By Vincent Lyn

The one question I really dislike being asked is, “ What do you do for a living ”?

I guess for many people it's an easy one word or one phrase answer but for me it's more like an essay of sorts. In many cultures it's actually considered extremely rude to ask. I recently was in a get together making new acquaintances. And, as always like clockwork when the conversation becomes uncomfortable the question I despise rears its ugly head. Other people answered the question and it was a simple answer, accountant, massage therapist, paralegal, lawyer, etc. I rummage through my head of twenty different things to say but it really is annoying to me. I'd simply rather not say anything and deflect the question.

We hear this question a lot, many people ask this question a lot. You're having a conversation and then someone joins you, and after a brief introduction asks,  “What do you do for a living?”  But few of us think hard about what our answer means to others. Most people automatically answer this question with their job title. Responding with a general job title sometimes do it to avoid confusing people. “ I'm the marketing manager for a tech company .” It's short and to the point, but it doesn't fully describe what the person does or the kind of technology company they work for. Compare this with saying, “ We're experts in application modernization and digital transformation for legacy Oracle systems," it's a mouthful and often leads to blank, confused stares in conversations.

Others try to be funny or avoid the question entirely. The truth is, it's hard to blame people who try to avoid the question with humor. Who knows, they might have tried answering directly before but got tired of explaining the complexities of their job, or the stereotypes they had to deal with.

If you think about it, the question  “What do you do for work? ” can be interpreted in different ways:

  • How do you earn a salary?
  • How much do you make?
  • What is your social status?
  • Are you richer than me?
  • Is my job title above or below you?
  • Is this person worth my attention?

That's why in some cases, asking someone what they do for a living can come across as offensive. Asking this question with a derisive or arrogant tone sends the wrong message. It's as if you're assuming the other person is unemployed or earning less than you are.

Cultures That Value Privacy.

Asking  “What do you do for a living” is offensive in some European countries, because it's seen as an invasion of their privacy. Work matters aren't openly discussed with strangers in European countries, and it's not a culturally accepted conversation starter like in the US They would rather you ask about their preference in vacation spots and sports teams. Behind the double meanings, this question gives you a chance to shape how people perceive you. Answer correctly, people will get curious about what you do. If you're lucky, you might amaze some people and make others jealous. You get instant credibility and new-found friends in whatever event you're in. If your answer is boring, you'll just get a polite nod and the conversation eventually dies down. Then you'll be standing on your own , wondering what to do or who to approach next. Wouldn'tt it be amazing to answer confidently and get a positive response every time.

Casual or Social Gatherings

In this situation, the question “ What do you do for a living”  is a conversation starter. Yes, it's boring. But it's safe to ask and people are already expecting to hear it. You might feel uncomfortable answering this question, especially if there are negative stereotypes surrounding your job or if few people understand it.  Friend:  “I'm a social media manager”  Stranger: “ Oh so you spend the whole day playing on Facebook?” For some jobs, you're lucky to get a weird or funny response like this. Others just get a blank stare because people don't know how to react to their jobs. Worse yet, some job titles make people desperate to leave your company. Just imagine how some people would react after hearing, " I'm a financial adviser."  If you're financially savvy, you probably won't get scared off. Others are quick to end the conversation, because they feel like the other person will start convincing them to get an investment account or life insurance. Remember, you're in a casual event. No one is doing any job interviews or looking for anything to buy. Even if such events offer an opportunity to meet potential clients and employers, that's not the point of the event. Next time someone asks you this, try to gauge their reason for asking. Then tell them what you're passionate about, and then ask about their interests.  Stranger:  “What do you do?”  You:  “I'm passionate about cooking and scuba diving. What do you love to do ?” Your acquaintance will either:

  • Get curious
  • Tell you what they like doing
  • Give you a blank stare, because they're not expecting your response
  • Reply with their job title, not knowing you didn't ask the same question

Eventually, you will start talking about the things you love. Isn't this better than talking about your job in a party where people are trying to forget about their office problems?

Business Events

This includes trade shows, job fairs, seminars, training events, conferences, boot camps, and any other event where you meet people for work or business. For freelancers and those working at startups, this can also include network mixers and startup pitch competitions. In general, you'll meet two types of people in these events:

  • Regular attendees:  event participants whose primary goals are to learn and meet new people.
  • Decision-makers:  these people could be speakers, business owners, venture capitalists, angel investors, or recruiters. Anyone looking to hire, provide funds, collaborate, or do business with someone they find in such an event is a decision-maker.

Of course, decision-makers don't attend these events just to scout people. They're also there to learn and make new connections as well. So they have lots to do and little time to do it in. Of this, they try to avoid information overload. Decision-makers only talk to people that interest them, and they're quick to decide who is worth their time. Talk about the challenges or problems you solve as part of your job. It's even better if you can paint this problem as a dilemma, an issue with no clear solution. Example for a Fitness Trainer: “I'm a Fitness trainer specializing in creating easy and fun exercise programs for clients who don't enjoy going to the gym.” The first question you'll probably get with this introduction is,  “How do you do that?” Others might think you create home exercise videos then upload them on YouTube, but either way this response gives you an opportunity to continue the conversation.

Maybe, from now on I'll simply say, “I'm a former Elite Top Model, Hong Kong Action Film Star and Composer for Hong Kong Pop Stars. Now, I'm a Carnegie Hall Alumni, Award Winning Composer, Editor-in-Chief Correspondent, Author, Humanitarian and CEO/Founder of the non-profit We Can Save Children. Or simply said, “I'm Retired.”

It just doesn't sound believable, does it? Well maybe saying , I'm Retired?

Then again my favorite line from the 1981 movie 'Arthur' starring Dudley Moore. “I RACE CARS, I PLAY TENNIS, I FONDLE WOMEN, BUT, I HAVE WEEKENDS OFF AND I'M MY OWN BOSS.” 🤣 What a life…


Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Editor-in-Chief at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

Responses (0)
No response for this article yet.
Submit Your Response
Upload files or images for this discussion by clicking on the upload button below. Supports gif,jpg,png,jpeg,zip,rar,pdf
• Insert • Remove Upload Files (Maximum File Size: 2 MB)
Share Location

Sharing your current location while posting a new question allow viewers to identify the location you are located.