What do you do?  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

I've been thinking about the various questions people ask without thinking. Questions like, "How are you?" or "What do you do?" On the one hand such questions are rather mindless, and when someone answers them seriously it can take the questioner by surprise. On the other hand, such questions serve a social function. They serve as ice-breakers, getting a conversation started that (hopefully) can be more thoughtful.

One type of question, however, though well meaning enough, poses a difficulty for some. The questions of this type include, "Where are you working?" or "What do you do?" or "What would you like to be doing in 5 years?"

The reason is that for some people, how they earn a living is not all that significant. They may be washing windows or working as a receptionist to earn a living, but at heart they are artists. Their art is what really defines their gifts and calling, but the question doesn't get at that. It not only asks a question that skirts who they really are, it raises a sense of guilt over the fact that they aren't on a career path. Or they may be one of the many who need to experiment before discovering what they are all about. Rather than treat them as an individual, the questions assume everyone fits into the identical (secular) framework of jobs or careers, with efficiency and success as standards for significance. In fact, such a perspective is merely a modern variation on the tower of Babel.

So, I request some comments from you, dear reader. What question(s) should we begin asking so that we include these of our sisters and brothers who feel, correctly, a bit oppressed by the ordinary opening inquiries?

After all, even the questions we Christians ask reflexively and without thinking come under the Lordship of Christ. I look forward to your suggestions.

This entry was posted at Thursday, July 09, 2009 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


You are right. The question assumes that our employment defines our identities. "What do you do?" can often really mean, "Who are you?" to which I often want to say, "Well, I am a husband and a father" as this is closer to my identity than what I do for a living. For those who are able to pursue their passion in their employment, the question is much more relevant.

So how about "Tell me something about yourself." and/or "What are your interests?"

July 9, 2009 at 5:58 PM

For those of us who are currently in between "doings", the question "What do you do?" is not necessary a bad thing. A thoughtful response on our part can evoke a whole different kind of conversation!
For example, "I'm unemployed", while jolting - or perhaps because it's jolting - could lead to conversations about work histories, the present economy, or dreams for the future.

July 10, 2009 at 9:19 AM

I often ask "What are you hobbies?" "Where do you volunteer time?" "What are you passionate about?" "Which church do you belong to?" or "What brought you to St. Louis?"

July 10, 2009 at 12:39 PM

Ooo, I like that one—"What are you passionate about?" I'm going to start using that. I'm a new mom and am often frustrated that the only conversations I have with other new moms revolves around our babies' development and our work (outside or inside the home). I always want to go deeper than that...

July 14, 2009 at 9:03 AM

"Tell me about yourself" is a good one - what the person chooses to reveal is valuable insight into what is important to them.

July 15, 2009 at 2:56 PM

Before my students even begin to pick topics for their papers, I ask them to write down for me three topics that could talk about for 30 minutes. That way they don't end up writing papers about things they don't care about, which they're prone to do because of the context.

That question wouldn't be a bad idea in this context, either, I don't think.

July 17, 2009 at 7:47 PM

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