underwriting. When someone put together a hang-out or party or potluck in these crowds, there was no “What do you do?” It was more organic.
“Cool shoes!” “Thanks! Like yours, too. I’m Kelly.” “Jessica. Have you done any shredding yet? I know it’s early in the season but the snow has been amazing.” “Omigaw, yes, I was out two days ago and it was insane, and no one was on the mountain. It was heaven.” “Yes! It’s been so quiet around here! It’s like we have the whole place to ourselves. Ski or snowboard?” “I ski. You?” “Both. I just got a new K2 board—” “I just got new K2 skis! I think they’re wicked undervalued.” “Totally. I grew up in Washington near where they got started, and everyone out there rode them. Here it’s like people think they’re a joke brand.” “Not if you know what you’re doing.”
Conversations got going from points of commonality rather than something like an interview. Not how are we different (“What do you do?”) but where are we the same.
These are always my favorite kinds of conversations. They happen all over in all kinds of crowds from time to time, and it would be nice if they happened more often.
I recognize that a lot of people have jobs that are critically meaningful to them, jobs that they dedicated large parts of their lives to securing, that are the central focus of their time and activity, that they deeply identify with, jobs that are who they are. That’s rad. Those folks should celebrate their jobs as they see fit. And in the course of a conversation like the one above, a person who wants to can easily bring up her job. I just don’t think we need to assume, in any social scenario, any group, that all people feel like what they do is what they do. I don’t think we need to assume that everyone we’re with would like to answer that question.
So let’s stop interviewing one another. Let’s dialog. Let’s talk. Let’s be together.