Among the niceties and travails of meeting people for the first time, there’s no more loaded question than “What do you do?” I would almost prefer to respond to “What is your favorite sexual position?” or “How do you feel about your mother?” because people would be less likely to read into my answer.
I have European friends who loathe the question because they think it’s coded language that only means one thing: How much money do you make? But that’s only part of it. It means that, and several other things. It can also mean: Is what you do significant? Do you have control over what you do? Where are you in the hierarchy of your company? Are you allowed to be creative in your job? Does your job give you status, professionally and personally? and so on.
Then, more implications: What does your work say about who you are? What does it say about where you came from and where you are now?
In its most innocuous version, the question means, do we have anything in common? Is what you do something interesting we could talk about? But given all of the other implications, it’s hard to feel like you’re not being assessed in a much larger way..
There’s a good reason for that. For most of us who actively chose what we do, it’s usually a reflection of, at the very least, our interests. If you’re well-educated and mostly unencumbered by serious financial constraints you likely made a conscious decision to go into your field. (And by serious financial constraints, I mean supporting a family in another country, astronomical medical bills, etc. I am not referring to paying off student loans until your grandkids are in college, which I will probably be doing myself.) It’s unlikely that you woke up one day and decided to become a periodontist “just because.”
This is because we are fortunate enough to have “careers” and not merely jobs. My dad had a job—for over forty years—and the same one at that. He was a local lineman for the Alabama Power Company. He didn’t hate his job, but he certainly didn’t consider it a career. For my dad, “What do you do?” was a boring question. But if you wanted to know what his interests were, you could talk about what he did on the side: he was also a part-time contractor, and I grew up in a wonderful house he built from the ground up. Building things was a part of who he was, but not necessarily what he did.
For me, the question is often complicated. At various points in my career, I’ve been an equity analyst, an entrepreneur, a journalist, a blogger, an editor, an adjunct professor, a marketing director, and a strategy consultant. Now I do bits of several of those things, so my clunky answer to what do you do is, “Uh, a bunch of stuff?” Until a few months ago, I was the editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, and if there was one thing about that job that was easy and convenient, it was that it made “what do you do?” easier and less irritating to answer. No one needs an explanation of what a newspaper editor does. (But for the five years prior to the Observer, the answer was, as it is now, a bunch of stuff.)
In Renata Adler’s Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, a memoir of her time there and analysis of its state in the late ‘90s, she writes that the imprimatur of The New Yorker was strong enough to render moot any other significant cultural or class signifiers:
“There are many ways, in the contemporary world, in which people who have never met meet, appraise, and identify one another. Accents, clothes, how much they spend, airline class in which they travel, people whom they know, universities they have attended, things more subtle and ineffable. Nothing, for Americans at least, seems more immediate than institutional affiliation, the place where they work, and in what capacity. Among jobs, in those days, there was no qualification for meeting people that seemed, everywhere, less subject to question than working for a respected newspaper or magazine.”
As someone who has worked for several respected newspapers and magazines (though not The New Yorker), I think she exaggerates a bit. People who work in journalism put The New Yorker and magazines like it on a pedestal that’s many a story higher than the average person who does not work in journalism—even the more enthusiastic readers. But there is some refuge in institutional affiliation, as there is in certain job titles.
But what do all of these things really say about who we are? There’s a danger in conflating work with self, even if work has consumed everything we do. In Sebastian Junger’s recent documentary on the late photographer and documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington, Which Way to the Front Line?, Junger chronicles Hetherington’s work in West Africa, Afghanistan, and Misrata, Libya, where he was eventually killed. Hetherington did extremely important work, and in his documentary, Diary, he explores the tension between his life at home and his life in the field. Just before he left for Libya, he expressed reservations about continuing to work in conflict zones. It had cannibalized other parts of his life. He wanted to pursue a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. He wanted a family. He wanted to explore doing different kinds of work. But he decided to go back into the field one last time and didn’t come back.
It would be disingenuous to argue that Hetherington’s work wasn’t part of who he was, but as Junger’s documentary so beautifully illustrates, it wasn’t all there was of Tim Hetherington.
Producing good work has many benefits, and it certainly contributes to a stronger sense of identity and purpose. But fullness of self is about more than that. It’s about those ancillary but more direct questions: What are our interests? What are our values? Where did we come from, and where are we now? All of these things are qualities that can develop in tandem with work, but they’d probably develop even if we had a job and not a career.
There’s a D.H. Lawrence quote I found in Geoff Dyer’s smart and wickedly funny book, Out of Sheer Rage—wherein the author chronicles his aspirations to write a biography of Lawrence and epic procrastinations at doing so—that speaks to this perfectly. “I don’t think that to work is to live,” Lawrence says. “Work is alright in proportion: but one wants to have a certain richness and satisfaction in oneself, which is more than anything produced. One wants to be.
There’s nothing wrong with asking someone what they do, and certainly no harm in answering the question. But don’t assume the answer means everything.