You go to a party and, circling the snack table, you meet someone new. He asks how you know the host. Do you live in the neighborhood? If so, have you tried that new restaurant that opened up? Everything is going just peachy, but you know at some point, this guy is going to ask the question everyone dreads:

How to Answer "What Do You Do?"

“So, what do you do?”

There are few questions I dread more in life. It’s right up there with “what’s your greatest weakness?” and “how often do you floss?” I mean, it’s a fair and reasonable question; how else do people get to know you? But there are a few reasons so many of us absolutely loathe it.

First, it’s subjective. What does “do” mean, exactly? It can mean anything! It can be what I do for a living, what I do for a hobby, or what I’m trying to do for a living. We all know it’s really about what you do for a living, but the ultimate purpose of the question is to get to know you as a person, and “what do you do” seems like such a vague, impersonal way to go about it.

Plus, your job (that thing you “do”) might not be what defines you as a person at all. If you sell paper for a living, you’re not at all passionate about it, and it doesn’t define you in the least, how do you answer that question productively? And by “productively,” I mean in a way that makes people actually want to continue the conversation rather than back out of it because they don’t know how to reply. I’ve experimented with this question a lot, and here are a few terrible ways I’ve answered, “what do you do?”

I’ve experimented with this question a lot, and here are a few terrible ways I’ve answered, “what do you do?” 

  • “I write.” Not only does this sound pretentious as shit, it’s a total conversation killer. You know what the next question is going to be, so why not just answer with something more interesting, like what you write about and why you do it?
  • “Eh, I’m just a freelance writer.” This is so self-deprecating, even Rodney Dangerfield would be appalled. This isn’t productive at all. It basically shuts down the conversation because it makes people think I don’t want to talk about it.
  • “I write stuff. Mostly for blogs.” This seems slightly better, but it’s actually an even worse combination of the above two. It’s vague, gives the person asking nothing to go on, and sounds a little sad.

Finally, the main reason people hate this question at its core is that it’s just so much pressure! You want to make it sound like what you “do” is important or at least engaging, because if your answer falls flat, so does the conversation. You also don’t want to sound like you’re bragging, because if you do something even remotely cool, it can very much feel like you’re bragging. Here’s the thing, though. I have a feeling that if you think you’re coming across as a braggart, you’re probably not.

This reminds me of a study I recently wrote about that found people are really terrible at gauging how assertive they are. The study conducted mock negotiations and asked negotiators to rate their level of assertiveness. Many of the people who thought they were reasonably assertive or even overassertive were actually rated by their peers as underassertive. The study suggested that if you think you’re confrontational or aggressive, chances are good that other people don’t see you that way in the least. I think the same thing probably goes for bragging. If you’re aware, you’re probably fine.

That said, there are a few ways I think you can approach this question more productively. First, in order to avoid sounding pompous, you can focus on what you do to help people or what excites you about your job. A better way I could answer this question: “I write about personal finance, human behavior, and pretty much any other topic that helps people figure out their habits.” That doesn’t really sound like I’m bragging at all, plus, it gives so much more room to start a conversation.

But what if I don’t really help anyone with what I do? You might be thinking. Fair question! Ultimately, I think the goal here is to just come across as relatable, because most good stories are relatable. So how do you answer the question if you, for example, sell high-end furniture to rich people? I think it’s ultimately about finding your own story that people can relate to, and you can do that with the “Who-What-Why-How” formula. A friend tipped me off to this and I thought it was an easy way to craft an answer to the question. When someone asks what you do, answer with the following:

  • WHO you are: What’s your role? This is the obvious answer. Your job title. Most of us leave it at this and the conversation fizzles out.
  • WHAT you do: What do you do in that role? This is where you add context. What does that job title actually mean?
  • WHY you do it: Most importantly, why are you doing it? This really gets to the heart of who you are and what your story is all about. Even if you’re working at a grocery store to make ends meet and feed your family, that still offers a more personal response that opens up the conversation.
  • HOW you do it differently: To really get the conversation going, you can add some flavor to your answer by explaining why your job is different. Are you passionate about a particular aspect of it? Is there something that sets you apart? What’s unique about your role, your vision, or your day-to-day work?

Going back to our furniture example, you might answer with something like, “I sell high-end furniture to rich people. I mostly do it because I need the money, but I’m also going to school for design and I wanted to be around beautiful things. I try to give customers a little history about the things we sell.” This is a very specific example, but it’s up to you to tell your story. When I was a technical writer, here’s how I might have answered that question:

“I’m a technical writer, which means I write operating manuals for these massive, mile-long drilling tools. I want to be a journalist someday, and this seems like a good way to figure out how to explain complex topics that interest me, like psychology.”

No, it wasn’t my dream job, and no, back then, I didn’t really want to talk about tech writing. But this answer is so much better because it gives the person asking more to go on about my personality, my passions, and “what I do.”

These days, I might answer with something like,

“I’m a contributing writer at places like Lifehacker and the New York Times. I mostly write about personal finance and human behavior; I usually notice weird habits of my own and then pitch them as story ideas to learn more about myself, selfishly.”

And honestly? If your job doesn’t define you at all and you can’t find a way to link it to your identity in the least, that’s okay, too. It’s perfectly fine to answer with something like, “I work at Taco Cabana, but obviously that’s not really my passion, I’m just trying to pay off my student loans. I’d really like to start my own web design business someday.”

This answer accomplishes the same thing: it tells people what you do for a living, but it also tells them more about who you are as a person, which is productive because it opens up the conversation. Really, when people ask what you do, what they’re really trying to get at is who you are. We live in a culture where career is very much tied to identity, so the question makes sense, even if it is dreadful. It’s your response, however, that can take it from a lame icebreaker to a great conversation with a stranger.

Anyway, I’m curious what you guys think. How do you answer this question? Any tips for answering it more productively?

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Learn more about her here.