June 21, 2011 | File under: Society and Pressures
“What do you do?” It’s the ultimate small-talk conversation starter in social situations. What is no doubt an innocent attempt to elicit chit-chat has always seemed rather silly to me. What do I do? Well, I do all kinds of things: I run, I spend time with my husband, I bake delicious muffins, I clean my house, and I read, to name a few things.
Why must people always define what they do in terms of their means to make a living? Few people are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to pursue their life passions. For the rest of us, it is what we do outside our time at work that defines who we are.
When I was a lawyer, that aspect of my identity was a very small facet of who I was. In fact, I tried to disassociate myself with my profession as much as possible because I felt it was such a poor match for my personality. My time outside of work is what best illustrated my personality.
When you tell someone your job title, it creates instant associations. For example, the moment people hear “lawyer,” they may assume I am aggressive and/or serious. They may draw inferences about my life such as how much money I have or even my political beliefs. None of these conclusions are necessarily correct, nor are they the business of cocktail party strangers.
It also strikes me that asking someone “what they do” is rigged to favor traditional careers with the greatest degree of social caché. Careers valued by society as prestigious such as doctors and lawyers are recognized as having high “worth,” and thus are the ideal responses to the question. These responses evoke certain stereotypes that are easily processed in casual conversation. On the other hand, responses indicating a non-traditional career, a period of unemployment, or no professional career at all do not lend themselves to definite stereotypes and often provoke awkward explanations, delve too deeply into personal matters, or elicit unwarranted social judgments based on people’s conception of a social hierarchy.