In Defense of “What Do You Do”

Living in DC, one hears a common complaint that upon meeting someone for the first time, everyone immediately asks about jobs/careers. The implication of this complaint, of course, is that the disproportionate prevalence of this question in the District is a symptom of the no good, rotten, pretentious, status- and career-focused culture in our city. This is bullshit, as making the Anti-What Do You Do (WDYD) argument is actually more pretentious than just asking what someone does.

Let me explain. There are a couple of assumptions embedded in the Anti-WDYD argument (or more specifically, the DC-centric Anti-WDYD argument) that are worth stating explicitly:

  1. People in other places ask WDYD less frequently and/or later in conversations than do people in DC;

2. Asking WDYD is a way for the asker to assess the status of the askee, and is therefore a way for the asker to accomplish his/her goal of being able to judge the askee according to the answer;

3. Other questions that one could ask early in introductory conversations do not carry the same implication of passing judgment on the askee, and/or are inherently more interesting than asking WDYD; and

4. As a result of all of the above reasons, deliberately refraining from asking WDYD is a reflection of a sort of pristine character on the part of a person who has somehow managed to remain above the fray, untainted by the D.C. cesspool of pretension and shallow ambition.

All of these assumptions are wrong. Let’s discuss one by one.

People ask WDYD more/earlier here than elsewhere.

I’ve lived in a few different places, and everyone everywhere asks WDYD. There just aren’t that many obvious topics of conversation for people who have just met, and “job” is pretty much universally one of them. Once you’ve run out of topics related to whatever happens to be going on in one’s immediate surroundings, the current weather, maybe some family stuff like siblings, and perhaps where one went to school, you’re pretty much out of other obvious shit to ask about. I guess there’s sports, too, if you happen to be a guy in a place where there is a local team during the appropriate season. But even if people might change around the order in which they broach basic topics, “job” is definitely on that list everywhere, or at least everywhere I’ve lived. Maybe the Anti-WDYD folks are all from places where the weather is just so goddamn interesting that people don’t need to ask about jobs, but from what I’ve seen, D.C. just isn’t atypical on this front.

People ask WDYD here to determine status and pass judgement

Even if people ask WDYD in other places, perhaps the rampant careerism in D.C. means that people are are asking it in a more “judgy” way. So when someone in somewhere like Salisbury, North Carolina asks WDYD, they’re just making good old-fashioned conversation, but in D.C. it’s a Machiavellian tactic to sniff out and undermine any and all career competitors, or at least to assess one’s relative place in the yuppie pecking order. Right?

Wrong. Sure, people are judged based on their jobs and therefore based on their response to this question. But pretty much all interactions between human beings are filled with all sorts of both subtle and overt signals that we instinctively look for to make various judgments and categorizations of each other. So it’s ridiculous to think that avoiding asking WDYD would somehow lead to people being less judgmental, when in fact it would just transfer the judgment onto other signals and/or topics. Judgy people are gonna judge regardless.

More importantly though, the reason I really hate this part of the Anti-WDYD argument is that it is based on the premise that the ONLY reason I might want to know about someone’s job is that I want to assess their status. In fact, learning about how different industries and careers and roles function is super interesting! And not just “high-status” jobs. When I was in college, I read Studs Terkel’s “Working,” which is basically a whole book where he goes around the country asking people WDYD, and it was a revelation. I remember, for example, the interview with a bathroom attendant, who talks about the ins and outs of how he strategically sets the counter up to maximize tips, and how he assesses whether someone is more or less likely to leave a tip. That’s something I had never thought about, and so reading a first-hand account of it is actually really engrossing. We each only get to experience one, or at most a handful, of categories of jobs in our life, so it’s incredibly enlightening to learn about what actually happens in other professions as well. Or, if someone works in my industry, then maybe I’ll learn a new angle on things I already have a basic understanding for. So yes, I’m sure there are douchebags out there who ask WDYD because they are trying to sniff out their next career prey or whatever, but plenty of other people are just legitimately interested in learning something new.

Other topics are better

But what about all those other awesome topics of conversation we are missing when we ask WDYD and then talk about jobs forever? First of all, as noted above, there just aren’t that many socially acceptable conversation starters. But we’re all creative, smart people, so maybe we could be bold and use different ways to learn about someone? Wouldn’t it be so much better to ask instead about someone’s hobbies, or their favorite books/music/movies, or where they want to go on their next vacation, or whatever?

No. Don’t get me wrong, these are all fine topics of conversation. But it’s bullshit to think that they are somehow superior topics than asking WDYD. First of all, they are all just as judgy as asking WDYD, because human beings are judgy as shit and so you’re going to just end up assessing someone based on their hobbies or whatever rather than their job, and there’s nothing inherently preferable to making judgements based on these other topics. You end up feeling pressured to have, for example, interesting hobbies so that you don’t feel one-upped when someone pulls out the fact that they slackline across national parks in their free time. Or maybe you’re into mainstream action movies, but then feel distinctly left out by your conversation partner’s breakdown of Goddard’s canon. In many ways these are all actually shallower topics than someone’s career, since there is always an interesting question worth asking about a job even if you don’t know anything about that industry (like, at the most basic level, how working in any given industry has changed over time), whereas any meaningful conversation about sports or music or whatever relies on some level of a priori shared knowledge or preferences.

Finally, we spend between a third and a half of our waking hours at work, and some portion of time outside of work thinking about our jobs, so it’s just weird to think that this would NOT be a totally natural thing to talk about. I recently went out with a girl a couple of times who told me up-front she was making a point of not asking WDYD, presumably due to the various reasons outlined above. And it was just strange that I spent hours talking to her, yet never broached any topic related to the thing I spend about 50 hours a week doing. Sure, we talked about books and travel and our families, and all of that is great, but I spend maybe 4 hours a week reading actual books whereas I spend over 10 times that at work, so some level of discussion of work would have seemed more appropriate.

And yes, I know that not everyone has a job. But that means they are either looking for a job, in which case you maybe have a moment of awkwardness but then can have just as good a conversation about what they hope to do, or they are doing something else with their time instead, in which case you just move on to asking about that. It’s not that hard.

Not asking WDYD makes you a better person

On to the conclusion, based on the previous assumptions, that avoiding asking WDYD therefore reflects some sort of courageous rejection of our society’s worst impulses. Sorry, but if you feel the need to make a point of avoiding a perfectly natural topic of conversation and then go around proclaiming your accomplishment of this onerous feat (and there are in fact people who do this), then you’re the one that’s being a pretentious asshole.

So if we happen to run across one another at a party, by all means, ask me what I do. It doesn’t define me, and I hope it isn’t the only thing we’re going to talk about, but we happen to live in a society in which most people spend a huge proportion their lives pursuing a series of jobs within a particular industry, so it’s a reasonable fucking question.