We Need to Stop Asking "What Do You Do?"

what do you do for work, part 1

What do you do for work?

A commonly asked question when you meet a new person.  So common, it's practically automatic.

At various points in my life, I have found myself dreading "What do you do?"  I didn't want to talk about work because I was wrestling with pride in my work, or was figuring out my next step.  Fast forward a number of years and I'm now thinking of a whole slew of reasons we need to ditch this question.

Lately, when I notice myself slipping into the stranger-handshake-small-talk routine, I have been pulling out some new tricks.  Before I share the details, I want to unpack WHY this question can be problematic.


why we should stop asking this question

1. It communicates that you are going to form your perception based on a job title.

We are so much more than our job title.  How we spend our days, who we work for, the role we currently hold is informed by so many factors - far more than we can explain in quick social chitchat.  

Have you ever considered that when we ask the question, "What do you do for work?", it's our selfish impulse to make sense of the person in front of us?  The subtext of this question is, 

"I want to know what you do for work so I can piece together my understanding and perception of you."   

We can agree that we don't want to be limited by our job title and it does not explain who we are or what we do.


2. This question can make people feel shitty about themselves.  

If you think nothing of whipping this question around the cocktail party circuit, I urge you to consider the person who is currently underemployed, unemployed, or the friend who hates his job but feels stuck because it is needed to pay the bills.  

 A lot of people resist this question because they do not want to be limited by their current job description. 

desk surface at work

3. A job title does not explain what we actually DO.

The question, "What do you do?' assumes that we can figure someone out by knowing their job title.  Pulling a few job titles out of a hat,

Oh, you're a Project Manager.  Got it.  So you're organized, have a team of people who report to you, and have proven you can execute on quarterly deliverables.  Nailed it! *Flips hair*

Oh, you're a Policy Advisor.  Okay, so you work in a cubicle and are really only busy just before the publication of the Federal Report.  I know your type. *Smirk*

Catch my drift?  It's unfair and untrue.  And often completely useless.

What to ask instead

I invite you to try asking a different question.  Consider this rephrasing what you actually want to know about the stranger in front of you - their motivations, hobbies, personality and attitude.

A few I've tried include:

"What's been your mind lately?"  
This question leaves room for people to respond with what has truly been distracting them - an upcoming trip, new apartment, etc.

"What have you been working on recently?"  
This question is an invitation for people to share what actually goes on in their work day, or opens the question up to projects and hobbies outside of work.  

"What do your days looks like?"
This question creates opportunity to share (or not) how they choose to fill their days.  Maybe you'll learn that they are training for a half marathon or caring for a neighbour's pet.  You won't know until you ask!

By no stretch of the imagination am I claiming to have figured the perfect alternative question to "What do you do for work?"  I play around with the questions above, ad-lib when I feel creative, and have only received a few blank stares. ;) 

Regardless of how it goes, asking a different question calls on us to be present, remain curious, and respect the possibility that the person in front of us do not want to be asked,

And what do you do?


I want to hear from you!  Do you have any ideas for alternative conversation starters with strangers?

My brave, strong, inspiring coaching clients

I coach women who are brave. Women who reach out because they want more for themselves.  Women who are prepared to rewrite their stories – step into being bigger, bolder and louder.  And love what they do, of course.


This is the story of my client.  



An account director who wants to feel lighter.  She wants to smile (instead of cry) at the end of the day but doesn’t know where to begin.  Together we rebuild her confidence and answer the question, “what’s next?”


An educator who longs to move out of the classroom.  We make that o k a y  – eradicate the shame and ditch ties to, “I spent my whole life preparing for this.”  Turn out she wants to move into a creative industry so we develop the networking strategy, rewrite her resume and plan for a new career. 


An accountant at one of Canada's largest firms who wants to move on to something totally different.  She loves managing people + building business strategy.  We zoom in on the impact she wants to have, find a small local business and propose a consulting role.  She receives a job offer and a menu of possibilities.


Women who want more for themselves inspire me every darn day.  Witnessing their growth is the reason I do what I do; it's a friggin privilege.  My clients come to me feeling overwhelmed and wanting help, and they leave our coaching sessions with clarity and confidence.


Critical conversation and the kind of change that gives you goosebumps.  I couldn’t ask for more.  


You want a new job but don’t know where to start

So you want out? You want a new job but don’t know where to start? Got it.  

You’re likely experiencing the very uncomfortable pairing of:


The feelings are strong. You want a new job so badly that it becomes difficult to do anything about it. You spend a lot of time daydreaming about how your days could be different but you don’t do a lot about it.


Daydreaming about leaving your job is a solitary experience.  It's a steep mountain to climb - a hike you have go on ALL BY 'YOSELF.  I feel ya.



You CAN get out of professional paralysis and DO something about it. You can stop hibernating in your mind and move into action with some work. I recommend the following steps to all my coaching clients to bring about some insight into their career exploration:

  1. Do an inventory of what’s working and what’s not
    Consider this your “compare and contrast” exercise from elementary school. A T-chart, perhaps?  

    On one side, list what you like about your current job. On the other side, what you don't.  
    Elaborate and expand:
    Why don’t you like that anymore? Did you once enjoy it? What happened?

  2. Interview yourself
    Unlike the real thing, this won’t cause any heart palpitations. The purpose is to look closely at what isn't working. When we understand "WHY", we are less likely to repeat old behaviours (and accept a job you'll regret).

    Ask yourself:

    When did you last feel really frustrated?
    Where were you?
    Who was there?
    What about this interaction was upsetting?
    Why do you think you reacted this way?

    How will you use this experience to inform your job search?


A real life example. Not naming any names, of course. 

When did you last feel really frustrated? In my weekly one-on-one meeting.
Where were you? My manager’s office.
Who was there? Uh, my manager.
What about this interaction was upsetting? She talked over me.
Why do you think you reacted this way? I’m tired of being condescended to. She doesn’t recognize how hard I’m working or appreciate the time I’m putting in. I’m over it.
How will you use this experience to inform your job search? …


A final word

More than anyone, I understand that wanting a different job but not knowing where to turn    s-u-c-k-s.  I feel you! In fact, I know this so well that I designed a coaching program, Find Your Path, to help you navigate your career with ease. Find Your Path is especially geared toward those who are ready to (1) understand what they want from their career, (2) establish an action plan, and (3) gain confidence along the way!

Want to know what's next?  Once you've gone through the exercises listed above, send me an email or schedule a consultation call (it’s free!)