Monday, 24 January 2011

"So, What Do You Do?"

It's always the same. You encounter new people and the first question they will ask is "so, what do you do?". Rarely, this is asked out of genuine interest in you and your life, but more often than not it is used as a method to ascertain your social status, how much you earn and your potential worth to them as a contact. If you cannot come up with a socially acceptable answer you will notice then how they glide across the room to talk to people who clearly have something more going for them. And probably to ask the same question again.

The reason this question annoys me is that, for most people, your job somehow defines you as a person, and this could not be further from the truth. I "do" a lot of things; I write. I run frequently. I enjoy mentally challenging games such as chess. I like to cook. I like to travel. I like to read. I'm an avid film fan and I have a keen interest in current affairs and history. Trouble is, these things, which are far closer to defining who I am, matter little to people keen on pigeonholing you in some predefined category based on their existing prejudices.

It's quite funny in a bemusing sort of way, to watch people try and dissect people's lives into something they can judge. And whenever I meet someone that defies society's 'expectations' of what they "should be", my admiration automatically increases for them. We live in a culture which feels so compelled to judge and categorise people based on their occupation, which leads to the question as to why people feel the need to so narrowly define others.

Personally, I don't really give a shit what others do. I know that people are more than an accountant, computer programmer or whatever other title they might hold. People are lots of things; mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, hobbyists, runners, enthusiasts, volunteers, the list is endless. Yet, the fact that these things don't generate money means that consequently you cannot use them to determine someone's social class or "potential worth" as a networking tool. And it is this which is the crux of my problem with this question. Indeed, it is a sad state of affairs when the thing we use most often to identify someone, and as a consequence choose whether to associate ourselves with them or not, is their occupation and therefore earning potential. There is far more to people than where they work and what they earn.

Now, ask yourself this; what do you actually want to be doing with your life? What's most important to you? Most people might choose to spend time with their family, travel to that destination you've always dreamed of going or to pursue that hobby of yours further. If it is your job then fine, but be honest. Yes, the allure of high wages, prestige and and titles are strong, but are they really the most important thing in your life? Does it mean the most to you, or even define you as a person?

By no means am I advocating doing "nothing", but then what is "nothing"? Just consider this. "Nothing" can be incredibly rewarding; you have the freedom to choose the work you do and, to a great degree, when and where you do it. You're more available to do things that need to be done and are more emotionally available to those closest to you. In short, you get to actually have a life. So, regardless of what I'm doing at any particular moment, or whatever stage my career might be at any given time, I will always give the same answer: "I am an arse model". They can either take it or leave it, because I do not have time for such shortsighted and condescending people.


APdizzle said...

Alas, you don't ask people what they do because you want to be their friend - you ask because they may have useful skills you may need at some point. Your job does end up defining you, as it defines who you can talk to on a professional basis.

Friends are different things altogether. With them it doesn't matter what you do - you're with them for who you are and who they are, and not because of what you do.

But you SHOULD give a shit about what people do - it may just prove a life-saver one day

Alekazam said...

You're talking about in the context of the "professional" world. And that is where I see the problem, everything is geared toward further accumulation of wealth, even in one's private life. Stop viewing every human being as a cash crop. I despise the very notion of wandering into a room, assessing the worth of everyone in that room and then pigeonholing them into categories and levels of worth. I can spot it a mile off and you can be sure as hell if I do see it I won't engage with you if I'm in a position to do so.

You've just distinguished it yourself there, "on a professional basis". My point is, the entire world is not, or maybe rather shouldn't be, conducted on a "professional basis". Keep your shit to yourself, in the work place, and treat others as the human beings they are. Established friendships are void in the context of this post. But then, your friends will have a good enough idea about you in the first place so as not to ask that question.

Your job doesn't define you. That's a horrible way of looking at people and I feel sorry for those that break it down to such simplistic levels. I don't look at any of my friends and judge them based on what they do. It's shallow and baseless and is probably the least impressive thing you could tell me.

And no, I still couldn't give two shits what you do. If you're a genuine person who actually views people as part of a whole rather than defining those on meaningless titles then I'd love to know you. If you're an asshat who happens to have a lot of money I still won't want anything to do with you, because you're an asshat.

APDizzle said...

You're being too skewed by people like Bill Hicks. The benefits of knowing someone professionally, or wanting to meet people in a professional capacity, extends beyond just dollar signs.

What about academics, who go to conferences and talks just to meet other academics? They will be looking for useful contacts and ways to improve their work, not ways to increase their pay packet.

And on this point, what about medical researchers? Making professional contacts can be the difference between finding a cure for a disease and not finding one - in this sense, looking for people in a professional capacity saves countless lives.

Or what about in the arts and humanities? Making contacts can make better bands, better songs, better everything - it's not about money, but artistic merit.

There's more to making professional contacts than making more money.

But yes, it doesn't matter what your friends do, as they are your friends, not business contacts. But if you refuse to be defined by your work in some way, you are severely limiting your ability to improve on your work, whatever field you are in.

And work is about more than just money, mate

glenn said...

I was of the same opinion as Alec two years ago. Since then I've realised a lot of the vitriol towards such a question stems from lacking a job yourself.

Your opinion is an assumption that everyone that asks you the question for personal benefit. Many people do, but many people also want to get an idea of who you are, or use it as a conversation warmer.

You say it doesn't define you. What about people who get paid to do what they love for a living? It's entirely related to their character. Some people do a dead-end job that pays well but they're not happy because of it. That's also part of a person.

It's something you do 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. If you were on the dole, doing fuck all, of course someone would want to know. If you're busting your ass doing what your love, it's also very relevant. It shows your interests.

I don't know anyone who has such a grand disconnect from their work and personal life.

I guarantee if The Guardian gave you a job writing about video games and films you'd change your tune. You wouldn't hate this question, because you'd be able to answer it with pride.

Alekazam said...


I never contended the worth of having contacts in the professional world or their use. If you read what I wrote again you will realise that I have a problem with it as a "social" device where it has no meaning, no relevance whatsoever. I don't go into a social setting, look for people that might come in handy, and discard them on a basis of their use to me.

Academics who go to academic functions are in an academic arena, and thus the setting is academic discussion. You are talking about utterly different environmental contexts where conversations about work are pertinent.

I'm talking about meeting people, making friends and the general humility and humanity with which you treat other human beings.

Is your Dad more than just his job? Of course he is! Why did you pick Emma as a girlfriend? Because of the degree she was studying? Of course you didn't. You are no more defined by your work than you are your upbringing, hobbies, interests, environmental upbringing and everything else. My contention is the narrow looking glass where WORK is the only context through which you are viewed, which is what you have more or less alluded to.

Work essentially boils down to money. You are being paid for your labour.

Alekazam said...


Maybe, but during the formative years where you are unemployed you should gain an appreciation of how offensive, or rather condescending the question can be. In which case, when one is finally employed, you should remember what that question evokes. If you change your perception of a human being instantly from the point of employment, then I think that is disgraceful.

But yes, you've just defined it. It is merely a PART of the person, but it in no way defines who they are. But, which is what I'm trying to get at, a lot of people only see the job and therefore what kind of income your pulling and consequently your social status. Therefore, the logical extension of that is "what are they worth to me, materially? Can they help me get ahead?".

That is what I find abhorrent. Everything the question implies and the motivation behind asking it. I never said what you do is irrelevant, although I could argue nearly 75% of jobs probably are, and yes, it is part of you as a WHOLE. But it, on its own, does not define you.

I don't have to be paid to take pride in it. I take pride in this blog for it and a whole host of other things which are personal to me. However, the way society is set up people are taught to stigmatise based on whether you make an income from it. You are shamed for not earning. It's amazing really, some of the richest fuckwits in history in the oil industry run around the planet, destroying it, yet their position is coveted, prized, rewarded, because it makes a shitload of money. There is nothing in such an industry to take pride in. But, that's life...

glenn said...

The question is condescending when young because you might be trying to figure out what you want to do, or you're still getting qualifications. It should be less offensive as you get older because you should start providing for yourself. My perception didn't change instantly, I just learned the value of the question.

If people you've met judge you entirely on your career, then they're cunts. Gold diggers maybe. But you're also being naïve in assuming everyone who asks the question is doing it to find your social status. Wait till they react to your answer, then decide to be offended or not.

Your ultimate peeve is with capitalism though. SURPRISE!

Alekazam said...

You got me. Everything it alludes to is the capitalism thing. I'm not going to lie there.

But I still maintain that it is a judgement question because it is automatically the first question asked. I would not be so bothered by it if the question came up a lot further down the line, maybe even next couple of meetings with that person.

The fact that the question is prioritised as the first question used in assessing someone is what makes me wary, even suspicious of the intentions behind the person asking it.