That Washington Question

“So, what do you do?”

There I was last night, innocently slinging pasta dough with a total stranger, on my second return to L’Academie de Cuisine. And then he asked it, that Classic Washington Question.

For whatever reason, perhaps the high content of allergens in my body from that morning’s second round of testing, perhaps the deep dark mood that was hanging over my head the whole day, but it really hit me how much I hate that question.

(Of course I suppose it’s better than the variant I got one year at a friend’s wedding reception, which was a shocking “So, do you work?” I mean, I know I’m a blonde, but please. Instant assumption that one is a trophy girl is a bit shallow, even for Washington…)

Why do people in this city feel that the appropriate introductory question to a complete stranger is to ask them what they do to make a living? To make money? Filthy lucre? Why not variations on “So, what made you decide to take a pasta class?” or “So, do you like cooking?” or anything else related to the actual activity at hand?

Why why why is it always “So, what do you do?”

12 Comments so far

  1. Be_stress-free (unregistered) on September 15th, 2005 @ 6:35 pm

    Because the answer defines you – to some extent. I know when I was travelling, a lot of people, esp. Europeans note that North Americans ask that question as an introductory opening to conversation. Sometimes your job doesn’t really define you if you are slinging hash at a fast food joint but you might be doing it for a reason, like you just lost your job to Katrina OR you’re working for extra cash to save up to go abroad. I don’t see the big deal – I think it’s about your attitude to the question.

    Sure there might be ulterior motives for asking, ie. bragging about the time you organized a fundraiser for work and met Bono or you bought a yacht with the 6-figure salary you earned last year from the killing you made in real estate.

    Why stress? Life is short. So…why did you take pasta-making class? :)

  2. Tiff (unregistered) on September 15th, 2005 @ 8:43 pm

    Because we spend more of our waking hours at work and commuting than we do with our loved ones. There must be a reason we spend 8-10 hours a day doing one thing rather than another. Maybe we love it, maybe we hate it, maybe we’re just biding our time until something new comes along, but the answer to that question provides context to the real questions about who we are.

  3. Lisa (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 12:21 am

    Because DC is really a small town disguised as a city, it’s just as often a short-cut to find out if you know people in common and establish a connection.

  4. WFY (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 10:02 am

    Having not lived elsewhere, I was suprised this was not a typical icebreaker universally.

  5. Jenn L (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 10:27 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I guess it still is an alien thing to me. Maybe I wish people would take a little more time to truly get to know the other person as opposed to relying on stock questions.

    BSF, I just don’t think that your job defines you. Perhaps if you are lucky enough to have your profession be a vocation, in which case it certainly does provide the context Tiff mentions. (and I took the class to figure out how to use my pasta machine :)

    Lisa, that’s an interesting take on why to ask the question. I wouldn’t necessarily think that unless I was networking, which is not the same thing to me as making friends. But the most common connection for me has been finding out someone went to the same university.

    And to WFY, in some other countries it’s actually taboo for that to be the first question. “Americans always want to know what you do and how much money you make,” a Brit once said to me.

    But then again, as Tiff knows, I’m beginning to hate my job, so maybe it’s just the chip on my shoulder… ;)

  6. wayan (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 11:11 am

    I agree with you Jenn, the “What do you do?” question is odd, and for me a little insulting. Like my whole persona = my job. I usually answer with something snarky like “I’m drinking” which is usually what I’m doing when asked, or the equally glib “I survive” sung way off-key.

    Its the concept that somehow we are defined in totality by work that annoys me, especially when I spent too many years mumbling “I work for Pricewaterhouse Moscow” or “a random in NoVA” that makes me twitchy.

    Interestingly enough, I love my job now, sending Geeks to do good things in cool places, and its very much an extension of my persona. Still, after work, I’d rather not talk about it.

  7. Don (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 12:14 pm

    It’s not my favorite way to get to know someone and I try to avoid it just for the sake of difference. I think it’s valid, however, even if you hate what you do or it’s not what you wish you were doing. Because then you’ve made the decision to do something you despise for the money, or something in your kept you from what you love or you’re still seeking that thing that will keep you fed AND entertained.

    I always answer either “I’m a professional nerd” or “as little as possible,” depending on my mood. It’s not like it’s that hard to deflect the topic onto the things that interest you more than work; a simple “oh, I do x but it’s just a way of keeping the roof over my head and allowing me to pursue my passion of y” directs conversation quite nicely, if that’s what you prefer.

    If someone is a boor and won’t be steered away from what you don’t want to spent time talking about then that’s legitimately shitty. If you just wish they’d tend to ask questions about things you’d prefer to be asked about without your having to involve yourself in the direction that’s just… lazy. It’s conversation. It’s meant to be interactive. Carpe conlocutio!

  8. Chris (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 12:52 pm

    I’ve always found that to be an odd question too.
    “What do you like to do,” is a better question to help a person get to know another person.
    As far as work defining who we are, I hope I never think or feel that way. 40 hours a week taken from my life isn’t my personality.

  9. JennB (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 1:04 pm

    Since we’re in an area where most people are transplanted, shouldn’t the question be, “Where are you from?”

  10. Tiff (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 1:29 pm

    Also, working in recruiting, I’m naturally attuned to how what a person has to say about their job says about THEM. Like, yes, I’m curious about what it is you spend your 8-10 hours a day doing, but I’m MORE interested in what you think about how you spend those 8-10 hours. Do you love it? Why do you find it so fulfilling? Do you hate it? What is it that bothers you so much?

    It’s the answer to THOSE questions that is revealing.

  11. dawn (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

    I think folks ask about each other’s vocations to establish a connection — “I work,” “Me too!” Small talk sucks, but that’s what you do at cocktail parties and such.

    Me? Not a fan of the small talk. I’d rather comment on some exquisite pin you’re wearing or ask where you’d rather be right at this very moment. Because work — while a supposedly safe, common subject — is an explosive topic many people. Some people hate their jobs; some are frustrated because they’re not able to find a job at all. In which case, your second question to them is, “Where’s the bathroom?” because you can’t stand the heat of their death glare. ;)

  12. Lisa (unregistered) on September 16th, 2005 @ 10:21 pm

    Like Tiff said, as people who interview others and try to make them happy for those 8-10 hours/day, it’s the first of many questions we’ll ask if you let us (but we’ll save “how much are you looking to make?” for another time – usually).

    And this is DC AKA “The City that Works” where putting in long hours and taking your blackberry and laptop on vacation are considered badges of honor, so in many ways your work does define as least a part of who you are. Not your worthiness to talk to further, but how you chose to spend those hours is telling – even if you don’t like what you do right now.

    btw, are you looking? How much are you looking to make? :)

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