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#651 How do I tell people what I “do” if I’m not employed?

When I meet people for the first time (for example, at a party) often the first thing they ask is “What do you do?” (meaning, what paid work do you do.)

I have very severe health problems that prevent me from working, but that’s a very painful, personal subject, and I really don’t want to mention that when I’ve just met someone.

I don’t look sick, and I don’t want to come out as invisibly ill/disabled to someone I’ve just met.

What’s a good response that doesn’t make me seem odd, or make the other person feel uncomfortable/awkward?

Goat Lady here, LW, answering you from her bed because she is even more disabled than usual due to an unfortunate hay incident, and on enough painkillers to speak of herself in third person. Woo!

Which is to say, I really really feel you on this one. I am extremely lucky in this situation to be the Goat Lady, so when someone asks what I do I can say, “I’m a goatherd.” and leave it at that. But before goats, and before the wheelchair which I use sometimes when standing is just not going to happen, I hated this question with the power of a thousand fiery, grumpy suns.

Let’s face it, we live in a capitalist society that places a lot of worth on “being conventionally employed” and yet socially we pretend we don’t, so “What [paid work] do you do?” is not treated as the kind of fraught question it is, but rather appropriate small talk for strangers. And for some people, it most definitely is. But for people like you and me, where the answer on a given day may be “mostly I lie in bed out of my gourd on opiate painkillers and read Captain Awkward,” well.

At any rate, you probably don’t have goats, so playing the “I’m a goatherd.” card and then fielding all their ruminant-related curiosity is most likely not going to work for you. But maybe there is something else that you do, that you love passionately, and that you are willing to share with strangers? If you volunteer somewhere, you can always use that. Should you feel up to sounding a little odd, “I’m an international person of mystery” can work quite well.

Whichever way you go, the next thing to do is immediately turn the question around and then follow up on it. “I’m an international person of mystery. How about you? Oh, you’re an elf-wrangler? What’s your favorite part of the job?” I’ve also heard that responding with “That sounds difficult.” when they tell you how they’re employed is a sure-fire way to get people to forget about you and talk about themselves.

Because I am currently in my bed and out of my gourd on opiates, however, I’d also like to explicitly ask our lovely community here to help you out and double-check that my advice is not going to cause an international incident or other disaster. Y’all, and especially the other disabled-and-unemployed, how do you suggest handling this one?

And on behalf of those of us in the same shoes as the LW, can I suggest that if you ask someone “What do you do?” you’d be doing us a huge favor if you tack the words “for fun” on the end? I mean, I’m going to tell you about my goats either way, but for the non-goatherds it would make things so much easier.

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346 comments
  1. brownstargirl said:

    You can always say, “I’m a sick and disabled genius” and it would be true. I feel like lying is fine when it’s people I don’t know and don’t want to get into it with. But I like the volunteering/interest and redirection suggestions, too. I don’t know- as a sicko, I often absolutely don’t want to navigate the shoals of ableism, curiosity and exhaustion while making small talk that being honest garners, but sometimes I do feel up for saying, ‘I mostly am out of my gourd on opiates and cruising the internet from bed, I’m a sick and disabled genius.” I mean, it might be awkward, but there’s also a good chance the average norm will just have no idea how to respond to that, and it’ll be their awkward, anyways. So if you’re ever up for it, there it is.

    • MK said:

      The problem with lying to people you don’t know is that you also don’t know whether you might like to get to know them. And luing is not the best way to start any kind of friendship.

  2. I’m in the weird situation of having 2 jobs AND being a full-time student. With my friends this is no big deal, but one of these things pays anything resembling a living wage and none of them impress the kinds of people I sometimes need to talk to at family gatherings. So I end up talking a lot about my spouses’s work instead. They’re working on a doctorate which is a much more socially acceptable answer for a 31 year old person than “I’m trying to get my bachelor’s degree while working for a hostel and a weird contract at the airport.”

    • sjv1983 said:

      If someone told me that they were working and getting a degree at the same time I would admire them to be honest. I got an online degree in library science and work full time so I would know that it is very hard to work and go to school at the same time. Having two jobs and school, honestly I say that is great.

    • Random Yeoman said:

      Hey, for what it’s worth, if I met you at a party I would be super impressed to hear you worked two jobs and studied full-time. I juggled study and supporting myself for many years and it’s a tough gig. I hope you know that you’re doing something awesome and worth hearing about. And my experience with post-study employers was that they like people who work and study (particularly 2 jobs! seriously, do you sleep?!) because they show strong drive and work ethic.

  3. Chrissy said:

    One of my friends responds “As little as possible” in a very Downton Abbey voice. (He can pull it off; I couldn’t.) I can usually cover it with “working on a few different projects at the moment–how about you?” And when I am the one doing the asking I say “what’s keeping you busy these days?”

    • Clare said:

      I really like this phrasing, I must try to remember it.

    • Tinea said:

      “working on a few different projects at the moment”

      Yes, when I freelanced, I would sometimes go a long time without work, but vaguely referencing “projects” got around these inquiries because “projects” could be paid, academic, volunteer, activist, aspirational (i.e. something you’ll try to publish), or passionate; it could also refer to DIY crafts or cleaning your house or reading a piece of the internet.

      • It’s possible to also pretend to misunderstand the question and talk about hobbies.
        -What do you do?
        -Well, I love reading, and knitting. Actually, I just finished this really cool book…*conversation*…What about you, what do you like to do?

    • Evie said:

      Also “what do you when you’re not here?”, which I’ve tried cause I feel it possibly has the non-work implications. I don’t know if it will aways feel like a huge mega difference but I tried to change the traditional phrasing when I was doing a lot of getting to know parents (I work in schools) – since (as is suggested in the letter/answer) the traditional question does have that economic inferences and when asking full-time/stay at home parents it felt rude – like suggesting their full-time child rearing wasn’t keeping them busy enough.

      • Bloodrocuted said:

        Oh, I like that! That can make the conversation go to sport and favorite restaurant and any other location that the person do things. Good for if you are new in town, or old in town and never know What People DO Around Here.

    • John said:

      “What’s keeping you busy these days?”

      Ah, this is perfect! I always end up with some awkward phrasing like “What do you do, are you going to school, or….?” which is… not ideal.

      • John said:

        Should mention though: my go-to icebreaker is “how do you know {party host}?” or something along those lines. It’s great because you’re opening for yourself to answer the same question, and also it establishes an immediate connection between you. Also it generally leads to other stuff, like the funny way they first met, or their shared job, etc.

        • therufs said:

          Except, of course, if you’re in the situation of having been invited along by a guest, not being at all sure whether you are actually welcome to be there, and feeling generally uncomfortable. ;p

          • GeorgeFayne said:

            But then your answer is “I’m here with X, who is Host’s colleague” or whatever, no? There’s always an answer to “how to do you know the host?” even if you’re a total party crasher in which case it’s just “I don’t know Host really — how are YOU connected to Host?”

            Sometimes the best conversations start among people who wish they were elsewhere.

          • monologue said:

            That can be ok though, “we just met today actually! (Jokingly) I was dragged here by so and so who knows the host from that hobby. Are you a that hobby person too? I heard there’s also a lot of this occupation ppl here too…” then let them tell you how they know the host instead.

        • BookLady said:

          That question is also ever so slightly fraught with awkwardness for me because I have made several friends on okcupid – friends, as well as ummmfriends – and while I’m not shy about it with my friends, I don’t know if they are with theirs.

          So when asked that, I tend to say things like “we go to museums and eat muffins,” which is not an answer to what they asked, but moves the conversation along. And then I can redirect back to them. =P

          • dkf said:

            Well, for someone who hates her job but needs it to survive, hearing from someone apparently living a middle-class life cutesy things like this feels like( ie. easily gets misinterpreted, probably unfairly, caused by third-party assholes) ” I did not sell my soul to Moloch, because I live for higher ideals, unlike some consumerist brainwashed wannabe-slave boring peopke around here! If going to museums and eating well is a full-time job, why do you work at McDonalds, are you stupid?” The rich people with self-important hobbies are poisoning the well here massively. And it is not your fault.

          • (Reply to dkf) I think the “we go to museums and eat muffins” was an answer to “how do you know [person]?” rather than “what do you do?” Since, sometimes, the answer to “how do you know [person]?” might involve sharing some information about yourself or the other person that you or they might not want to share. “We met on okcupid” or “we met at a trans* support group” or “we met at AA” or various other things might not be something you want to share with a relative stranger.

            I’m getting a real education on how some questions I think of as innocuous ice-breakers are not always so innocuous. I’m thinking I may start going with “what kind of innocuous ice-breakery thing would work as a starting point for small talk?”

  4. Andraya said:

    When I get this question, I like to answer about my hobbies. I don’t do things for money, but I do still, well, do things, things I find interesting and challenging and fun to talk about, so I go that way.

    Sometimes people just go with it and we wind up talking about what we do for fun. Other people, though, start hounding me about what I do for money and just Will. Not. Let. It. Go. I am honestly not very good at handling those people and am still trying to figure out how to handle it. Sometimes I just come up with how I don’t work, which usually results in an “oh” and a facial expression that I don’t like to see. Then I usually stop talking to them.

    Personally, given how often even people who work either don’t like their work (and thus don’t want to talk about it) or are not allowed to talk about their work or whatever else, it seems prudent all around to just avoid this question altogether. Talking about what we do for fun is way better anyway.

    • bostoncandylady said:

      The “just will not let it go” thing – a health care professional suggested that in situations where the person was really dogging me about why I didn’t work, the disabled person could say in somber tones “I/we lost the baby and I don’t want to talk about it.” It is definitely a conversational bombshell and not for the faint of heart but if they truly won’t let it go, that is a scorched-earth policy one can consider.

      • why not “I don’t want to talk about it” without the extra embroidery? I just try hard not to lie if at all possible.

        • Because that never, ever shuts people up the way miscarriage does.

          • Rana said:

            Unfortunately, though, that sort of conversational gambit makes it more difficult for those of us who *have* experienced a miscarriage to talk about it… it’s a bit like claiming allergies in order to avoid having to justify not wanting to eat something just because you don’t like it.

    • Myrin said:

      I was thinking about the kind of people you mention here, as well.

      I love the Goat Lady’s suggested response and have been known to answer with something fun and lighthearted and jokey and ask them right back and most people will laugh and go along with it and then indeed answer your question. But then there are always these fliddleflodders (yes, I just made that up, I don’t know why) who will laugh politely for one second and then go “No, but really, what do you DO?” and that makes me want to scream.

      In my case, this question isn’t actually so bad because I’m a student but sadly, this explanation often gets followed up then with “Oh, you’re studying [subject]? Whatever will you do with that later?” and then I’m in exactly the same predicament as others are with the “What do you do?”. My answer is to just never stop it with the funny answers but man, it’s annoying!

      • Oh goodness, I hate the “but what will you do after you graduate?” WITH A FIERY PASSION. Especially for postgrads in a fairly abstract field of study: we’re here because, on some level, we like academia and want to forestall the “after” for some time. I’m lucky my degree has “computer science” in the title; my friend who’s pursuing a PhD in French Literature has taken to answering that question with, “What do you THINK? The only thing I CAN do with this degree.”

        • Myrin said:

          Try Medieval German Literature, it’s not any better. u___u

        • Emma said:

          Urgh yes. SO MANY dinner parties (where I already felt rather out of place) before christmas were constant repetitions of this conversation:

          Them: So where do you live?
          Me: [City], for now, though I’ll be moving on in a few months.
          Them: And what do you do there?
          Me: I’m studying at the university.
          Them: Oh, what are you studying?
          Me: [Rather obscure field]
          Them: Oh, uh, right. And… what’s that?
          [Internal Me: There are freaking BOOKS written on that question that come to no firm conclusion, you think I can sum it up in a pithy sentence?!]
          Me: [Highly inadequate pithy summing up]
          Them: Oh, interesting! And what are you going to do after you graduate?
          [Internal Me: There are less than thirty people studying this in the country! Only three universities offer a course in it! The professional association is a one-page website! There are no career trajectories! I DON’T FREAKING KNOW!]
          Me: I don’t really know, we’ll see what comes up!
          -Desperate topic change or conversation exit-

          Luckily all the other early-twenties were in similarly uncertain positions, which made me feel a bit better, but I was the Novelty Early-Twenty so I still felt like I was getting more of this and just… argh. Where do older adults get the idea that a student knows what job they’re going to do almost a year before they can even start?

          • thelittlepakeha said:

            Especially in this economy where you can get a degree in a field that SHOULD have plenty of jobs and still end up working retail or something, if you’re lucky. I’m getting a degree in social policy, so, yay, guaranteed government work, right!? Oh wait, we have a neoliberal government that thinks firing everyone is a great way to improve economic performance… My radical left-wing anti-colonialist policy positions are probably not going to impress them much.

          • Makes me really wonder what field you study… Of course I get it that with so few people studying it you dont want to give an answer. 🙂

          • therufs said:

            I’d love to see someone who’s been asked “what are you going to do when you graduate” around into an interrogation of all the asker’s potential job connections.

      • A particularly annoying way of phrasing the question of what you’ll do with your studies later that I run into a lot is ‘So what does that make you?’. As though the sole reason for studying something is to gain some job title later on and then that’s the bulk of your identity. Lately I’ve taken to responding with the deadpan answer, “Studying linguistics will make me a linguist” and then not care that the asker still doesn’t know what a linguist “does” (the answer is of course that we are people who are interested in language!).

        • Goat Lady said:

          “A scholar and a gentleperson” is also a valid answer!

          • golden peanut said:

            Actually, that sounds like a good answer to “what do you do?”

        • SherryH said:

          I”What will that make you?”
          “Smarter.”

          I like Goat Lady’s suggestion, too.

          • TO_Ont said:

            “What will that make you?” “Smarter”

            Love that! 🙂

        • Captain Obvious said:

          If you feel like being REALLY naughty, you can always say, “If I’m particularly clever, it might make me a cunning linguist” 😉

      • Labyrinth said:

        “But then there are always these fliddleflodders (yes, I just made that up, I don’t know why) who will laugh politely for one second and then go “No, but really, what do you DO?” and that makes me want to scream.”

        I have probably done this! A couple of years ago, I had this Thing where I thought that maybe I didn’t understand anything about how humans speak to each other. So if I asked a question and the other person answered in a jokey, nonsensical way, I’d be like “WAIT have I completely lost the sense of what’s going on? That doesn’t answer my question at all. Did she actually say she’s a pirate or did I mishear? It doesn’t make any sense! I think? Was it a random joke or did I miss some subtext? Is she just being a jokey, outgoing person? Should I laugh or should I ‘get’ some point? Is she a sailor or something? Or is it a joke about working at the IRS? Or is she some kind of anti-copyright activist? Am I supposed to understand something here?! Is it a code?? Or does she mean that I was already supposed to know what she works with and that’s why she’s just joking? Or did she confuse me for someone else who WOULD know? Is she mocking me? Am I stupid? Is there some reason why she wouldn’t just tell me she doesn’t want to talk shop if that’s the case? Does she think I’m unreasonable? Is this a hint? Am I being intrusive? What the heck is happening?!??!?!”

        Actually my first instinct would be correct in this case – her answer DIDN’T make sense, just like I thought, because she wanted to NOT ANSWER, like I also suspected, for the simple reason that she PREFERS TO NOT TALK ABOUT HER JOB. There wasn’t a secret code, I wasn’t already supposed to know, everything was what it looked like. But it’s still a very indirect way to communicate, and people aren’t telepathic. There will be misunderstandsings. For example, I didn’t trust that my interpretation was right since there were several possible interpretations, so I’d probably ask again just to make sure I understood properly what she was trying to say.

        It IS possible to deflect a question by actually using your words, and you can still be lighthearted about it! Laugh or smile and say “Eh, that’s not a very fun subject right now, what about you?”, or “Well, I’m between jobs right now, but here’s what I do for fun”. This is what I said when I was in the LW:s situation. Stick as many “right now”:s in there as you possibly can, it helps so much. People who keep probing want to feel like their confusion is “solved”, either by trying to help you, trying to make sure you’re alright, wanting to hear more explanations etc. But! You don’t need to solve your problem for them, you only need to solve their confusion! Giving them something simple that hints at LOGIC even if it’s actually illogical helps with this a lot (“right now” makes the problem sound random and temporary, less real and therefore less confusing). Be compassionate, like they are the ones with the problem (which they are – their problem is that they don’t know if this interaction is supposed to be lighthearted or not). It works.

        If they keep going on about it:
        “Let’s not, it’s the weekend!”
        “I’m trying to talk less about work with people, I realised I’d rather know what they do for fun.”
        “No really, I’m a bit down on my luck right now, and I’m trying to relax and have fun tonight.”
        “I’ll save that for Monday, let’s [grab a drink/do a relevant activity]” (if they’re trying to be helpful)
        “No, seriously.” – with your serious face, and then, switch to something else!

        KEEP THE CONTROL. They have no power to actually MAKE you talk about your unemployment, they can at most try to convince you to do it voluntarily. Just keep going! Stick to your reality! This is a LIGHTHEARTED CONVERSATION where you do NOT SHARE anything about your job situation, that’s your reality and you keep it that way. Keep these magic words in your mind: “you have no power over me”

        Conversational judo. Just step aside and watch them stumble. Point out the non-stumbley ground and express hope that they will join you there. If all else fails, say “Sorry! I really need to go to the bathroom” and disappear.

        • GeorgeFayne said:

          “Conversational judo. Just step aside and watch them stumble. Point out the non-stumbley ground and express hope that they will join you there.” Nicely put.

        • Silva said:

          I’d just like to highlight “Let’s not; it’s the weekend” and “I’ll save that for Monday” because I really like them for being a lighthearted way to say “definitely not talking about that” without explicitly saying “my situation is bad.”

    • People who push at a topic that someone clearly doesn’t want to talk about are good people to avoid if you can. But since you can’t always, and you also don’t always know someone will do this until they are doing this, my suggestions are:
      “Oh, I hate to talk about work.”
      It’s true, simple, and makes it much harder for somebody to press. It leaves open why you hate it, and there are so many possible reasons that they can’t really know much about why you don’t want to. And if they do press harder, they are getting pretty clearly explicitly antisocial. If they ask why you hate to talk about it, you can try, “I can’t go into that without talking about work, and I hate to talk about work.” Anyone who doesn’t drop it at that point is so far past the social protocols I’d think you could just respond to any comment or question on the topic with just, “I beg your pardon.”

      Another option is, “I’m not allowed to talk about my job.”
      This creates an air of mystery. Are you doing secret projects? Are you a spy? Are you a superhero with a secret mild-mannered identity? But it can also be true. You may, if you choose to, forbid yourself from talking about your work or lack thereof. I’m not sure how anyone can push past this one.

      Honestly, I usually just go with, “I’m severely disabled and unable to work,” which is blunt and true. But it does sometimes create awkwardness. And did, at least once, cause someone to extract herself from conversing with me and then avoid me. It does, however, make for a great screening device. Since anyone who can’t handle that about me is not going to be someone I get along with. However, it’s less good if I’m in a situation where I’m not screening for potential friends, but just trying to get by socially and don’t want to have to deal with other people potentially being weird or obnoxious at me. I think in those situations, I like the talk about a hobby or interest option. And a phrase like, “Oh, let’s not talk about work now when we’re able to relax and be social.” can also be useful. Although I don’t mind hearing about other people’s jobs if they want to discuss them, which that response rather cuts off. On the other hand, I suspect most people probably are more interesting when not talking about their work.

      • Annalee said:

        Another option is, “I’m not allowed to talk about my job.”
        This creates an air of mystery. Are you doing secret projects? Are you a spy? Are you a superhero with a secret mild-mannered identity? But it can also be true. You may, if you choose to, forbid yourself from talking about your work or lack thereof. I’m not sure how anyone can push past this one.

        If the goal is to change the subject, you probably don’t want to try this line. I once held a government job that I wasn’t supposed to discuss with strangers for security and ethics reasons (I didn’t have a security clearance or anything. It was a normal office job). Around folks who were used to dealing with government security as part of their day-to-day life, “I’m afraid I can’t discuss it” was a perfectly polite way to indicate that the subject was off-limits. Around everyone else, though, it was as if I’d issued a gold-plated invitation to be an ass and ignore my clearly stated boundaries.

        I heard “ooooh, so you’re a spyyyy?” nudge nudge, wink wink quite a few times before I learned to be less conspicuous about my non-answers. (I also got a lot of questions about security measures at my workplace, which was the specific reason I was not supposed to discuss it). Something about thinking they can get in on a secret really encourages folks to keep prying and Not. Let. It. Go. I eventually learned to say things like your suggested “I hate talking about work.” (My go-tos were “who wants to talk about work at a party? [subject change]” and “oh, never mind that, I’m off the clock. [subject change]”).

        If what you want is to change the subject as quickly and smoothly as possible, your best bet is to avoid creating an air of mystery.

        • Goat Lady said:

          Ha! When I had a Normal Job I held a clearance and couldn’t discuss it, so just usually went with “I’m a tech write and editor”.

          This occasionally failed to satisfy my interrogator, and I always floundered a bit when it did.

          • Ha! I actually am a tech writer and editor with a clearance. Most people are bored witless with my first response. If they press, I usually follow up with, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

      • duaecat said:

        “I hate talking about work” is clever because people generally fumble at complaints. If they persist, ham it up. “You get people together for a fun event and what does everyone want to talk about? Work! Can you think of a more boring subject. I got trapped for hours when this one guy just Would. Not. Shut. Up. about his teapot management. Why am I supposed to care about spout length? In fact, every time I started trying to talk about something fun like *TV show* he’d find some way to work in teapot management!”

        I’ve found then you’re switching the power dynamic. They want to keep you on the defensive, they lob the balls and you smack at them, but turn on the complaining and all of a sudden they don’t know how to react. I use this all the time at geeky events when some peacock comes strutting up wanting to test my credentials against their limited yet impressive sounding memorized trivia. No, I may not know the name of the second cousin of the person who came up with the numbering system for Star Trek’s ships, but pull up a chair and let me tell you about how bad the lines were to meet Leonard Nimoy years ago at a con. Usually that puts them on the defensive on changing the subject.

        I’ll agree with others though that just going “I can’t talk about that. It’s a secret” Might as well be dangling a piece of fish in front of a cat.

    • When She Was Good said:

      The hobbies answer is a good one, and I think it’s one that Miss Manners recommends. This question and the answer are exactly why etiquette experts say that “what do you do?” is *not* good small talk conversation, at least not at the start of a chat. So so many people don’t like answering this question. I don’t like answering it, not because I’m unemployed (although: been there) but because I’m a lawyer, but I don’t do a conventional lawyer job. My job is specialized and doesn’t involve private clients. It’s a little complicated to explain, but people don’t really want to hear it. But if they hear “lawyer,” they get this idea in their head that isn’t at all accurate. PLUS the inevitable lawyer jokes. Ugh. I usually just say where I work rather than what my job title is and hope it sounds boring so they don’t have follow-up questions.

      • Maryaed said:

        I agree with Miss Manners, of course. Still, the problem is that some people use this question as conversation-starter chit-chat and it really means “Hey, throw me a bone so I can figure out enough about you to have a pleasant conversation relevant to you and we will both be more comfortable” and some people use it for “Let me know your value in ten words or less.” I have myself bitched about how when I visit the East Coast TELL ME YOUR JOB AND WHERE YOU WENT TO SCHOOL is the first question anyone asks me on introduction and how fucking shallow that is. (And don’t start me on OH I HEAR THEY HAVE A GOOD BASKETBALL TEAM AT THAT CLEARLY NON-IVY PLACE when I tell you where I am getting my Ph.D.)

        However, you can’t really cure people of being fucking shallow and they’d find a way to do that even if Emily Post managed to bitchslap everyone back to the days when money was a filthy unmentionable subject. Furthermore judgmental people will find a way to judge you on your crochet method and the TV you are watching and any other data you give them, whereas kind ones will find a way to discuss your choice of bed jackets and opiates in a loving, relating way.

        And almost any question that is conventional can throw you for a loop if you’re outside what’s considered the happy path. For a while it was “where is your kid going to school?” and that was supposed to open up OH, SO EXCITING TO CHOOSE FROM THE RAINBOW OF OPTIONS but for that kid, the answer was going to be “wherever they will handle someone with her Issues” which was very ouchy. People will ask about your relatives who are dead or estranged. People will ask what you think about some current issue that is academic to them and exquisitely personal to you. You have got to develop some defenses around those questions, and people have posted a lot of good ideas here, but making out that everyone who ever asks anything that is more personal than you want to answer is a prying jerk isn’t really fair. Most people most of the time are just trying to keep the conversation going. When they won’t accept your evasions or judge your answers, then you can decide they are awful.

        • slfisher said:

          “And almost any question that is conventional can throw you for a loop if you’re outside what’s considered the happy path. For a while it was “where is your kid going to school?” and that was supposed to open up OH, SO EXCITING TO CHOOSE FROM THE RAINBOW OF OPTIONS but for that kid, the answer was going to be “wherever they will handle someone with her Issues” which was very ouchy. People will ask about your relatives who are dead or estranged. People will ask what you think about some current issue that is academic to them and exquisitely personal to you. You have got to develop some defenses around those questions, and people have posted a lot of good ideas here, but making out that everyone who ever asks anything that is more personal than you want to answer is a prying jerk isn’t really fair. Most people most of the time are just trying to keep the conversation going. When they won’t accept your evasions or judge your answers, then you can decide they are awful.”

          This.

        • I wonder how “bitchslap” became acceptable in conversation. something about that word just doesn’t sit right with me.

          • Maryaed said:

            Good point.

        • @Maryaed: I like everything about this answer.

        • Manders said:

          This is so well said. Someone who’s a jerk, or just spectacularly bad at small talk, will keep pushing any innocuous question past the point where they really need to stop. Anyone who’s reasonably adept at having a conversation will be able to move on if they realize they’ve hit an uncomfortable subject.

          I was fine with “What do you do?” even when I was unemployed and feeling a bit hopeless about my life, because it’s so open-ended that I could move the conversation in any direction I wanted. Reasonable people understood that if I didn’t mention a job, they shouldn’t pry (and unreasonable people would have found a way to make the conversation unpleasant anyway).

        • When She Was Good said:

          The problem to me is less that some people use this question as a way of measuring worth (since, as you point out, people who do that will find a way to do that) as it is that, for a long list of very different reasons, many, many people don’t want to answer this question. And since it’s not a question that really gives you much insight into the person you’re asking it of because most people aren’t their jobs. And since many people don’t want to talk about that topic, it’s both not a reliable conversation starter and alos a way to make a lot of people immediately uncomfortable.

        • Absolutely not trying to tell you that the “they have a good basketball team” people weren’t being judgy — you were there and I wasn’t, so you would know — but in the specific part of the East Coast where I live (Old ACC territory, before all those newcomers joined), that’s often actually a positive comment on the school. Weird, I know, but we love our basketball here. I actually got that comment pretty often about the Ivy I went to.

        • ““Let me know your value in ten words or less.” I have myself bitched about how when I visit the East Coast TELL ME YOUR JOB AND WHERE YOU WENT TO SCHOOL is the first question anyone asks me on introduction and how fucking shallow that is.”

          Just seconding, I came to the East Coast for grad school and boy do I hate that question.

          • Jenny Islander said:

            ISTR being asked that question by a shirttail relative when I went to visit distant family on the East Coast one year. Welp, being on the spectrum and also quite tired and fighting a headache, I blinked and replied, “Wake up, shower, go to class, do my work study, eat, sleep.”

            Theeeyyyyy changed the subject.

      • John said:

        Yeah. I’m a software developer, which fairly easy for people to grasp, but then they always want to talk about phone apps or dig into what KIND of software I write and, like, it’s super boring to explain, really. I like my job and all, but it’s the kind of thing that’s JUST a job and not a passion, so I don’t really care to spend much time digging into it, because talking about it isn’t talking about ME, you know? It’s just some shit I do for cash, not revealing of anything about me, so it doesn’t really feel like I’m connecting with someone when I talk about it.

        • I’d say that they are looking for a story so they can go back and sound smart to their friends. “Oh I was talking to an ACTUAL COMPUTER PERSON and they said yadda yadda.” So get yourself a good anecdote or two to hold in reserve, maybe an opinion on quantum computing vs graphene and which will replace silicon first, and let fly as needed. They don’t care about your job per se, just want some nuggets of tech to take home to their nest.

        • When She Was Good said:

          @John, I am so with you on that.

    • Siobhan said:

      I like, “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” and then just smile every time they repeat the question. It doesn’t really solve the problem of them asking over and over again, but it gives me something to giggle over afterwards.

  5. Yes, I so feel this. I was unable to work for several years due to invisible illness that I did NOT want to talk about. The two strategies I found the most helpful over time were saying,

    “Oh, I’m in between situations right now. Can we talk about something else?” (At this point most people will assume you’re unemployed, discouraged, and want to, well, talk about something else. Most people will get that.)

    and redirecting the whole conversation by shrugging and saying something like, “Well, that’s sort of dull, actually. But I’d love to know how you know the hostess/if you’ve read any good books recently/who you think is going to win $LocalSportsGame?” It can be clever to plan a few topics in advance that you are generally interested in talking about for this purpose.

    • damadafaka said:

      “Oh, I’m in between situations right now. Can we talk about something else?”
      That’s perfect. Any normal person would understand and change the topic and an asshole wouldn’t, so you got yourself a great filter, there.

      • styace said:

        I also love this! In my experience, most people want to be a mensch, especially if you offer them nice clear signals and an easy out. Some people might be awkward and stutter a bit or scramble around to find a different topic, but that’s a great script.
        I really love these suggestions. I’ve been trying out ‘so, how have you been spending your time lately?’ and ironically, most people just heave a big depressed sign and say “oh, you know, working.”

  6. VioletEMT said:

    I used to ask people what they did, but I don’t like talking about work when I’m not at work. I would much rather talk about my volunteering with the local fire department than my boring IT desk job. So after some casting about, I discovered “So what’s your story?” when I meet new people. It leaves them free to answer the question in their own way, without sounding as squishy as “What’s important to you?” which is really what I am trying to get at.

    • Laughing Giraffe said:

      I *try* to use “What’s your story?”, but people always freeze up for some reason, or say, “I don’t have one” or “Uh, what?” Maybe the people I meet are just too literal. I find, “So what’re you into?” is functional, though.

      • Tastycakes said:

        What are people expecting to hear when they ask “what’s your story?”?? I hate that question because it seems to translate to “I don’t know what to talk about, so why don’t you decide what we’re going to talk about, even though it was my idea to start this conversation in the first place.”

        • Rollick said:

          Oh, I love “What’s your story?” Maybe I’ve just been lucky with it? The last time I asked it, I ended up having a seven-hour conversation with the person I asked, and it was delightful. (And involved closing out a restaurant and then a bar.) When I ask, what I’m expecting to hear is any combination of “What do you do for paid work” and “What are you passionate about” and “Where did you go to school and how did you end up here” and “What are you generally into” that the person I’m conversing with feels like offering — and which interpretation of the question they gravitate toward answering tells me something about them. Also I don’t have to feel like I’m asking “What is your monetary value?” or “Your job defines you, tell me what that definition is,” which is how I often hear “What do you do for paid work?”

        • paddlepickle said:

          Oh, rats– I use ‘what’s your story’ all the time because after being unemployed for eight months I became very aware of how annoying ‘what do you do?’ is. I find that people answer ‘what’s your story’ with whatever they think is most interesting about them at the time, which is what I’m hoping to hear– some people say what they do, some say where they’re from, etc etc. But I don’t want to annoy people with it– do you have any ideas for broad questions that wouldn’t have that same effect?

          • Tastycakes said:

            Oh, it’s probably just awkwardness on my part, but the infinite scope of “what’s your story?” just has a deer-in-the-headlights effect on me. I just feel more comfortable with more specific questions about where I’m from, what I do for fun, that kind of thing.

          • When She Was Good said:

            I am with Tastycakes on this one. I don’t find “What’s your story?” offensive or anything, but it’s so open that I don’t know where to start, and trying to formulate an appropriate, interesting answer throws me for a loop. But I would much rather be asked that than “What do you do?” because I can at least ask for clarification, and that gets the conversation started.

            If it fits the situation, I usually go with “So, how do *you* know Fuzzy Oathammer?” or “Are you originally from [this city]?” Whatever the answer, I can usually find something to chat about.

        • VioletEMT said:

          Really not trying to foist conversation topic selecton on the othe persion, nor am I (as someone below suggested) demanding that they justify their existence to me or put them on the spot like in a job interview. What a horrible thng to do! When I ask it, I mean a combination of “What are you into?” and “How did you come to be at this function?”

          Maybe I’ll just switch to “What are you into?” supplimented by “How do you know [host]?”

          • Lee said:

            And that is how you respond to people pointing out a problem with an approach you like to use.

            As opposed to Mx. “Oh I love this question and there’s no problem with it at all and you people just need to lighten up because my opinion is the only one that matters!” upthread.

          • Tastycakes said:

            I might have been overly emphatic about this- if you’re getting good conversations from it, I don’t want to suggest you should change! Probably lots of people don’t have this particular awkwardness. I just mean that if someone is going all deer-in-the-headlights in response, you might get a better response from them with the more specific questions you mentioned.

        • Xenophile said:

          In one of my social circles the preferred conversation starter is “What’s your story?” because “Where are you from?” is triggering for many people. So for us “What’s your story?” is basically a less loaded invitation to say where you’ve lived and what your cultural influences are without having to pick a single identity. I did a seminar with a radical organization for queer POC and our icebreaker was “Who yo people?” precisely because “Where are you from?” doesn’t really address issues of exclusion or the idea that people have multiple identities. “Where are you from?” sometimes requires way more information than one would like to share, like “I was born in Country A but I’m not a citizen there so I have no legal rights there and no residency, and my parents are from Country B but I’ve never lived there and I don’t feel safe there because of homophobia, so I consider Country C/Community C to be my home/people,” or “I grew up in 6 different countries and don’t consider any of them home, but I hang my hat in Toronto,” or “I have no sense of home whatsoever and it causes me a great deal of mental anguish, thanks for asking.”

          I like “What’s your story?” because it’s flexible. You can list every one of your formative experiences or skip it entirely and share something about your hobbies, family, etc.

          • Epiphyta said:

            O/T, but OMG YES YOU GET IT! Whenever I’m asked “Where are you from?”, the whole “I was born in a town that was pretty much obliterated by mining; I was a ‘trailing spouse’ from the age of 19 until my early 30s: I’ve moved more than 20 times, I couldn’t work in a LOT of the places where we lived, and the financial dependence and emotional isolation destroyed my marriage and most of my sense of self. Right now I keep my stuff not far from the Cascades, but who knows how long that will last?” goes skipping through my head, and I wind up standing there and blinking. Yes, this is my issue, but it’s a big one.

          • letternext said:

            I… yeah. i especially have come to dread this question in the context of racism, ie “where are you from? no, i mean, where are you REALLY from? where were you born? where are your PARENTS from? you’re not originally from here, though, are you?” extra bonus teeth gritting suppressed anger if it leads into fishing for confirmation that yes, I’m so glad I’m HERE instead of THERE, things are so much better here, aren’t they… some members of my family also get the follow up observation “you speak such good English!” What do you say to that? “Oh, so do you! Well done!” So, yeah, it can be really good to think before asking this question, if the person has a racial/ethnic background that isn’t white or European etc, it could be something they get socially interrogated about ALL the time.

      • ReanaZ said:

        I HATE this question. Hate hate hate. I feel like it is 100% in a different league than “So what do you do?”, which is light, casual (if misguided) small talk category. This one is so invasive, big, and personal if just gives me the heebyjeebies. I can’t think of a single scenario where I’d be comfortable being asked this question.

        • “So what’s your story” would make me freeze up too, I don’t like that phrase at all. It instantly puts you on the spot and translates to me a ‘define your entire worth as a human being… NOW.’
          I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a dialect thing, but to me it sounds kind of agressive. (Aggressively friendly of course, but intimidating and kind of inappropriate)

          I think when someone asks ‘what do you do’ you can totally respond directly with hobbies or what you love. For example I’m an accountant which (while I’m very grateful for the work) it embarrasses me because it’s the one line of work I never wanted to do ever ever ever and no one quite understands what I do when I try to describe it anyway, so I dont like to talk about it. So I’d be inclined to answer ‘what do you do?’ With ‘nothing exciting, I get by, but I do have this blog I love updating’ or I have this club I used to lead’.
          Again it’s a cultural thing. For example in England you’re pretty much expecte to respond something like ‘job X but it’s crap’. And pretty much downplay everything, so saying ‘nothing exciting’ or ‘nothing of note to be honest’. And laughing would be a passable response. Maybe you can work that in and it will work for you?
          Good luck

          • slfisher said:

            I agree; someone asking “so what’s your story” would sound, to me, like they were dismissive right off the bat.

          • GeorgeFayne said:

            I agree with “what’s your story” being somehow aggressive or dismissive.

            Someone once asked me at a party, “So, how do you justify your existence?” which in that moment I actually found to be funny and a nice ice-breaker. But those sound somewhat like the same question to me, really.

            I think both definitely need the right delivery to avoid coming off as kind of rude. Perhaps VioletEMT has just that right delivery for “So, what’s your story?” so people take it in the spirit is is intended.

            My parents recently invited me to a party in their retirement community. “How do you know the host” wasn’t appropriate since they all met through the retirement community, the weather where they are is consistent and not much of a topic of conversation, and it seemed weird to ask people about their former professions.

            So I went with, “so, what do you like to do?” and had a couple good conversations. I think I might stick with that in the future. It’s like a general invitation to discuss a thing you like doing – work, hobby or whatever.

      • Darcy Pennell said:

        I’m not a fan of “What’s your story” — reminds me too much of being on a job interview, makes me feel put on the spot & under pressure to perform. Besides, “my story” kinda sounds like they’re asking why am I the person I am, and I’m private enough that I’m not going to offer that up to someone I just met.

        • That’s it! Job interview. I feel like it’s not inviting conversation so much as volleying something that I can’t volley back until I’ve provided a satisfactory answer. It makes me very uncomfortable. That said, should anyone ask this of me in the future I might answer “Non-fiction. Mostly. You?”

    • (local fire departments! A fellow volunteer! Salutations!)

      I was at a party last week and I was the new person in the social circle. At one point the most outgoing person turned to me and said, ‘so, not to play twenty questions, but tell me about yourself. I mean, work, anything like that, but what do you do that’s important to you?’

      And it was just so expertly phrased and open-ended that we ended up having a wonderfully long conversation that touched on lots of stuff.

      • caedocyon said:

        This may not be as concise as “what’s your story,” but I think it gets the general idea across much better without being as personal and awkward as “what’s your story”!

      • VioletEMT said:

        Fellow volunteer, ahoy!

        I wish there were a “like” button, because I enjoy the approach of the person who started the conversation with you.

        Which leads me to think that maybe, when many well-intentioned people SAY “What do you do?” they MEAN the question to be interpreted with the “that’s important to you” tacked on the end of it, or they intend it to mean “What do you LIKE TO do?” But in our lovely American employment grind-driven society, people hear “for pay” instead.

        So maybe the way to go is to just use words to pose the whole question, “What do you do that’s important to you?” or “What do you like to do?”

  7. Mercy said:

    I know this isn’t helpful for the LW, who doesn’t want to come out as disabled, but my stock response these days is usually “Go to doctor’s appointments.” And then I let the awkward silence tell them that maybe they’d better come up with a better question next time.

    If I don’t feel that forthright, sometimes I say that I’m working on a novel (true, off and on, well, three of them, actually) or that I’m learning web programming/web design (true, lately, when I’m feeling up to it). Or I say that I am a geographer, but that my US MA isn’t worth much in terms of getting a job in my field over here. Which is true, but I’m not looking for work in my field because of the whole random-naps-and-daily-pain thing.

    • I said exactly that (“Go to doctor’s appointments.”) exactly once. The person’s response to it was to literally turn around and begin talking to the person on the other side of her, without saying a single word to me. I had to sit beside that person for the rest of the night, and was just mortified.

  8. Courtney said:

    A friend of mine would always ask new people, what do you do that you love?

    • serrana said:

      This is brilliant.

    • MKPhx said:

      And my response would be, “why do you think what I love is your business, total stranger?” I don’t love being asked what I do, but I find that question much more intrusive.

      • Jake said:

        So what would you consider a non-intrusive question for someone you’re trying to get to know?

        • MKPhx said:

          I hate being asked questions unless it’s about something I’ve mentioned myself. I don’t ask other people questions like that either, unless they’ve brought it up. I know people do it to display (or feign, more often than not) interest, but I feel put on the spot and I hate explaining myself that way.

          • Interesting. My Mom always taught us “A true Gentleman never talks about himself unless asked”. And we were taught to “always ask the other person about themselves”.
            I’ve been grateful when I’ve met someone that goes on and on about themselves with n’ere an inquiry about others.

    • Seconding, this is awesome.

  9. caryatis said:

    “I don’t work, but I really enjoy [whatever you feel like talking about].” The person isn’t asking because they need to know the answer; they’re just looking for something to talk about.

    You could also just give an evasive answer or change the subject, but then the person might think you just didn’t understand the question, and if they are tactless they will follow up.

    • Stephanie said:

      This is sort of the avenue I was thinking of. “I don’t work” is a complete sentence, but I worry that for most people, it’s not a “complete answer.” But saying that you don’t work is really a truthful answer that doesn’t lay the baggage of anything else on what was supposed to just be a light small talk question. I like your add-on about what you enjoy, because THEN that’s what you talk about. Nice and simple.

    • soukup said:

      This is perfect! Thank you for sharing it.

  10. Remy said:

    Even for those employed outside the home for pay, this is a weird question to answer sometimes. I end up talking about my spouse’s job(s) a lot in small talk, because she works two of them and therefore cannot often join me at social gatherings, or must be late. A response to a polite, “Oh, what does she do?” is not the easiest to spit out, because she’s not “a nurse” or “a lawyer” or an office worker or even exactly in retail, and she doesn’t work for one of the large companies anyone would recognize. So it’s helped to have two basic scripts: one that is kind of an elevator pitch of what she does at each/why it’s interesting, for those who would find it so and with whom I wish to discuss it further, and one that kind of glosses over the actual job in favor of the applicable logistics. So, A: “Oh, she has two jobs, actually. Full-time, she works for the thrift store of [local non-profit]. Have you heard of [store name]? And then on the weekends she’s on the overnight shift at a social club; kind of a hotel desk position. The hours are really tough, but it’s quiet, so she gets to do homework.” or B: “She’s on a rotating schedule with some night hours, so it’s a little unpredictable. [appropriate segue]”

    • karinacinerina said:

      My father was raised to believe asking a person’s job was like asking them how much they earn, in terms of rudeness, so he asks more like, “how do you like to spend your time?” So then those with complicated or boring or embarrassing jobs can talk about their hobbies or vocation as they like, and unemployed sorts can say “I am a voracious reader” or whatever. I am employed at a job I am embarrassed about so I try to make it sound super boring so I won’t get any follow up, when forced.

  11. I feel this awkwardness. I live on disability benefits for depression and related issues, and people sure side-eye you a lot when you say you’re on disability when you show no obvious sign of disability (ie you can see, hear, not ina wheelchair etc).
    Actually, I feel worse for my parents. They have a lot of friends who talk about their children’s jobs, marriages, kids etc and I am unemployed, single and childless.

  12. I began working as a freelancer about a year ago so now I have a socially acceptable answer for these questions, however I am now required to apply for work (government pension bullshit) and in my cover letters etc I’ve been describing my experience as a “case manager”. I’m responsible for 3 PWD (inc. myself) and juggling the appointments etc was a full time job – I just wasn’t paid.

    In short, “case manager” can always work. They don’t need to know that you’re managing your own case. If they want more info you can throw in scheduling doctor appointments, liaising between medical specialists, monitoring medications, organising suitable leisure activities (staying in bed, anyone?) etc. The redirect away!

    PS – I hate small talk. I try to skip it entirely by looking incredibly awkward all the time.

  13. So I’m seeing now how “what do you do?” can be a problematic small talk question – thanks for educating me!

    But to leverage off what caryatis said and to work with our capitalist society that places a lot of worth on being conventionally employed (as Goat Lady put it), I would answer with, “I’m on disability right now but I really enjoy [whatever you feel like talking about].” It’s not a lie, because you are on disability “right now” and even though it does imply that you’re not normally on disability and that you are normally conventionally employed, I agree with previous posters that the full, unadulterated truth isn’t owed a stranger.

    If you get the followup questions of “Why don’t you work?” or “Why are you on disability?” I would just smile and say, “I really appreciate your concern” and then IMMEDIATELY switch back to whatever you were talking about.

    Most people are well-meaning when they follow the standard social scripts so I would respond to them in that spirit.

    • Caitlin said:

      Agreed about the problematic aspect of this question. I’m going to attempt to remove it from my interactions in the future.

    • I think it’s important that most people are well meaning and it’s best to respond in kind. After all, usually they’re only relying on small talk because they’re awkward a me fishing for an actual hook of conversation to take you both into comfortable chat land.
      9/10 people won’t want to attack or embassy anyone in the end and would be mortified if they offended you

      • Myrin said:

        Ugh, I’ve had this thing where people are very smalltalk-y and wouldn’t care one way or the other with which specific kind of profession you answer that question, but once you say something they don’t expect (like a fun/not serious answer or something that boils down to “I don’t work”) they’ll become super intrusive and ask all the questions. I hate that with the fiery passion of a million disgruntled suns, especially since I know they actually don’t care but just want to be holier than thou. >:|

        • muse142 said:

          This. Thiiiiiis.

          Like, I know that “asking follow-up questions” is typical small-talk behavior, but PLEASE STOP ASKING ME ABOUT MY UNDEREMPLOYMENT, UGH.

    • stayce said:

      “‘I really appreciate your concern” and then IMMEDIATELY switch back to whatever you were talking about.’

      That’s a ninja move.

      • stayce said:

        In a positive sense!

  14. I’ve struggled this both when I was out of work and when I was at a job I hated and hated to talk about. There was a while where I dreaded meeting new people because that was often one of the first questions anyone would ask me; I started to try to redirect conversation to non-work interests quickly. “Oh, I’m in a job search right now and of course that’s a bit boring and stressful, but with my extra time I’ve been exploring the city a bit more and trying out some new recipes/knitting patterns.” I knew that most people would ask “what do you do?” intending to start a paid-work discussion, but I often found that if I just interpreted it as “what interesting stuff are you up to right now?” then most folks would roll with it just fine.

    Right now I do have a part-time paid job but my volunteer work is what I’m really passionate about, so often I’ll mention both in response to the “what do you do” question and lean on the volunteer work more heavily, since in almost every situation I’d rather talk about youth sex ed than working with maps.

    • Remy said:

      “How’s the job search going?” is a question I dreaded more than “What do you do?” — at least the latter came from someone who didn’t know me well enough to realize that it might be an uncomfortable answer. Well-meaning friends and family frustrated, depressed, and embarrassed me quite a number of times with the former when I was transitioning from college to a full-time job.

      • Oh lord, that was the WORST question. I searched for a job for nine months while I was at the one I hated (because I didn’t want to just leave with no plan, although I eventually did) and any time it came up in conversation all I could see was this yawning black hole of my ruined career sneaking up to suck me in. I can really sympathize with the horrors of that question as well.

      • the invisible one said:

        Oh yes, job search questions are the worst. Partly because they’re invariably followed with “advice” that is either something you already did or do because it’s so obvious, or is completely out of date, or is completely inappropriate to the type of work you’re looking for.

        • Rana said:

          Oh, gosh, yes. And if you express any frustration with the question or the process, then the conversation shifts to focusing on your coping skills, misplaced sympathy, and more inadequate/obvious/unhelpful advice. I dreaded Thanksgiving for several years because I couldn’t handle the mixture of curiosity, concern, and desire to Fix Rana and Her Lack of A Job.

      • Ugh, that question. Could everyone please stop asking how the job search is going? If it was going well, it either wouldn’t *be* a search anymore (hey, let me tell you about my awesome new job!) or the person searching would be talking about the exciting lead all on their own.

        I got that question almost constantly from one friend while I was pregnant. She knew that it was a difficult pregnancy, but she still felt that I should set my health and my baby’s health aside and get out there and get a paycheck. I’ve also gotten it while my husband was looking for work or feeling out opportunities in other departments

        It really is a cultural thing, as some of my non-US friends are appalled that people here feel comfortable with “what do you do?” as a casual question. Especially since, basically, you’re kind of asking someone to tell you how much they earn or how much education they have.

      • Oh my godsI hated “how’s the job search going” — like, really? Do they really want me to be all like “oh yes so I’m coming up on my 9th month of being mostly unemployed, my UI just ran out, and nobody will deign to talk to me even though it’s the holidays and I’m willing to work on Giftmas Eve/day/NYE/day” or something?!

        ‘Cause christ, I’d do that. Just be like “oh, you asked, now you get all of the uncomfortable too!”

      • Siobhan said:

        I have sworn that if I am ever again looking for a job I will not tell my family. They are well-meaning and I know they want to be supportive, but nothing made me feel like a failure faster than hearing that question Every. Single. Time. I spoke to any of them.

        • Rana said:

          This. So much this.

      • I’d fast-tracked my degree a few years ago and so I graduated about 4 months ahead of many of my classmates. When I came back for a guest lecture thing a few weeks in one of my fellow students said “so, got any leads?” No. No, I don’t. Nor am I a detective and you’re not the victim’s girlfriend seeking justice.

  15. Lily R said:

    I second the advice to just act like they asked “what do you do for fun?” or (my current go-to small-talk) “what’ve you been up to lately?” I don’t love answering these questions either, but I can usually talk about something I’ve read recently. Or, I kid you not, the weather – There’s a reason it’s a classic.

    Unless they are pretty rude or work-focused, they won’t even notice you side-stepped the employment question, much less push. If they do push, I sometimes follow up with “you really want to talk about work? I don’t have much to say there.”

    And definitely agreed to immediately turn it back on them, regardless. Most people are happy to talk about themselves.

    • bostoncandylady said:

      “you really want to talk about work? I don’t have much to say there.”

      Oh, I like that a lot! I’ll have to use that one.

  16. enigmaticblue said:

    As someone who was in between jobs this summer (left my former job because they refused to accommodate my disability, then found a job that would), I would say, “Oh, I’m between jobs right now.” Even if you’re never going to work in a paid position, a lot of people will chalk that up to the crappy economy. Also handy, “I’m working on a novel” (which was true) or “I’m taking some time to reassess.” Following that up immediately with a “And you?” can get the conversation off what you do.

  17. peregrinations said:

    I’m a postdoc associated with 3 labs in 2 departments (soon to be 4/3) plus a government agency, so I go to a lot of work-related parties with other academics and scientists, many of whom I don’t know. Us academics are pretty passionate about what we study and happy to talk about it at length, and don’t always have (=make) a lot of free time for hobbies. Plus in certain circles talking too much about hobbies is still looked down upon by some as “unserious”. That’s all to say that I’m bad about this – my go-to conversation opener is usually “so what do you work on?”

    Twice now I’ve run into a stay-at-home spouse, and both responded with their hobbies: “I’m studying piano,” or “I knit and paint.” It led us into an interesting (and hopefully not awkward or uncomfortable) discussion of their hobbies. But I’m working on coming up with a new opener; I’ll be watching here for ideas!

  18. I’m out of a job because we had to move for my husband’s job and it is slow going to find one for me…

    I usually deflect to what I actually enjoy *doing*. I know “What do you do?” *means* what’s your career, but that’s not all we do, is it? In fact, that might not even be the most interesting thing the average person does. What I *do* is watch Doctor Who and knit weird things and write short stories. That’s what I do.

  19. uuuuuuuuuuuh said:

    Usually I just say something about ‘figuring things out” and change the subject; when I’m talking to someone though I usually ask “what are you up to these days”, which can mean work or school if they want to talk about it and their new knitting project if they don’t.

    • I also use “what are you up to these days” — “what do you do” has always struck me as a weirdly limiting question. I do a lot of things, including work, but work is not the sum total of my existence. Sometimes I’d rather tell you about the TV show I’m marathoning, or the vacation I just took, or my roommate’s new cat, or whatever else. “What are you up to” is a way more open-ended conversation starter, which means I can have more interesting conversations.

  20. Tastycakes said:

    I haven’t been in the LW’s position, but an easy answer might be: “I’m unemployed right now, and I volunteer at the animal shelter/knit famous monuments/make cheese/whatever for fun.” They don’t need to know that “right now” is not strictly accurate. Most people should take the hint and ask you more about cheesemaking instead of probing questions about your unemployment, but anyone who doesn’t warrants the “that’s awfully personal, but tell me about your hobbies”/”I’d rather not get into it, but what do you like about goatherding??”/polite brush-off +subject change of your choice.

    • sprocketwrench59 said:

      This is what I do. “I’m not working right now, but I just [joined a marching band/learned how to make pickles/ watched this awesome movie]. What have you been up to lately?”

  21. wonderbink said:

    It’s a frustrating question to get when you’re unemployed for any reason. My stock answer, if I think they can handle it, is “I write dirty books.” (Sometimes followed with “…aaaand I look for a proper job in between.” to keep the door open for any potential networking I can do.) If I don’t think they can handle it, “I’m between situations right now” works well.

  22. CleverNamePending said:

    I’ve been unemployed for a few reasons at different times, my health being one. I’ve said what I would have been doing if I were working, “Oh, I’m a food wizard,” and if they pressed where I worked I could give the almost truth of “I really only do some super small scale catering for friends and family right now.” They didn’t need to know that meant I did my grandmother’s baking for her because that was all I could handle. Otherwise I’d list a hobby, or say something to the effect of “taking care of my grandparents mostly.” I felt the sting of the question less on “what do you do to make money?” and more “what are you doing to be productive?” which still sucks and is a jerk thing to ask, but helped me consider how I wanted to answer the question. If I didn’t answer with a job people usually got the hint that I wasn’t working and ran with it.

    What kills me now is when people ask me what I do with “all my free time” since due to my health I can only work part-time. The question its self would be ok if it didn’t always come from people who were already being kind of jerks about my health to start with and didn’t feel like a trap.

    • Gah! It comes from a horrible lack of understanding of disability. I have less free time now that I can’t work at all due to being badly disabled. I spend so much of my time on self-care. And it takes so much time because I am disabled. And unlike all of my past jobs ever, I do not get any time off whatsoever. I have to work on taking care of myself in tiring ways and being ill every single day – no holidays, no weekends. I don’t get to take a two week vacation where I’m healthy or get to spend a leisurely Sunday not being sick. It’s a 24-7 thing. Sure, I have better days and worse days. I have some periods of being a bit better and some periods of awful. But I have zero time when I am not busy being ill. If you knew somebody were off of work for several days because of a bad illness and had been in bed with a fever, would you ask them, “So, how did you enjoy all that free time?”

      Honestly, I often look at it like this, I am a full time carer for a disabled person. Unfortunately, I have to spend my pay from my full-time carer position on having a full-time carer, because I am disabled. So, it’s not very profitable, but it really doesn’t lead to much free time.

      Didn’t most people learn in childhood that as nice as it is to get to skip the day of school, it’s actually often more enjoyable to go to school than to be sick enough to not have to? And when you’re not sick, you at least get to go home from school and have some time when you’re neither at school nor sick, while being sick isn’t guaranteed to clear up just because it’s after school hours.

      • Libris said:

        Somewhat off-topic, I realise, but:

        If you knew somebody were off of work for several days because of a bad illness and had been in bed with a fever, would you ask them, “So, how did you enjoy all that free time?”

        used to be a thing when I was growing up, and I hadn’t really realised how fucked up that dynamic was, so thanks for pointing it out.

      • ashbet said:

        “Honestly, I often look at it like this, I am a full time carer for a disabled person. Unfortunately, I have to spend my pay from my full-time carer position on having a full-time carer, because I am disabled. So, it’s not very profitable, but it really doesn’t lead to much free time.”

        That is an AMAZING way to put it. And far too accurate!

        I do think that a lot of people (specifically: my mother) really have no idea how much *work* it is, dealing with a full-time disability. There are no weekends or holidays, you don’t have to stop dealing with the disability when 5pm rolls around, your sleep and quality of life are affected, and anything you do in your “leisure time” still involves maneuvering around your disability and the effects it has on your pain level/exhaustion/concentration/ability to communicate/etc.

        I’m disabled, after working for many years, and the “What do you do?” question really gets to me. I *was* a legal secretary and office manager, and for a long time, my answer was “I’m an artist” . . . but my disability has affected my hands more and more over the last ten years, so I don’t feel like that’s an honest answer anymore (and it brings up a painful subject — I miss making art with a ferocious passion, and I still do everything I can to be creative, but some avenues are permanently shut off for me.)

        I also care for my daughter, who has the same disease (and was affected more severely at a younger age — i wasn’t diagnosed until well after she was born, but she had to deal with heart damage in her teens), so I have the non-paying job of being a caretaker for myself, plus the non-paying job of being a caretaker for my child. (She’s a young adult now, and does as much as she can on her own, but wrangling insurance/prescriptions/Medicare/etc. is something I’m good at, so I handle that responsibility, as well as making sure she has rides to all of her appointments.)

        My response to “What do you do?” is often “I’m a housecat,” because it amuses me to say it. But I’ll often say “I was a legal secretary, but I’m not working now for health reasons. I’m really into [_hobby_] right now, though.”

        Our disability is invisible when I’m capable of not using my wheelchair (for most indoor social situations that don’t require much walking, I leave the chair in the car), and I’ve gotten some prying/judging comments (a doctor recently said “But you’re only 39! You don’t plan on being on disability for the REST OF YOUR LIFE, do you??” . . . well, unless a medical miracle occurs, yes, I actually do plan that, thanks. Also, you’re a GYN and not an expert on my condition, so maybe STFU?)

        I do really like “What have you been up to lately?” as a much-less-loaded way of starting small talk or dealing with introductions (which make me feel awkward, too, so I’m totally okay if we can take some of the discomfort out of the initial exchange.)

  23. It doesn’t come up as much as it used to, because I meet fewer new people, but what I have said in the past is:

    I’m a [my profession] and a martial artist in [my martial art] and I knit sweaters. A lot.

    In other words I state my interests.

    When I ask total strangers I try to say something like “what have you been up to recently?” That’s pretty open ended

  24. SpinachInquisition said:

    Can’t believe I’m going to quote some Miss Manners here, but she has my favorite response to ANY rude or uncomfortable question (like when they WON’T let it go): “Why do you ask?”
    I’ve used it and it typically shuts down that convo ASAP.

    • Karyn said:

      MIss Manners should be quoted whenever possible. She was a badass.

      • Private Editor said:

        Oh my god, I saw “was” and was all set to start rending my garments and wailing in grief and rubbing ashes in my hair, but thankfully, Judith Martin is still among us. Because she seriously is a badass and the world will be a colder, less courteous, much less sarcastic place when she passes, and I will haz a sad.

        • cicatricella said:

          thank goodness. I was a bit worried for a moment there.

      • quixotess said:

        Was??? She’s still alive and kicking!

    • Kerry said:

      I agree with this if it’s something obviously inappropriate, but I think there are enough people who use “What do you do?” as a common fallback small-talk conversation opener that immediately shutting it down is also a bit rude. Which is not to say that it *should* be a common fallback question, but I can totally picture myself meeting someone new at a party, flailing around trying to figure out how to talk to them and asking that question, and if they responded with “why do you ask?” I’d probably panic and mumble something and run to the bar and try not to talk to them again. I didn’t get the sense that’s the reaction the OP is hoping for.

      • twomoogles said:

        Yeah I agree. I don’t think it’s the best question but it’s also suggested as a good thing to do for those of us who aren’t great with small-talk. Also as I see above just about every suggested alternate, like “what’s your story” or “what do you love” *also* has people who really hate it. I’m not sure if there is a good alternate or what it would be, though.

        But I think “why do you ask?” should be reserved for things like “oh, you don’t have kids? Why not?” or suchlike, personally. I think that in most situations redirecting is better than shutting down unless you *want* the person to go away and not talk to you.

        • slfisher said:

          Agreed. “What do you do” is a common enough smalltalk question that it really warrants coming up with an answer for it, not finding a way to shut it down, or it’s going to be difficult to meet new folks. And who knows, maybe the person you’re meeting actually can help with the job hunt. I was reading that it’s your “edge” acquaintances, the ones you don’t know so well, who are more likely to be able to help you find a job than the ones you know well.

      • Andraya said:

        Not the LW, but IF I were in a situation where I already dodged the question by answering with my hobbies, and the person followed up with getting really direct about what I do for money and refused to let it go (as some people do), I might really like it if I managed to come up with something that caused them to run off and not talk to me again. So while I wouldn’t use “why do you ask?” right away, I love it as a way to deal with the people who insist that they just HAVE to know what I do that gets me paid. They might think I’m rude for it, but I think they’re rude for pestering me about work, so it all evens out.

        • Lee said:

          Yes, this. The “Why do you ask” response is for (1) things that are really none of their goddamn business in the first place and (2) people who respond to an initial attempt to deflect the question by being pushy about it.

    • This works until the person guilelessly responds, “Oh, I was just curious!” I was on the other side of a metal detector the last time this maneuver failed on me so I was able to grumble “Ah” and move on, but turns out there are people who can evade the judo flip.

      • “Oh, I never satisfy curiosity” is my favorite response to that one.

      • Jorge said:

        In my culture, the “why do you ask?” reply is also part of the small talk. The expected answer is “just to talk/know”, although if there’s a specific reason, it should be explicited.
        Rather than “what do you do?”, the traditional (but now, sadly fell out of fashion) question was “whose child are you being?”.

        A good ice-breaker mini-convo could be something like:
        -Whose son are you being?
        -Why do you want to know?
        -Just to talk, so you see.
        -So they say.
        And then you can proceed to talk 😀

        • BookLady said:

          …may I ask what “whose child are you being” means? Is this Biblical? I am confused.

          • Big Pink Box said:

            I’m pretty sure it’s just “Who are your parents?”. That seems glaringly obvious to me, so I may be missing other possible explanations, but in cultures where family and bloodline are very important indicators, the answer to “Whose child are you?” is a way to get pretty immediate info about a person.

          • Jorge said:

            Yes, it’s basically “who are your parents?”, but it’s purpousefully say in a roundabout and convoluted manner. I tried to somehow translate that convolutedness. There are nicknames that come down in family names and those can be an appropriate answer. Knowing the family you belong to, and the village/parish where you come from are very quick ways to identify a person, as Big Pink Box said.
            But we have a tradition of being not too direct when talking, hehe.
            Of course, these cultural quirks are being lost quickly, as of lately, and only get kept in the countryside.

    • wow, that is awesome.

    • My final fallback if someone will just NOT let go of an inappropriate line of questioning is “That’s true.” If said with a smile it comes off like “hee hee, we’re all just joking around here, let’s joke about something else!” If said with a deadpan stare it comes off like “You’re not getting anywhere with this. Give up now.”

      “I’m just curious!”
      “That’s true.”

      “You still haven’t answered my question!”
      “That’s true.”

      “Oh look, Darcy’s trying to change the subject!”
      “That’s true.”

      • Lee said:

        Another good response if things have gotten to that point is a very blunt, “Establish your need to know.”

        A more-humorous version of that is my go-to when people ask me about my middle name (I hate it and only use my initial): “That’s classified on a need-to-know basis.” Follow-up, if they push, is, “YOU don’t need to know.”

  25. quirkify said:

    For those looking for new openers, may I offer my go-to? “So, what do you like to do when you’re not at [WHATEVER WE’RE AT RIGHT NOW]?” (…at one of Stephanie’s parties, at this bar, at the mini-golf course, etc) Some people, who are really used to work-related openers, get thrown, and say, “You mean, like, what do I do for work?” to which I’ll respond, “Sure, if you want.” Only a small variation, I know, but mostly people respond however they want, which is really nice.

    • misspiggy said:

      Brilliant.

    • I really like this variation, and plan to use it from now on.

      I’ve only fairly recently been made explicitly aware of why “what do you do?” is such a (negatively) loaded question — though it’s one I, in my current/extended state of unemployment, also hate answering! — and now I intend to never ask it again. Up till now, though, I hadn’t found an alternative that I felt comfortable using. I have social anxiety issues at the best of times, and other variations always felt uncomfortable (weird/stilted/too broad/overly personal) to me, but I can definitely see myself using this one.

      Best of luck to the LW in finding a comfortable response to uncomfortable questions.

    • That’s a great one. I read the subtext is “if you are defined by or want to be defined by your work, go for it, but many people find meaning outside of work” I have been cranky about this “so what do you do?” question pretty much since my last year of university. I know people want to find some handle on your identity, but it’s annoying how much emphasis Americans place on jobs. I have switched to “so where did you grow up?” as a get to know someone opener.

  26. betp said:

    I loathe and detest small talk because I’m so hardcore introverted that it takes me a legit several minutes to cotton on to the fact that this is just a symbolic social dance we do. “How are you?” doesn’t mean “How are you?” in Smalltalkville, it means “Begin speaking cordially; feign interest in my shenanigans and goings-on.” Which is absurd to me. Why would you say a thing to someone if you don’t have anything to say to them? Better yet, why would you say something meaningless instead of what’s really on your mind? Get to the point: ask me why my hair looks so lopsided and huge today. It’s because I’m part bush, on my mom’s side.

    But that’s neither here nor there. My recent thing was referring to the school I had to drop out of for health reasons: “I’m actually an art student right now.” Technically, I’m still enrolled. If pressed for details, I can also add “I had to take a break for fiscal reasons, but I hope to get back in there within the year.” and then I nod warmly at them like we’re both absorbing this wonderful information; they usually respond to my body language and smile and go “Ohhh, that’s cool,” and then offer what they’re doing, which is usually vastly more impressive than what I’m doing.

    Now that I have a full time job, I have an answer, but it’s just working in retail, and most of my peers are just approaching their college graduation, so that’s depressing. That’s why I lie to their horrible, successful faces. OH, YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED TO THE LOVE OF YOUR LIFE IN CANCUN? THAT’S GREAT. CONGRATULATIONS.

    • Myrin said:

      Unrelated to this post, but are you the same betp who writes “Do You Know” on Tumblr?

      [Mod note: slightly edited by CA, since this IS unrelated to the post.]

      • betp said:

        OH my goD yes i am holy shit. sorry mods. sorry LW. sorry world

    • Cate said:

      “I will get my one minute of small talk, damn it! And it will be casual! And it will be amicable!”

    • Mcat said:

      FWIW, I tend to treat “how are you” as “I would like to converse with you, please select your desired intimacy level / conversational topic.” Most people are totally willing to jump into a more personal conversation* if I choose to go there, but it’s also very easy to keep things at a distance if I don’t particularly want to bare my soul.

      *Once upon a time, I introduced Friend A to Friend B. A asked, somewhat jokingly, “So what are your hopes and dreams?” and B straight-up told him. It was hilarious and glorious and they ended up having a really nice conversation.

    • kazerniel said:

      I can relate, coming from another country I always feel so awkward when people here in the UK ask “How are you?” and not actually expect an answer. Why do they ask it then… They could just say “Nice to see you.” or something that doesn’t sound like a request to start to talk about my day when we should be talking about relevant stuff like work/volunteering/etc.

      For this reason, though I feel a little bit rude for doing it, I never ask my counsellor how is she, because I wouldn’t really want to get deeper in the topic in the time I’m paying for, but asking how she is while I don’t actually want to talk about it sounds even ruder.

      • kazerniel said:

        *I mean not actually expect to hear the real answer

  27. Karyn said:

    Just after I’d finished grad school, but before I’d found a paying gig, someone asked me that while at a party. I replied, “Flirt with beautiful women.”

    She followed up with, “They pay you for that?”

    I said, “They should.”

    • Anothermous said:

      That’s AMAZING.

    • Taiga said:

      High-fiving you across the interwebs.

    • Rattakin said:

      Does that come with dental?

    • peeta8 said:

      Best answer ever!

      I am nonemployed (I think “unemployed” sounds like I’m job-hunting, which I’m not). I treat “what do you do?” as the same question as “tell me something about you!” Which is still a hard question, so before that sort of mingling event, I try to cue something up mentally… “Right now I’m obsessed with doom jazz, and I’m reading a lot of William Gibson.”

      I love the suggestions on what if they drill down. Aw, you don’t really want to talk about work, do you? When I did have a paying gig, I said “that is just a job-job, I like to leave it at the office.”

      • When I did have a paying gig, I said “that is just a job-job, I like to leave it at the office.”

        I love this, and may have to steal it!

      • Fish said:

        fun-employed is a term my social group uses for “intentionally not employed”, which has a nice positive spin if its the employment state you want. 🙂 (and avoids the “how’s the job search going?” type questions. “didn’t you hear the ‘fun’ part of funemployed? Job searches suck!”)

        • dkf said:

          “job srarches suck ;)” implies that those stupid misguided sheeple who still do it are just not enlightened enough compared to you, instead of being in a greater need of money. Please do not forget the class angle.

          • Huh — that’s totally not how I heard it. As one of the many working stiffs here, I took it as relating to level of fun. Job searches massively suck. They are miserable and hard and chip away at self-esteem and I hate them.

    • Canomia said:

      If someone said that to me I’d be uncomfortable and think that person was kind of a creep.

      Probebly not your intention but I wanted to offer another perspective, especially since so many people seem to like your anwser.

      • TO_Ont said:

        That was my thought too – though I guess context and tone are everything. If said in the wrong situation or in the wrong tone, though, it could easily sound pretty creepy.

  28. To anyone who’s never tried it, but is blandly suggesting saying, “I’m disabled/I’m on disability,” as a conversation-stopper, um, that’s a very sweet thought, but… I don’t think you should suggest it to others unless you’ve done it yourself.

    Pulling out the D-word in conversation with a stranger may leave you open to a veritable flood of interrogation and micro-aggression. “You’re disabled? How are you disabled? You don’t look sick! Disabled people are just lazy. My wife’s brother’s roommate was disabled but i saw him doing dishes once and it was very INSPIRATIONAL. Have you thought of just trying harder? Let me tell you about crystal healing! Some disabilities are self-diagnosed and I think that’s bullshit. I THINK YOU’RE VERY BRAVE.”

    So like, props to everyone who doesn’t respond in that way, but as a disabled person, I would rather eat a platter of brussels sprouts than tell some nice person at a party that I’m ~disabled~ because the odds that I’ll soon be under a raincloud of ableist nonsense are far too high. I know some people who do it because they’re willing to defend against any follow-up guff, but I don’t have the spoons for it.

    • Sunshine said:

      Agree 100%. I’m also disabled (invisible illness), and it’s amazing how many people will dig into your disability as if that’s an open topic. I’ve had MANY people/ strangers even ask super personal questions about how as a single parent I can afford to support myself and my 3 kids on my disability payment, etc, etc. I mean seriously, who would even think to ask an able-bodied person that same question? Anyway, I have tried the Miss Manners thing in the past “Why do you ask?” but amazingly some people have not taken the hint and instead responded, “Im just curious, [and then repeat their overly-nosy question].” They just do not care about politeness and social convention and refuse to give up. So now, my best responses are usually: a) I take care of my 3 kids, or b) (to any question I don’t want to answer, and said with a smile) “oh, don’t make me talk about that, I don’t want to think about it.” And then as others have said, turn the questions around to them.

    • Once upon a time I would have argued that you should just say you’re on disability. If a few people are jerks about it, who cares! Don’t let the haters get you down!

      Just being close to someone with a serious health problem made me understand. Sometimes you’re ready and willing to fight the good fight, and sometimes you’re not in the mood to explain to a stranger why, no, he really doesn’t just need to “try harder,” and it’s great that your brother-in-law’s second cousin got better after practicing meditation and positive thinking, but this isn’t going to cure every ailing human.

      Most people are fine. Most people will follow your lead and change the subject if you signal that you don’t want to delve into details. The ones who don’t, though, are SO. GODDAMN. PERSISTENT. And why wouldn’t they be? The sick person’s well-being is on the line! The sick person would get better and be happy if the sick person just did everything they said!

      • ashbet said:

        ^^^^THIS, so hard. People get so creepy and invasive about disability, they want you to lay your medical history bare for their examination and approval/disapproval, and they want to MAKE SUGGESTIONS. Any attempt to deflect these is met with an incredulous “Don’t you want to get better?”

        ARGH — yes, I would love to make a full recovery and never be disabled again , but unless you’re offering a full gene-cleaning service, this illness that I was born with, and that I’ll eventually die with, isn’t going anywhere in the meanwhile.

        I’m often OK with saying that I’m disabled/on disability . . . but there are times when I’m NOT up to having the Ehlers-Danlos/Trigeminal Neuralgia 101 conversation, or dealing with “But you’re so young! You don’t look sick! Surely you can find a job that accommodates your disabilities!”

        Fighting the good fight is all well and good, when you have the spoons for it. But part of being disabled is living with a lack of spoons, a lot of the time, and nobody should be forced to engage in this particular social dance, just for the sake of “not being ashamed of their disability.” I’m not ashamed, I’m sick and I’m tired and I’m not in the mood sometimes, and that should be just as okay as disclosing all my medical details to a snoopy/”helpful”/curious person.

    • Ruth said:

      Do you mind me asking – if you did just say “I’m disabled,” what would be an appropriate response from the other person? As I’m thinking about this, my first instinct would be to say “I’m so sorry,” but that’s because the ablism put in my brain from society works faster than anything else. So I’m trying to think of what to say that would be graceful and change the subject without it also seeming like I’m so horrified by disability that I want to talk about absolutely anything else ASAP.

      Based on what I’ve read in these comments, it seems like “oh, so what do you do for fun?” would be appropriate – any thoughts?

      • I think a good response if you’re in a question-asking culture to use a different small talk question. You got your answer, it doesn’t lead to good conversation, so now you try another approach. “Oh, so do you have any hobbies?” or some such.

        I’m kind of guessing here, because I’m not from a question-asking culture in the first place, so I wouldn’t have asked somebody what they did to get into this scenario generally. The fact that asking questions doesn’t tell you what other people actually want to talk about or like talking about is part of why I grew up viewing them as generally nosy. But if you are in a question asking culture, you’ll seem like you don’t care about other people if you don’t ask them. So, I think asking about hobbies or interests is probably a valid switch in a question-asking culture. And I can’t think of any of the obnoxious implications that some people make that either they are entitled to judge if you are truly disabled, or they can give you better medical advice after just meeting you than you have from personal experience and expert info from doctors, or that not working makes you a less worthy person or any of that crap, which is what you really want to avoid. Plus, unless you truly do enjoy hearing about medical details, I will consider prying an invitation to tell disturbing medical details that make many people wince just thinking about them. I figure people who push deserve it. “Oh, you want to hear more, let me tell you about the most disturbing medical procedure I ever had…” Trust me, you probably don’t want to steer the conversation there.

      • Sunshine said:

        Speaking for myself personally, Id be fine with someone saying “oh I’m so sorry” if I say I’m disabled. But I can see why others might not be ok with that. Personally, I really don’t have an issue talking about my disability, as long as I know the person I’m speaking with is non-judgmental and is genuinely interested (vs sees me as a curiosity or is just after the entertainment factor). The most important thing for someone who is not used to talking with a disabled person is to keep things open and refrain from any opinions — even if you think they’re harmless they may not be to the person, i.e., “but you look great”, “I can’t even tell you’re disabled”, etc, etc.

      • This is just me, but–imagine an answer that would be, to you, relatively ordinary but a but dull or unsatisfying. My mental referent for this is “I’m an accountant”–clearly this is the person’s chosen profession and it makes a good living and hey, some people really dig it, but it’s not what I would imagine as the epitome of bliss.

        Answer as though being disabled is being an [accountant]–politely, “Oh I see,” class answer, but leaving room for them to say either, “It’s a drag, I’d love to make comic books but accounting is a safe profession,” or “It’s a total blast; I love the business I work for and my coworkers are awesome.”

        Because if someone’s actually willing to talk about it, it’s not something you immediately need to recover from as though they’d said something shameful. There are all kinds of perspectives on it.

        I, for example, hope to be on disability benefits soon. I’m excited because I’ve spent years pushing myself past my limits to earn a living, and although the drop in my income will be hard I’m excited to have time where my only objective is to look after myself. It’s possible to have a very cheerful conversation about that.

      • Nonny Blackthorne said:

        I personally… ergh. I would be uncomfortable with someone saying “I’m so sorry”, because, I’ve been disabled for a decade now, and it’s just part of my life. There’s nothing to be sorry about, and if I’ve just met someone, I’m likely to be peeved.

        I *do* think — “Oh, okay, well, what do you like to do for fun?” is a good subject-changer. Don’t make a big deal of the disability, just move on to something else. Off hand, I wouldn’t be bothered by a question about hobbies, or games, or pets (although not everyone is a pet person, but the same can be said of the other things), but I would personally be very bothered by an “I’m sorry” from a random person I haven’t met and now have to spend space with in a social setting where I’m probably on edge in the first place. (As I have social anxiety and thus, social things are very difficult for me.)

        Hope this is helpful. Feel free to ask for any clarifications. 🙂

        • ashbet said:

          *waves at Nonny* 😀

          I tend to shrug and say “Eh, it sucks, but what can you do? I make the best of it, and I’ve found some non-work activities that I’m passionate about, like [_blank_]”, if someone says “I’m sorry,” in response to “I’m disabled.”

          (FWIW, I *am* sorry that my health has prevented me from following the career path that I’d hoped for, and it DOES suck for me — as you know, but a stranger wouldn’t — so I’m comfortable saying it.)

          OTOH, if I had a disability that sometimes has a major sense of identity associated with it, like being capital-D Deaf, I can see “I’m sorry” as being an offensive statement.

          To me, the difference is whether the disabled person is able to continue on their hoped-for life path, or whether they’ve been sidelined. If someone is d/Deaf and is working in their dream profession, there’s no need to say “I’m sorry” for the disability that they live with. If someone has EDS or fibro or CFS and has had to give up on many dreams because their body is failing them, and they live with daily pain, “I’m sorry” is a perfectly reasonable response, to my thoughts.

          Other people may feel differently, and that’s okay. (To me, an automatic “I’m sorry” response reads as both “I’m sorry that you have to deal with this disability, and that you’ve had to make major life changes because of it,” and “I’m sorry that I asked a question that wound up being insensitive.” YMMV.)

      • slfisher said:

        I don’t like “what do you do fir fun” because it promotes the idea that work isn’t fun. I also have a pretty strange idea of”fun” to some people. 🙂

        • Jake said:

          I disagree. If you find your work fun, there’s nothing wrong with answering ‘what do you do for fun?’ with ‘I keep track of all the chocolate teapots in the warehouse, and fill orders as they come in. It’s a total blast!’ But if your work _isn’t_ particularly fun for you, you can answer with something else.

      • TO_Ont said:

        “So I’m trying to think of what to say that would be graceful and change the subject without it also seeming like I’m so horrified by disability that I want to talk about absolutely anything else ASAP.”

        Yeah, that’s one thing I think I’d worry about if someone told me they were disabled and I immediately changed the subject. I have met people who did feel like talking about some aspects of a disability or health issue, even in a casual situation… And regardless, I don’t want to make anyone feel like they have to hide it or that I think it’s shameful or something. I also think I might find myself automatically asking a follow-up question ‘to be polite and show an interest’, and only after the fact realizing they didn’t want to talk about it.

        How does one convey ‘feel free to talk more about that if you want but by no means do I want to push you if that’s not what you feel like talking about?’ 🙂

        • I think trying to convey, I’m open to discussing that but don’t want to push, regardless of the topic, is expert level conversational skills, and while not that hard to do in more in-depth conversations or with someone you know better, a bit beyond the scope of small talk. I bet there are some people who can pull it off, but I think it’s a touch ambitious.

          And with disability, it’s really tricky. Disability is a huge category, so it varies a lot from case to case. But talking about it more often means talking about medical details, which is usually not considered a good small talk category. And it’s also a bit tricky for someone like me, because if you seem good-natured, I’m trying to determine whether you are merely trying to be polite and show interest, in which case I’d rather change the subject (since my particular details are complex, and I cannot give you quick, simple answers), are being pushy (in which case I need to think about my boundaries before you start doing something that really bothers me), or are honestly, legitimately curious (in which case, I’m fine giving you information if you’ll listen reasonably and sincerely want to know). But that’s a tough thing to determine sometimes, especially with someone I’ve just met. So, it’s often better to just switch topics, and if we get to know each other, it can circle back around to it.

          Since it sounds like your interest is to be polite and treat people well (which is awesome), I think a simple acceptance and topic shift while not acting disturbed or freaked out or scared or disgusted or anything else weird will probably be taken well by most people. Just continuing to treat the person in front of you like a person and with the same level of respect as before actually goes a long way. I know that probably sounds like a low bar, but really, that’s a lot of what I’m looking for. When I talk about mentioning disability to screen people, it’s not some tricky test. I’m just trying to weed out the people who are going to view me as less human or less worthy of respect. I don’t even mind so much if somebody is clearly quite surprised and uncomfortable, so long as they don’t follow it up with treating me as less human over it. And I think a lot of people with disabilities are so used to the range of bad responses that if you clearly are trying to be respectful and if you clearly are not viewing it as a reason to treat somebody worse, most people will be pretty okay with how you react. Honestly, if I list the sort of reactions I’m hoping not to get, I’m fairly sure I’d be listing a bunch of things most readers here wouldn’t ever even have thought of doing, because so many of them are just so clearly awful that they wouldn’t even come to your mind.

          • Lee said:

            My response to someone telling me they’re disabled would probably be something along the lines of a vaguely-sympathetic noise and “That sucks,” followed by a topic change. (In a more-formal setting, I’d probably say “That’s rough” instead.) Does that work as an indicator for “I’m expressing empathy and then moving on because I don’t want to be nosy”?

          • wordiest said:

            In response to Lee, but I can’t nest…
            I think that’s fine for some people with disabilities. It works well for anyone who has mentioned working with doctors or trying to get better. It’s work fine on me and many people like me. I became disabled in my twenties and am probably best described as chronically ill. I have a clear concept of who I am when not disabled – that’s a meaningful concept and still me. But I’d be careful about just saying that sucks. That’s rough is a bit better. But disability is a big category, even just limiting it to people who can’t work because they are disabled. And within that category are people who have been disabled for all or almost all of their lives. It includes people with disabilities where if they didn’t have them, they wouldn’t be themselves. There is no concept of them without the disability, just someone kind of like them who isn’t them. For people in that circumstance, saying the disability sucks is much more like saying that their life sucks or that they suck. Not everyone will interpret it that way, but it’s something I’d want to be careful about, especially when you know so little about someone you just met. It’s also an unfortunate truth that many disabled people get a lot of negative messages about their lives having less worth, and people who have been disabled all of their lives have had to put up with a lot of such messages, even if only a small minority of people do that. You get people stating that people shouldn’t have been born. It can create a lot of sore spots, where you want to make sure that that isn’t the message you are sending at all. It’s also hard for me to really judge the reactions of other people and people in different circumstances. I’m kind of guessing based on stuff I’ve read in disability communities I used to hang out in, but it’d be even better if several people with more diverse disabilities and views of their disabilities chimed in. For me, becoming disabled in adulthood threw my life off the path I wanted it on. And that’s a very different experience of disability than growing up with it always being part of your life, your self, and your plans.

      • Beth B said:

        I’ve never been disabled, so big grain of salt here. But with any kind of response that shuts down a small talk inquiry — “I’m on disability,” “Actually I’m between jobs right now,” “No, I missed that event too,” etc etc — my default response is “Fair enough!” followed immediately by a subject change (or following the other person’s subject change.) Or “ah, gotcha,” or something, if that works for you.

        • wordiest said:

          Personally, I’d be pretty pleased with getting that response. I like how it makes me feel like that’s a legitimate response and I’m not being viewed as some weird alien being for being on disability.

    • That’s true. I do not suggest it as a conversation stopper. It’s only good as a person filter. Because it will help you weed out people you do not want to keep hanging out with. I had commented about how it has led to awkwardness and somebody not wanting to talk to me, which I felt was pretty obnoxious, but a good people filter. But it does also have the failure state of essentially being asked to prove that you are disabled and “disabled enough”. It can lead to, “tell me your whole medical history which is none of my business” sort of responses. It’s not for use unless you really are up for dealing with the fall-out. But when you are… it really is a good, quick way to screen people for certain kinds of traits. It’s a quick way to learn more about the person you’re talking to. It just so often lets you learn really depressing things.

    • Nonny Blackthorne said:

      Another disabled person adding in: I agree with this 100%. Depending on the crowd, I may not mind saying “Oh, I’m disabled”, but there are situations in which that would get awkward very fast, so it’s… really not a great go-to, and to be quite honest, suggesting that is sort of stating the obvious to those of us who are disabled.

    • Not to dig in my heels, but just to explain my thought process a bit more – there are a number of reasons someone could be “on disability” without being disabled. For example, I was technically “on disability” for 5 weeks after I had a baby.

      But I see what you’re saying – for far too many people, “on disability” and “disabled” would imply the same thing.

      • Lee said:

        Not only that, but what you’re talking about is short-term disability leave, which is not at all the same thing. (I used to work for an employee benefits consulting firm. I learned a lot about this stuff.)

  29. I’m on short term disability for dental leave, and I describe myself as a professional dental patient.

  30. How about, “I’m a consultant.”? Then they can ask you what you consult about, and you can explain whatever your interests are. And if they ask you who you consult for, you can say,” A variety of clients.” You aren’t lying, as you may be consulting for yourself.

  31. Jolly said:

    Honestly, for me, I love “what do you do?” and I’m never going to stop asking it, because it gives me the opportunity to learn about other people’s experiences and about how the world around me operates behind the scenes. I don’t want to grade people on how well they are acquiring money or judge whether they’re contributing enough to society; I’m asking because I like to know what experiences are out there that I’ll never have (since the odds of me having more than a couple of careers in my life are incredibly slim), and I like to know what interests other people, and I like to know how they feel about it, and just ultimately get a glimpse into a life that isn’t my own.

    But I also like to give people an out to avoid talking about any of those things if they don’t want to, which is why I like asking this question.

    I feel like what is being missed here is that “what do you do?” is a question that gives the other person a huge out if they don’t want to Get Down To It in the conversation, because there is no wrong answer. “Well, recently I started volunteering at the animal shelter, and I’ve really been enjoying it” “I’m a barista, what about you?” “I’m a trapeze artist, but lately I’ve been exploring more academic modes of performance art” “I’m not working right now, but I love to read – I just finished [book]” “I used to be a lawyer, but I was recently disbarred” are all equally valid answers to this question. All of these answers are a person telling me something that they do, so they can’t be wrong – the only “wrong” answer you can give in a friendly conversation is one that totally shuts the conversation down (unless your intent isn’t to totally shut the conversation down, in which case, it is just the right answer).

    People who are kind and have tact will engage you in a conversation that you both are comfortable and interested in contributing to. People who get weird and shitty, pressing you for information that you aren’t freely offering or being combative/badgering? Those people were probably going to embarrass themselves by being a rude asshole whether you’re employed/disabled or not, and the acceptable response to people like that is a blank stare, then turning your back on them and walking away without another word. I think it’s wise to have some stock hobbies up your sleeve to discuss, but beyond that, I genuinely believe most people you converse with just want to learn about you. Whether it’s small-talk or big-talk, providing whatever details you feel comfortable with and leaving out what you don’t should generally be a workable strategy that others will respect. If they don’t, then fuck ’em

    • soukup said:

      ***I feel like what is being missed here is that “what do you do?” is a question that gives the other person a huge out ***

      “Missed”? Missed by every single other person who’s commented here? You are the only person who is insisting that we’re all reading this question wrong by assuming it’s about paid work. Please be realistic: language is about a consensus around what a thing means. And the vast majority of English-speakers agree that “What do you do” is a question which is primarily about paid work. You can have different ideas about it if you want, you can intend it in a broader way, but that unspoken intention doesn’t change the fact that when you ask someone that question, they *will* assume you are talking about paid work. And when you ask someone that question who is disabled and/or unemployed, they will likely have a very awkward and umcomfortable moment while they struggle to decide what strategy they’re going to use to evade or deflect it. If there’s something broader you’d like to ask, and you want people to understand what you’re asking, then you need to find another way to phrase it, because “What do you do” is not a comfortable question for a lot of us.

      It’s great that you’re not a judgemental person. But a person who has just met you has no way of knowing that, and it is completely unreasonable of you to expect that brand-new acqaintance to feel safe and comfortable enough with you to open up about personal topics like their disability or their unemployment. And whether you like it or not, asking “What do you do” is asking about both of those things — if that is what you say, that is what people will believe you are asking about.

      Also, digging in your heels and insisting on continuing to ask a question which makes a lot of people feel shitty and awkward means that you care more about being right about this than you do about making disabled/unemployed people feel comfortable and emotionally safe around you. A little consideration and kindness doesn’t cost you anything.

      • Kerry said:

        And the vast majority of English-speakers agree that “What do you do” is a question which is primarily about paid work.

        I also don’t agree with this, FWIW. I didn’t take Jolly’s comment as meaning “you’re missing this and you’re a bad person for doing that”, but more like “hey, look, OP, this question doesn’t have to go directly to the Let’s Talk About My Disability! place, here are some other options!”

        • soukup said:

          I don’t think Jolly was trying to scold us for reading the question wrong amongst ourselves…but they definitely don’t seem to care about what the predictable consequences of their choice to continue using this phrasing will be. If Jolly continues to behave the way they have been (and that’s clearly their decision), they’ll be making disabled and unemployed people feel shitty and awkward, and Jolly just doesn’t seem to care about that. The whole comment has a really gross, entitled tone to it of “Aw, c’mon guys, you know I’m just making small talk! Why do you all have to be such haters? Calm down, it’s not that big a deal!” (Read: I don’t have a disability and have never been unemployed for an extended period of time, so I don’t understand why this is so important to you, and I don’t care enough about your discomfort to educate myself, and in my opinion you really need to lighten up.”)

          It’s just…this is *such* an incredibly small thing. It would take less effort for Jolly to change their behaviour than it did for them to type the comment. This is just so perfectly representative of the ways in which people who have privilege so frequently just flat-out *don’t care* about the struggles people face who don’t have it.

          • Kerry said:

            It didn’t read that way to me, I think because the focus of the post is on ‘how do I respond to this question’ not ‘what sort of questions should I ask for small talk’, and the comment has some really good advice for the OP, especially this:

            People who are kind and have tact will engage you in a conversation that you both are comfortable and interested in contributing to. … I think it’s wise to have some stock hobbies up your sleeve to discuss, but beyond that, I genuinely believe most people you converse with just want to learn about you. Whether it’s small-talk or big-talk, providing whatever details you feel comfortable with and leaving out what you don’t should generally be a workable strategy that others will respect.

          • Jolly said:

            If this were a question on a parenting/women’s issues/etc. site about how, as an infertile-and-trying-to-conceive person, you were hitting hurdles coming up with an answer to/not feeling upset by basic, non-prying questions about your parental status that might come up in casual conversation, I would expect the comments section to have a lot of people who had dealt with similar feelings giving voice to their own frustration with the same issue, and offer advice about how they have best managed that situation when it arises, just like most of the replies to this post do.

            What I wouldn’t expect is people declaring that enquiring about a basic fact of someone else’s life in a way that is generally well-intentioned and open-ended is presumptuous, rude, or even cruel, due to the possibility that they are talking to someone for whom it will strike a raw nerve.

            I understand that feeling uncomfortable sucks, and especially that having to extract yourself from a conversation where someone is prying, or has an axe to grind and is willfully making you uncomfortable is shitty as hell. Definitely no one deserves that, and the kind of person who approaches a conversation that way ought never to be tolerated.

            And I understand the importance of having spaces to relate to other people going through similar experiences about bad feelings/how to deal with things like this. My intention is not to try to invade a space where disabled people come to relate to each other about the challenges they face.

            But I simply do not agree with the notion that has been brought into this comment page that “what do you do?” is inherently a rude/harmful/bad question, or that it has no place in conversation. Like every other personal question common in small-talk, I ask in the reasonable hope that it doesn’t strike a nerve, apologize and change the subject if the other person becomes upset, and accept whatever information is offered to me as a cue to where the other person would like the conversation to go. I hope that anyone who is getting less than that from a conversation feels empowered to shut it down and find someone better to talk to.

          • (In response to Jolly, but I can’t nest that far): The thing is, I would previously have considered “What do you do?” to be an innocuous conversation-starter, but after hearing a bunch of people say that being asked that question is a big ball of no fun, because they don’t know me and therefore don’t know I won’t be an asshole about it, I’m going to stop asking it. I’ll probably default to “What do you do for fun?” or “What do you like to do?” instead.

            I used to ask people I knew who were looking for work how the job hunt was going. I thought I was being a concerned friend and showing an interest in their lives. But then I saw a discussion — I think it was on this site — where people were talking about how very much they hate being asked that when they’re looking for work, and how it’s anxiety-provoking and stressful. So I stopped asking that.

            This is because I’d rather not cause people anxiety. I’m also dropping “Where are you from?” for the same reason. It’s just not worth it to me, now that I know that it sends a lot of POC into an “Oh God how racist is this conversation about to get” space. You’ve apparently made the opposite decision on “What do you do?” — you enjoy asking the question so much that you don’t particularly care that it makes a non-trivial number of people who are already disadvantaged really uncomfortable. That’s your right. Just be aware that that’s what you’re doing — you’re hearing a bunch of people say “X makes me really uncomfortable because lack of privilege” and responding “Too bad, I’m doing it anyway.”

    • Lee said:

      What you’ve just told me here: “You have not succeeded in educating me as to why this question is so frequently perceived as intrusive and hurtful, so I am going to continue asking it because your hurt is less important than my entitlement.”

      Oh, that’s not what you thought you were saying? Think again.

    • Uhm – that seems more than a bit dismissive of both LW’s problem and many of the other commenters here.

      (If you do decide to make an effort to be pre-emptively considerate of all those people whose lives you want to glimpse, there are several suggestions here for how to do that! I have no idea how attached you are to “I’M NEVER GOING TO STOP ASKING IT” now that you’ve gotten so many glimpses telling you the question is often unwelcome.)

      • slfisher said:

        Okay, but a) many people had issues with the other substitutes as well and b) I don’t think you’re going to be able to convince the whole world to ask a different question, even if you come up with one that doesn’t have at least as many objections as “What do you do?” no matter how much people might agree that it is imperfect.

        Note that LW didn’t ask, “How do I get other people to stop asking me that question?” but “How should I respond to it?” which I think is a more realistic expectation.

        The answers I’ve seen to LW’s question seem to boil down to “Frame it as though the person was politely asking for a general area of mutual conversation, and respond to that in a way that makes you feel comfortable, and if the person pressures you after that in a way that feels uncomfortable, you can call them on it, deflect, or leave the conversation, depending on how you feel at the time.”

        • W.T. said:

          There’s… a pretty big difference between “I don’t like this question personally because [I don’t like being asked about things I haven’t mentioned myself/it makes me feel put on the spot/it feels Too Deep/etc.]” which, while totally valid feelings, are entirely subjective and impossible for the asker to divine, and “this question is near-inherently loaded with classist and ableist connotations,” however? So the fact that some people dislike the “alternative” questions doesn’t mean it’s fine to just keep on keeping on with the one that, again, is inherently alienating for specific populations of marginalized people. Furthermore, just because the whole world isn’t going to stop asking the question doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t make an effort to better learn how to not unintentionally cause discomfort for others?

          Agreed, however, that the community has come up with an excellent list of responses for handling the question when it does come up!

  32. Anothermous said:

    When I was sick and out of work (well, I worked part-time from home but it brought in so little money I might as well have been unemployed) I would usually just pretend the “What do you do?” question ended with “for fun” and talk about my hobbies. If I felt up to it, and felt like shutting down a conversation entirely, I would drop the c-word (I was a cancer patient). That usually shut people up, but I get that as far as debilitating illnesses go cancer is one that the general public tends to respect as serious and people usually don’t start in with the microaggressions when you mention it. Another method I had a lot of success with was “I really prefer not to talk about work when outside of work.” That also tends to be respected.

    My ex’s mother used to be a high-level secretary for Raytheon, and as such she was privy to a lot of classified information she simply *could not* discuss outside of work. She was a MASTER at redirecting conversation. The way she’d do it? Just change the subject. Any question you asked her at work would just be followed up with something like “What did you think of the movie?” “What do you want to have for lunch?” “How’s [school/project/hobby] going for you?” By the time you realized she’d never answered the question, the conversation would have moved so far beyond where it was that no one would back up to repeat the question to her. So you might try just changing the subject entirely!

  33. Fuuma said:

    Okay, HILARIOUS memory–This one time at a meet-and-greet someone caught me in a pizza fueled happy-brain-fart and blindsighted me with the “So what do you do for work?” question. I, in a bout of over-honesty just blurted out “Oh my GOODNESS, I don’t *work*.”

    Obviously I had meant it in a HA, LIKE I AM SO EFFED UP YOU DON’T EVEN know, but it kinda landed like I was just too fancy and work was for middle-class people. And shockingly, one of the people raised half an eyebrow and the subject was dropped immediately! I was surprised and amazed, and ever since, I’ve kept that one in my pocket. If you can pull it off, I’d totally recommend it for when you are in a group of ambitious people who are one-ups-manning each other about how fabulous their jobs are. ONE TIME, and only ONCE has anyone said anything after and it was just “How…?” To which I just ignored and they dropped it.

    For the everyday situation, I usually answer that I am either: a freelancer (because I occasionally sell a crafted thing), a pieceworker (because I do HITs on Mechanical Turk sometimes), or a Private Tutor (cause I help people with statistics questions from time to time). If they press for details or I want to change the subject I just say “It’s complicated, Life it so complicated!” and then change the subject.

    The one thing I want to emphasize, is that YOU ARE NOT LYING. several oters like me suggest you use something you do or have done, but aren’t like, doing 9-5. But no matter what answer you come up with, no matter how rarely you do the thing, you are not lying to them. You are giving them an answer they don’t necessarily expect because your life is complicated and doesn’t fit into a small talk situation. You don’t need to feel guilty for not having a certain kind of life, and when I came to accept that it super helped me with the FEELINGSBOMB of I WILL MAYBE NEVER LIVE THE WORKING PERSON’S LIFE MOOCHER GUILT DISABLED SUCKS AHHHH! that happened everytime someone dropped the “innocent” question of jobs. I hope that’s helpful to you.

    • soukup said:

      That is delightful! *pockets it* Thanks for sharing it!

    • I once asked ‘What are you up to these days?’ of a friend my own age (mid-20s at the time) and got the response ‘I’m retired.’ I have no idea whether or not this was the intention but it shut me right up!

      • therufs said:

        Really! I feel like this would have lead me straight to “SOUND AMAZING, TELL ME ALL YOUR SECRETS.”

        • I was dying to know, but I was just so stunned that I didn’t say anything more than ‘Oh, that sounds nice!’

    • Commander Banana said:

      I LOVE this – I’m imagining this in a Dowager Countess “what is a weekEND?” voice and it’s amazing. I hope I get a chance to say this while I’m wearing huge pearls to clutch in mock horror.

  34. Taiga said:

    If you don’t watch ‘Orange Is The New Black’ then watch it, and when you’re asked the question quote Alex and say “I work for an international drug cartel.” Either they’ll get it or they won’t and you’ll have to explain it, but it doesn’t matter because either way you’ll change the conversation to discussing what TV shows you like.
    Okay that probably won’t work. I second those who say to answer with what you love doing, what ever that is. If they press you for how you MAKE MONEY GODDAMMIT you can answer that’s not how you define yourself. You’re not (random example) a waitress who builds model airplanes, you’re a model airplane builder who waits tables.

  35. sarahcircusnachos said:

    Various answers I have used during various periods of out-of-workness:

    “I’m my husband’s caretaker” (inasmuch as operating the rice cooker and shaking out handfuls of painkillers can be said to be caretaking).

    “I’m a writer” (I write things. Sometimes it’s blog entries, sometimes it’s grocery lists. Both count).

    “Well, I don’t have all the details yet, but I’m hoping to turn into a moose and move to the Yukon sometime in the next 3 months.” (That one I save for total strangers when I really need a good laugh)

  36. Private Editor said:

    Wow, Awkwardeers, this has opened my eyes to a thing I need to teach my students. I teach ESL to immigrants and visitors to the US, and when it comes to teaching them about making small talk, I’ve been explaining that in the US, “What do you do?” is not considered a rude question, even though it is in many other cultures. But yeah. Time to revise my handout to point out that many Americans also find it awkward and to offer other ways to answer the question. Thank you all for this excellent thread.

  37. Lyn M said:

    I would like to thank the people here for giving me some insight into how a “simple question” might not be that simple. I will try hard to change my ways. I am also lucky to have a glamour sounding job, so if I want to, I can use that, but I deal with heart problems right now. I don’t have to disclose that, though, as I am hidden behind the job. You folks here who have to contend with ableist attitudes without such cover, you make me think a lot.

    • thelittlepakeha said:

      My last job also sounds really impressive so even if I wasn’t currently studying (from home, I could never manage it if I had to be in class at pre-specified times) I could easily say “Oh, I’m taking some time off after working in disaster relief.” Because damn, after that, who wouldn’t want some time to recuperate?

      • Lyn M said:

        Exactly! A person may not experience the job as glamorous, either. It is a lot easier to talk about than any health or like issues.

  38. Bittybird said:

    “I’m working on some personal projects.” Which could mean anything from freelancing to knitting to you’ve got some googling that needs doing. And if they press, laugh and go “I’m not ready to reveal them just yet!”

  39. athenastory said:

    The reply I have found that works the best for me is, “oh not very much” followed up with a “what about you?” Usually people laugh and then talk about themselves, at least for a little while. I feel it conveys pretty gently that t I don’t want to talk about myself. Sometimes someone comes back around and says, “you never told me what you do for a living” and then I might say something like, “oh yeah, I’m really good at not answering that question.” If they persist or think it’s a game (which happens) then at that point I usually employ a bathroom break + redirect when I come back.

    A friend of mine who does have a conventional job but dislikes talking about his position at work taught me his response, which is to describe specific boring sounding tasks rather a position. Even though I don’t get paid for them, I use some of the same lines, like, “oh, I receive emails, add commentary and then forward them to other people” (+ “what about you?”).

    • elainegrey said:

      Ha, i’m employed and i just say i write emails. Cause, you know, that’s what i *do*.

  40. I hate when this question rolls around… I’ve been out of work for mental/physical health issues, and my current job has bosses that are so transphobic that they increase my panic attacks, so there are plenty of reasons I don’t like talking about it. I often say something vague or focus on my interests.

    As for when I’m asking, I say, “How do you spend your time?”

  41. storyranger said:

    I’ve found it very helpful to frame my interests and volunteer work as my “job” and leave out the tiny detail that I’m not actually paid for this “work”. I love the idea of pulling out the “why do you ask” for those awkward stranger encounters though. Thanks SpinachInquisition!

    For my family, who loves to hound me about how my “jobs” aren’t “actual jobs”, I’ve found a coy smile and a shrug and a redirect to questions about their lives goes a long way. If the redirect doesn’t stick, I walk away. You’re not being rude for ending the convo, they’re being rude for ignoring discomfort and tromping all over your attempts to escape the awkward.

    • CalamityRain said:

      Word on the “if the redirect doesn’t stick, walk away.” Most requests like this from strangers are bland attempts to put you in context (like, she’s a doctor, she must be smart/driven/interested in my mole!; she’s a writer, she must be eccentric/clever/interested in my screenplay!; etc.). It’s definitely problematic that we understand people by their jobs, but I do think a lot of people see the “What do you do?” question as an innocuous “Tell me who you are, I’m interested!”

      If the asker doesn’t latch on to the context YOU provide, be it hobbies or ambitions or previous work, or your polite redirect, then you’ve more than held up your end of the social contract. Blow that popsicle stand, and only pity them for embarrassing themselves if you’re a nicer person than I.

  42. Jenny Wren said:

    Hmm, I second the idea to talk about your hobbies. In fact, I’d always thought that that’s why the question was phrased in such a strange way- to allow for people who had really dull jobs and didn’t want to talk about them at parties. I guess it does have heavy overtones of “…for a living?”, though. Any suggestions on better questions to ask instead? I like mrsmorleystea’s “What have you been up to recently?”.

    • Kerry said:

      Yes, I agree with this. IMO “What do you do?” is social code for “Please indicate something you’re interested in so we can talk about it”, and this is a totally acceptable answer:

      “What do you do?”
      “Oh, I love reading – I’ve just finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, have you read it?”

      with a possible side of

      “No, I mean for work.”
      “Oh, who wants to talk about work at parties! Have you seen Into the Woods?”

      • A+ Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is such a fun book!

    • Mcat said:

      For some reason, I don’t like “what have you been up to recently?” — I think it registers as a question that someone who I’m already friends with (but maybe haven’t talked to in a bit) would ask, not a stranger I’m meeting for the first time, and as such feels weirdly intimate. A lot of other people seem to be into it, though, so that could just be a me thing.

      Thinking back on small talk, here are some of the common questions I run into that I don’t mind:
      How long have you lived in X city? / Which neighborhood do you live in? / How do you like it?
      (Meeting someone at a hobby/activity kind of event) What interests you in Y activity / How long have you been doing it?
      (Meeting someone at a house party) So how do you know [Z host]?

      I am also totally fine with “Tell me something cool about yourself” but I think it intimidates people sometimes.

      • slfisher said:

        and I know people who would get terribly offended at being asked what neighborhood they lived in, either because it felt stalkery or they felt judged on a socioeconomic level.

        • thelittlepakeha said:

          The city I grew up in the first question is always “What high school did you go to?” It’s this bizarre regional thing that almost always holds true, even if I meet someone while somewhere completely different who’s from the same place. And that really has a lot of the same implications. We all know what the “good” schools are. Luckily because it’s so stereotypical you can laugh it off with “That’s such a Christchurch question!” and redirect if you don’t feel like answering.

      • Hollis said:

        I would personally shy away from topics related to where someone lives. Admittedly, this is 100% because I’m a seasonally homeless person and I always happen to be asked that question while I am living out of my car. Which, do I have enough money to rent a (very shabby) place to live? Yes, but I don’t see the point in spending like 50% of my income on a place that I’ll spend next to no time in because of my job and I honestly really like the freedom living/camping from my car gives me when I’m doing it. But it makes other people act REALLY weird when I talk about how I don’t have a fixed abode. I either get a ton of sympathy about how it must be so hard (no, it’s great; I do wish I had better access to refrigeration and showers though) or I get people edging away because there must be something wrong with me (either because I claim to not mind being homeless or because wow, something must be WRONG with me to not be able to find a place to live).

  43. Anr said:

    I’ve found it helpful (not exactly in this situation, but in one that also involves a question the full answer to which would out me as Stigmatized Thing) to figure out a few statements that work as something that is both true of you, and makes sense in the context they’re expecting.

    Like ‘A lot of navigating bureaucracy and paperwork’, or ‘I’ve been computer-based a lot lately’.

  44. soukup said:

    You could make up something silly/whimspical/flippant that’s obviously not true. “I work for the mob.” “I’m a Pokemon trainer.” “Well, right now I’m working on turning lead into gold.” Or there’s always this one: “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. And I’d much rather ask what you do for a living. …Neat, how’d you get into that field?” Perceptive people (or those who’ve been disabled and/or unemployed themselves) will realize that it’s a deliberate evasion and let it slide without asking you a second time. People who are less perceptive may eventually swing back around to say “Seriously though, what is it that you do?” But generally at that stage most people will react gracefully to an “I’d actually rather not talk about that” followed by a change of subject (“So, are you from around here?”). If this applies to your situation, you could also try saying “Actually it’s in transition right now, I’d rather not talk about it.” (+ “So, how do you know the hostess?”)

    If you feel like you’re hitting it off with someone and you want to tell them the truth without it being awkward, this is what my friend did with me (she’s disabled and was unable to work when I met her): “Well, you seem cool, so I’ll tell you.” *leans in, lowers voice to a whisper* “I work for the CIA. I’m a hacker working on breaking into the Russian Secret Service. But don’t tell anyone else, okay? I have to pretend like I’m unemployed so people won’t suspect. Lucky for me I have this really handy disability, so people just think I’m too sick to work. Nice, huh?” Her tone of voice made it absolutely clear that she was kidding about the CIA, and it was a…weirdly suave way to make it into a silly joke, rather than an awkward heavy thing. I’ve seen her use it on someone else, and it went well with them too.

    Also, here is my trick for posing that question (“What do you do?”) in a less fraught way: “What do you do when you’re not [doing current activity]?” (eg, “What do you do when you’re not going to knitting socials?” “What do you do when you’re not at poly speed dating?” etc.) This leaves it much more open-ended, because the question is about how they spend their time, rather than about their paid work. People who want to tell me about their jobs are free to do so, but even then I tend to get much more full answers, full of nifty hobbies and sports and such.

    Good luck, LW!

    • Caitlin said:

      Or pull a Barney face and say “please” and change the subject! (How I Met Your Mother reference)

  45. Marvel said:

    My first instinct is to say, treat this as the open-ended question it really is. Sure, the implication is “what do you do for paid work?”–but the great thing about the prevailing social subtext is that, if you want, you can totally ignore it.

    So, what do you do? Do you read a lot? Write? Do you have a hobby you’re super passionate about? Are you learning a foreign language? Do you play any instruments?

    And even if the answer is, “uhh, right now I mostly binge-watch Netflix,” if you can follow it up with counter-questions and make an interesting conversation out of it, most people will find you pleasantly candid rather than awkward. (I mean, come on, who doesn’t have a period time in their life when the most interesting thing they’re doing is binge-watching Netflix?)

  46. Lily said:

    i used to say, “Oh, I’m a kept woman — and you?” but I haven’t figured out how to do that in $NEWLANGUAGE. But it did tend to shut people right down ….

    • Kathyn said:

      “Oh, I’m just enjoying being a socialite right now” seems to work pretty well.

      • dkf said:

        And it also implies things about those silly ones who prefer shitty jobs to being a socialite. Please do not forget the class perspective.

  47. I’ve never had a conventional job, so I’ve taken various approaches to this, including lying, joking or deflecting (although all these carry risk of making folks feel uncomfortable). I think the most useful is to consider what you do, actually do. Unless you’re attending these social events but are completely laid up, not even reading or watching TV the rest of the time, there’s something you do.

    I’ve long described myself as a writer because it is what I do with my energy, even if I don’t have energy for that every day. I am very occasionally paid for this, but even if it was a pure hobby, it is what I like to do more than anything else. I am a writer.

    If you have trained for or have experience in a job you’d really like to be doing, that’s also a valid answer. Speak to retired folk and they often don’t ID as pensioners – they’re a retired teacher, a historian, a mechanic, etc.. So, “I’m a plumber” or, in case you might be offered work/ interrogated further, “I’m a plumber but I’m taking a break right now.”

    If you are doing any kind of course, even a gentle informal on-line course for pure interest, even if you’re not doing any course but are spending your time reading and researching something that tickles your fancy, you can be a student.

    This isn’t just about awkward social situations. There’s no need to pretend to yourself that your life fits into the capitalist ideal right now, but it can be important to see yourself as being and doing – which you undoubtedly are. You don’t have to tell other people that you are becoming an ace at your favourite video game, but your life would not be a void if that’s the case.

  48. Jae said:

    Sound advice, most importantly turning the question around and asking the other one about himself. Most people love to talk about themselves and you can lead them along with questions.

    Some ideas (maybe somebody suggested those already) of “what you do”. Because if people ask what you do and only implicitly mean “paid work” your options are open. Depending on how you feel about it, “I’m attending a party”, “I’m having a drink”, “I’m having a conversation with a nice person” are options that say “I won’t talk about my work but we can still talk.

    Other options are: “I’m a writer/painter/artist/poet” if you have such a hobby. One of the usual follow up questions on that is: “Oh, can you live from that?” which brings the money back into it, so if you don’t want to answer “No, but I get by” with a bright smile that does not invite further questions, then the counter-question about their job is mandatory.

    “I’m a mother”, “I’m a family manager”, and “I’m a communications specialist and conflict manager” are suggestions that were brought up by an add when a housewife-woman applied for a job after some time at home with the kids. Maybe some modification of those would work?

  49. Celtic Glen said:

    Tell them you are self employed, a writer. government employee if you are on some sort of social security payments.

  50. AltoFronto said:

    If you want to just get the employment issue out of the way quickly and move on, “This ‘n’ that” or “Not a lot” have become my standard response for periods of unemployment. Or I speak about previous employment in the past tense “Oh, I spent about a year doing volunteer work in…”
    You can be blunt, “I’m unemployed, how about you?” or if you really don’t have anything you can say about work-related matters, gloss over it as much as possible with a vague euphemism for unemployment that sounds like a real job and change the subject, “I’m a domestic engineer/ freelancer / professional social networker. How about you?” Or you can just say “I’m a consultant.” If they ask you for more information, say you’ll have to charge for your time.

    However, I think a much better tactic is this: don’t give yourself a title and just say “Well I’m really into _____ at the moment” – this gives you room to talk about something you’re genuinely interested in without sounding like a phoney. While you’re talking about your favourite subject, they’ll have forgotten that they asked you about your job…. Know why? Because they were never interested in knowing what you do for a living, they just wanted to be having a conversation with you. 🙂 And you’ll have started a much more interesting conversation than the one they were going to have.

    • whirlie-gog said:

      Quibble: Freelancing is not a euphemism for unemployment. Freelancing is a job. This reinforces the idea that freelancers don’t have “real jobs.” This attitude can be harmful for freelancers who are already struggling to justify themselves to friends and family.

  51. Rowan said:

    I could tell you… but I’d have to kill you.

  52. Phospher said:

    This reminds me I really should renew my efforts to ask “what do you do with your time?” instead of “what do you do?” — or find something better that gives the person the choice to talk about hobbies/interests OR career depending on their mood and circumstances. Argh, small talk, it is so hard and weirdly fraught! I’m also reminded of how agonisingly painful I found the question “how are you?” when I was depressed.

    I’m a writer. I don’t have any issues with telling people I’m a writer. But despite that being the full and truthful answer to the “how do you make money” aspect of the question I still find the conversation veers down this “no but really what do you DO?” line.” Are you published?” and on hearing that I am, “is the book selling well?”

    Like if you asked someone what they did for a living and they said they were a lawyer, would you follow up with “Oh yeah, how nice. But are you an employed lawyer? I’m thinking you’re probably struggling and unsuccessful? And how much money do you make?”

    Because of this I would sort of interpret “That sounds difficult” as a subtle diss, with “it sounds difficult… so you’re probably greatly exaggerating your ability to do it at all. Or even if you’re not, I’m sure you can expect a lot of failure in your future” implications. I know it probably seems really oversensitive, but it comes of having a lot of people be weird about what I do, and the fact that my line of work IS pretty precarious sometimes, I don’t like focusing on that aspect of it with someone I’ve just met.

    • Goat Lady said:

      See and considerations like this are exactly why I thought “Goat Lady, you should ask the community for help explicitly”.

      …plus I really just adore the community here.

  53. I second a vast majority of what’s already been said, but I thought I’d chime in with my own answers.

    1. “Hm. [Or Wow.] That’s a more complicated question than you intended it to be. So, have you heard that it’s supposed to snow?”

    2. “I’m a full-time crazy person.” [I know that “crazy” is a loaded term around here; I use it for myself because it cuts through some of the pain with humor, but I respect those of you who are offended by it.] Also, when I am working but not much I sometimes go with, “I’m doing some admin. assistant stuff and I’m a semi-professional crazy person.”

    3. “Depends on the day.” [What I actually want to follow that up with, but don’t: “So what do you do that’s so conventional that you felt that was an apporpriate question to ask someone you barely know?”]

    4. “I’d rather not talk about that.” That’s in my arsenal for the guy who asks me EVERY TIME WE TALK and won’t let it go when I use the above 1 or 3.

  54. Alice Q. Penguin said:

    I second a vast majority of what’s already been said, but I thought I’d chime in with my own answers.

    1. “Hm. [Or Wow.] That’s a more complicated question than you intended it to be. So, have you heard that it’s supposed to snow?”

    2. “I’m a full-time crazy person.” [I know that “crazy” is a loaded term around here; I use it for myself because it cuts through some of the pain with humor, but I respect those of you who are offended by it.] Also, when I am working but not much I sometimes go with, “I’m doing some admin. assistant stuff and I’m a semi-professional crazy person.”

    3. “Depends on the day.” [What I actually want to follow that up with, but don’t: “So what do you do that’s so conventional that you felt that was an apporpriate question to ask someone you barely know?”]

    4. “I’d rather not talk about that.” That’s in my arsenal for the guy who asks me EVERY TIME WE TALK and won’t let it go when I use the above 1 or 3.

    It should be noted that some of these do make the other person feel awkward and uncomfortable, and sometimes I’m okay with that because their question made me feel awkward and uncomfortable.

  55. QuinFirefrorefiddle said:

    I was taught the phrase, “what’s keeping you busy these days” and love it. Great responses!

    I spent a lot of years underemployed in jobs I hated, and didn’t want to talk about, and found the phrase, “oh, let’s not talk about work” invaluable. But you have to have another subject lined up, which requires planning. Also I was working towards being in another industry, so sometimes I answered with “I’m going to be a ___” which could help- if there’s a career you’re interested in that you can’t currently pursue but might one day that works, or even just “I’m looking into the ___ industry” which is true if you’ve read an article on it in the last three months. Or if you will never see them again, there’s always, “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you- how about that local sports team?”

  56. QuinFirefrorefiddle said:

    Also, my cousin works at an adult bookstore and reports that if you really want to shut down a conversation, saying “I sell porn” the same way you’d say “I’m a mortician” really does it. And she absolutely gives you permission to lie about that.

    • peeta8 said:

      Oh, send your cousin to my party & that will be all anyone wants to know about! (The mortician answer might get the same reaction…)

    • slfisher said:

      I have friends who are gamblers, and sometimes they will just go ahead and say that, and other times they’ll say they’re applied statistical consultants or something like that.

      similarly, I have other friends who are hypnotists. That gets some interesting reactions. 🙂

      • “applied statistical consultant”

        That’s good!

  57. Friendly Hipposcriff said:

    My answer is easy – ‘I’m a freelance editor, mostly academic and SF novels’ and I can talk for days about publishing, so in a way, I’ve got it good. ‘I freelance’ or ‘I’m building a business’ can work if you’re willing to field follow-up questions.
    ‘Oh, I’m learning/improving my [skill]’ (where skill = a programming language, a craft, hobby, software package). If you’re willing to get into more details, you can say ‘yesterday, I modelled a 3D octopus. I’m starting to really get into 3D modelling now, and I found this fantastic course that’s really inspiring’ or ‘well, I’m still setting up my computer after a fatal hard drive crash. Have you backed up your computer recently? Please back up your computer’ which completely sidestep the ‘I am not spending 40h/week working’ issue.

    ‘So what do you do’ is mostly meant to be a friendly question, and I wouldn’t want to shut it off outright. If the asker then shows no interest in your awesome art skills/volunteering job/other experiences and starts sealioning you (http://wondermark.com/1k62/) – where they keep circling back to the topic you’ve shown no interest in talking about and demand that you dissect it to their satisfaction – then you’re under no obligation whatsoever to talk about your work or not-work. They’re not interested in what you have to say, they’re interested in making you do what they want you to do. Not a game anyone needs to play.

    • Friendly Hipposcriff said:

      Thinking about it a bit more, why my answer works so well for me, is that it can go in any direction someone wants to – we can follow up with which academic fields or which books I love or whether either of us writes, about the advantages and disadvantages of freelancing versus employment, … it’s a good conversational gambit, as these things go. I’m finding it much harder to answer ‘what do you like to do’ because I’ve got so many interests, and I don’t know what would be appropriate and what will get me an ‘oh’ even from someone I have potential topics in common with.

  58. I had a “major life detour” a while back and was unemployed and had no clue what was going on in my life due to a health thing (tip: having a fainting disorder is bad, and can also lead to a fear of leaving the house!) Medication + lots of therapy + new life choices later, I’m a graduate student and have a part time job and might get a second part time job, and I do stuff with my dogs and I have way too many hobbies and I’m getting back into horses and I’m super busy and possibly little off my nut. Anyway.

    I was “unemployed” (struggling to sort out my health things and figure out where I was going in life and retail wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t have any experience) for about five years. I eventually was able to volunteer a few places, one of which set me on my current career path, and that was an answer for a while, but I also took to hiding from people so I wouldn’t have to answer the question. My mom bought a new house and I moved in with her and new neighbors came over and I could hear her talking to them downstairs but I hid upstairs so I wouldn’t have to have the “What do you do” conversation. So I get it. And the “I’m unemployed” can lead to “What do you want to do?” Which I followed up with “I don’t know” and that usually killed that conversation. (How do you support yourself? also came out sometimes. I usually answered “My grandparents” which is true enough, but they’ve been dead for over 10 years now so that can kill further inquiry.)

    Story time! So I was volunteering at a museum which happens to be across the street from the state legislature building. I was there on the first day of the new session, and a group of legislators? aides? people who were political and worked in that building? came through the exhibit I was working. They were super rude and kept saying all kinds of weird political stuff, and I was trying to be neutral, while inwardly being astonished at the nerve and rudeness. One of them came over to me and asked if I worked there. I said no, I was a volunteer. He said “What do you do?” and I said “I’m unemployed.” and he took a giant step back and gave me a look like I had just sneezed on him and was contagious and said “OH.” I was thinking, if it is contagious, come a little closer, you should be out of a job, jackass. I was expecting him to pitch me some kind of “My party is doing x to help” not be all Ew, Gross, Unemployed people.

    You’ve got a nice range of answers, from silly to serious, and it seems to be a consensus that answering with hobbies is a-ok.

    And as for better questions, I also favor the “What keeps you busy these days?”

    (And if you don’t want to answer the question, definitely don’t go to speed dating. At that time I was minimally employed and thinking of starting graduate school, and I had a dude tell me how that field was dumb and I should do some tangentially related thing instead. Great advice, random stranger! That’s where I get all my best advice! Uggghhh.)

  59. I have a friend who is permanently disabled who finds small, very short term things to do around her disability. When asked what she does se tends to say she is retired. And the shock and awe either lets her field the why if she wants, or go into “for fun I …” I have enjoyed beingthere for the various conversations.

  60. Anna Sthetic said:

    I often go with ‘Eh. Stuff. How about you?’

  61. Ookling said:

    I’m afraid my aversion to rote questions like that awakens my, um, attempts at humour. I generally tend to respond to questions about what I do with “I’m a homicidal maniac”, or something equally implausible and ominous, followed by a reassuring smile. They have asked, I have answered, so civilised/social contracts are being met, and it usually does the trick to reroute the conversation towards the asker without me having actually bluntly say anything. (And asking someone about themselves is a great way to not have to justify or explain your life to them)
    However telling people you’re a homicidal maniac can also worry the asker beyond what’s polite for small talk. And get you a reputation you may not always want to have to navigate around, in future.

    • barb said:

      I would feel uncomfortable/unsafe if I heard this answer- I think it’s generally wise to believe what people tell you about themselves, and this either means, “I’m a (wannabe?) homicidal maniac” or, “I want to make you feel uncomfortable”, or at best, “I’m starting out a conversation with someone I don’t know with a joke that they probably won’t know how to interpret, because I don’t care how I make you feel, if you don’t immediately grasp my unusual sense of humor.” Maybe it’s not your intention, but you’re definitely not fulfilling the social contract in any meaningful way.

    • Yes, this would worry me that the person was not lying. If you went bigger like with, “I’m working on becoming an evil overlord and ruling the Earth.” then I’d feel much more comfortable that you’re just a touch silly. Although I might ask you follow-up questions like what your minions will wear and whether it will block their peripheral vision and how you find good henchpeople these days.

  62. lasers said:

    I went to school for an arts thing, and have been paycheck-to-paycheck pretty much ever since. I’m honestly embarrassed by how much of my brain is devoted to thinking about my job, regardless of what it is or how much I care about it. To the point that when someone asks “how are you,” I can’t think of anything to talk about except work minutiae. Which is to say:

    1. A gentle redirect of “oh, I’m really into X, what about you?” is great. At least some people (hi) will receive that with relief and gratitude.
    2. For someone like me, a less-gentle “no work talk! Let’s talk about what we’re really interested in,” is even better. (YMMV, of course)

  63. atma said:

    My sister, who has a job she’s passionate about but not always prepared to talk about with strangers, says “An administrator” which is usually sufficiently bland that no one asks follow-up questions. Assistant may work too. Also, anything you know, or have done, you can always say “I’m an (IT-technician in my case)” even if you’re not working at the moment.

    And writing this reminded me of an article I read a long time ago about verbal self defence. If what you mainly want is to get people off your back you don’t want to be clever or WIN at arguing. You want to avoid getting involved in arguing, so you leave as few hooks out as possible, you present as basically boring. (http://people.howstuffworks.com/vsd.htm)

    And the less you actually care about their opinion (Because when it comes to your life your opinion is the only one that really counts!) the easier it gets to circumvent life’s annoying traps by shrugging them off. You hand them something bland and move on to the next person. Really, the person who argues with that or insists you give them detailed information on how you get your money has showed themselves to be the sort of person you avoid.

  64. “What do you do?”

    “Oh, that’s classified.” *devilish smirky squint* *directs conversation elsewhere*

    Or, if that kind of back-and-forth would be considered rude, then something like:

    “What do you do?”

    “A lot. It’s exhausting to even think about–let’s not spoil the dinner/party/social by talking about work!” *directs conversation elsewhere*

  65. I’m glad this discussion came up. I hate that question with a passion. I’m currently (invisibly) disabled, unemployed, and back in school. I usually default to my standard, “wrangling cats and shoveling shit”, when asked. Both are true- we foster high-risk kittens, and I manage my Dad’s hobby farm right now while he’s battling grief- based depression. People are usually interested in one or both of those topics enough that they don’t even realize that the issue of paid employment has been glossed over.

    But there are always those few persistent people who insist on knowing where the money comes from to keep both hobbies afloat. If I feel like the asker is honestly just trying to keep the conversational boat afloat, I’ll use, “I’m currently between jobs” or “I’m working on my second degree right now.”

    Beyond that, redirect, redirect, redirect.

  66. Commander Banana said:

    I work in a job-obsessed metropolis that shall remain nameless but rhymes with “Shmashington DSchmee” and I make a conscious effort to not ask anyone what they do for work. It makes for way more interesting conversation, and if someone tries to steer me into talking my job (which I actually love) I head them off by telling them that while my work interests me, I’m sure they’d find it really boring.

    It’s actually been a really helpful strategy for weeding out the “obsessed with my job” Shmashington stuffed shirts who just really, really want to tell me all about their work so I’ll be appropriately impressed or literally have NO outside interests or hobbies.

    • Ruth said:

      I try to avoid it to, but sometimes it so hard! I’ve been to some parties when I’ve been stuck talking to someone who hasn’t apparently read a book, seen a movie, gone to a museum, watched a TV show, heard a cool song, or basically had any thoughts. So then I sigh, ask what they do, and prepare myself for the avalanche of acronyms.

      • Commander Banana said:

        It is the worst, especially when you’re dating….I had one person insist on telling me in mind-numbing detail the intricacies of his job…when I worked for the same agency for several years, knew several people in his office, including his department head, and knew exactly what his job entailed. But he still wanted to tell me all about it, because if he didn’t, how could I be appropriately impressed??

      • gilraenv said:

        I suspect it’s less that you’re talking to people who don’t do anything and more that you’re talking to people for whom leisure time activities are more loaded than work activities. I feel like the ideal small talk question gives people room to talk about either of those things.

  67. TO_Ont said:

    I would totally just start talking about something non-work that you ‘do’ – a topic you read a lot about, a hobby, etc. A lot of people really just want to make conversation and learn _something_ about you.

    If they ask more directly then I think a straight-out ‘oh, I’d rather not get into that’ is good. If possible, with a smile and immediately jumping into another subject. Most people you talk to don’t want to offend you or cause awkward silences, so if you smile and immediately tell an unrelated anecdote it will mostly be good. (Since you mentioned not wanting to make people uncomfortable, I assume you’re mainly asking about people who are not disrespectful or knowingly rude)

  68. TO_Ont said:

    Sometimes I ask people ‘what do you do other than (activity we’re doing or that I met them through)?’. So they can talk about another hobby or about their job if they want.

    Actually, I’m more interested in people’s hobbies, but not everyone has hobbies or feels like talking about them, and some people like talking about their job.

  69. Julie said:

    I had to stop for a moment to consider why this question doesn’t bother me. Then I recalled, when I moved here 20 years ago, the question I heard was “what does your husband do?” That no one here has even mentioned that variation represents a couple generations of progress, I think.

    • I’ve actually gotten the “what does your husband do?” a few times. When I tell them that he’s a stay-at-home dad, their reaction tells me all I need to know about them. Most people are envious, which I think is a good thing! It means we’re making progress.

  70. MB said:

    I once full-on insisted (I may have been drinking) that I was a ‘five star, double-rated, astro-navagatrix’ for many hours, and that was just because I couldn’t be bothered explaining what my job is. As it happened the person who kept asking this just wanted me to ask the question back so they could tell me what they did.

    I’ve been actively trying to avoid asking the ‘what do you do’ question for many years now. I guess its because I know lots of people are out of work or who can’t work so I’d be aware how loaded a question it is. So if I’m going for a small talk question starter I’ll ask someone what they like to do, which is much more open and is not actually asking about a job, but if someone wants to talk about their job they can, or even something that they’d like to do, but can’t right now because of time/energy/finance/physics/ability to time travel etc.

  71. Annafel said:

    As far as coming up with small talk questions is concerned, I often jump right into “Do you like to read?” People are often a little taken aback, probably because they are expecting me to ask them what they do, but most of them roll with it. The only times it’s gotten a little awkward have been when the person I’m talking to doesn’t read at all. And in that case … we don’t have a lot to talk about anyway.

  72. I can’t remember where I read this, possibly here, probably an advice column of some sort, but I think its the best and I’ve been saving it for next time someone says something unbearable to me:

    “Wow, you actually said that out loud! How embarrassing for you.” (Said in a calm, polite tone)

    So if some jerk won’t accept your totally legit answer of whatever you decide to answer and keeps prying and being jerky, at least you have this in your back pocket.

  73. Lee said:

    I don’t have a day job now, but even when I did, if people asked me “what do you do?” I tended to respond by talking about who I am instead. And who I am has very little to do with work; I’m a science-fiction fan, and a cat-lover, and a contradancer, and a reader (of both books and blogs) and a political progressive and a rationalist* and a lot of other things besides. Out of all that, surely there’s something that will catch their interest and derail the original question. And if they won’t be deflected, and come back with something like, “No, I mean, what do you DO for a living?”… well, the Ann Landers response of, “Why do you want to know?” or “Why is this so important to you?” often works wonders.

    “I don’t like to talk shop” is another response you might consider, because pressing you after that is very obviously rude and can be called out as such. And of course, there’s the old favorite of “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” 🙂

    * This is a few degrees off from either an atheist or an agnostic. It means that I don’t have a problem with the idea that there is some kind of occult force in the Universe, but I’d need to see some pretty strong evidence before I’d buy it myself. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof and all that.

  74. I’m going to disagree with folks about using “I’m a writer/artist,” as then I found people wanting details. This is difficult as I AM a writer/artist, but I lose energy for projects the more I talk about them. My favorite that I used this holiday season was “These days? Drinking, mostly.” Best said with a drink in hand. If you’re going to a lot of cocktail parties, it’s very true. I didn’t get a chance to use my combo work / relationship one: “oh, I’m a spinster” (true for me on all fronts — while I am very single, I also spin yarn and can talk your arm off about it).

  75. faeriegirl said:

    If you do decide to mention your health, (which, I usually do now because my invisible illness somehow becomes rather visible) I find it REALLY helps to refer to it in some way that applies it’s not static and *maybe you can improve*. It’s almost absolutely an outright lie because my health IS statically bad, and I am always sick, in pain and unable to work, but I tend to find it a lot easier have convos like this.

    Person: Oh, so what do you do for a living? etc etc
    Me: Well I’ve been sick since I was a teenager. I’m still slowly working on things with my medical professionals right now though….
    Person: Oh right, well I hope you get better soon!
    Me: * internal knowing laugh*

    This gives them this kind of kernel of hope that *maybe everlasting disability isn’t a thing!* that helps people cope with the concept, but throwing in the ‘ I’ve been ill for years’ thing helps manage expectations so invariably if they see me again in 6 months and I’m still ill they aren’t disappointed. (At this point, you can just restring the person by implying that the previous medical things didn’t work, but now you’re trying something else which might help.) .I’ve found all these ‘BUT HOW CAN YOU NOT DO A JOB?’ things are rooted in a fear. People do not like the idea that you can be too sick to do work for years at a time, especially as a young person. So I just kinda throw that in there to ward off having to deal with their feelings about my illness. (and I understand that fear because it does suck and it is horrible. But at the same time I’ve dealt with it myself all this time, not gonna deal with it from others too.)

    Anyway good luck LW, I know it’s very awkward and it just generally sucks and this idea I have does involve being pretty dishonest which is not fun at all and I completely understand if you loathe the idea of giving people the impression that you could get well when you absolutely cannot. It’s just how I’ve come to deal with this after all these years, especially to people I’m going to meet approx. once in my life.

    • bostoncandylady said:

      “I’ve found all these ‘BUT HOW CAN YOU NOT DO A JOB?’ things are rooted in a fear. People do not like the idea that you can be too sick to do work for years at a time, especially as a young person. So I just kinda throw that in there to ward off having to deal with their feelings about my illness. (and I understand that fear because it does suck and it is horrible. But at the same time I’ve dealt with it myself all this time, not gonna deal with it from others too.)”

      I think this is a really good and important point. This doesn’t excuse ableist behavior but I think it’s almost always helpful to consider the roots of people’s decisions. I believe you are correct that many people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of disability, especially (as you suggest) young working adults who probably don’t have any health insurance, people who define themselves through their work, etc.

    • Tastycakes said:

      Eek, it never quite occurred to me before how dismissive “I hope you get better soon!” is for someone with a chronic condition. Can I ask you what a better answer might be?

      • As someone in a similar situation (disabled since 2001 and while I actually have had some progress, I fully expect to be significantly disabled for the rest of my life), the best response I can think of that I personally would value is something like, “That sounds tough, but you seem to be managing it well.”

        I wouldn’t say something like “that sounds tough” to somebody mentioning they are disabled in general, because disability is a wide category and many people are very comfortable with their disabilities. But to someone who has already actively mentioned seeking medical care and trying to get progress, they are much more likely to be in a situation where it is tough and they are okay with others acknowledging that. And the second part is there to show respect for the other person’s competency and that you aren’t going to immediately try to become the expert of their life and health that will try to tell them how to do it better and how they could have cured themselves all along if they’d just done whatever you are about to suggest that neither they nor their doctors ever thought of! Don’t go too heavy on sympathy though, I’d go with a fairly conversational tone of voice, because while it may be really tough, someone who has been disabled for years is used to it, and probably isn’t at whatever social thing this is to mope about health problems, and you don’t want it to be too melodramatic. Just a polite acknowledgement. And no challenges that the person speaking might be wrong about themselves or pretending to be ill or too ignorant to do some obvious thing that would make a person all better or various other ways people can mess this up that you probably wouldn’t have even ever thought of doing in a reply.

        But I do agree that after having been disabled for years and coming to accept it and move into the stage of, okay, so I will manage my disability as best as I can while enjoying my life as much as I can with the health and abilities I actually have, it can be frustrating when people push the narrative of “getting better”. I’d love it if it were a reasonable expectation, but it’s not. And people sometimes also act as if me hitting acceptance is some sort of giving up or being a bad disabled person, because now I’m not trying to get better and thus should be blamed for being ill. I still do what I can to improve my health, and when an actual medical lead comes up, I follow it, but acceptance is healthy. I’ve done this for years. I get that other people haven’t had years to hit acceptance about my issues, but it is good for people to understand a bit that acceptance is healthy and constantly holding out for a medical miracle is really just a way to put your life on hold and live in some daydream of a magic future instead of making the best of what you actually have. And acceptance doesn’t mean my issues aren’t severe or that I am exaggerating how limiting they are. Just… what else is there to do but accept them? It’s not heroic, it’s not an inspiration, it’s not a fraud, it’s just many years of experience and disability becoming normal and routine for me.

        • ashbet said:

          *nods* I’ve gotten responses indicating that my acceptance of my (genetic, incurable, degenerative) disability is somehow “giving up” — actually, I pursue every treatment possibility that has a reasonable chance of improving my life, but the disease itself (and the damage it has caused to my body) isn’t going away.

          I tend to say, “Oh, gosh, I’m wishing you the best.” Doesn’t imply “getting better,” doesn’t include excessive sympathy or recasting the person’s life as a tragedy, just hopefully-perceived-as-sincere good wishes.

          And then I ask a question about what they enjoy doing, or say that their shoes are really cute, or do something to move on. I’ve acknowledged their illness/disability, I’ve said something positive, and I haven’t interrogated them about their health.

      • faeriegirl said:

        Haha yeah it’s a tough one because I know people mean well by it, but it comes over also as not having quite understood the length of ‘chronic’. It’s a phrase that we kinda get programmed into us to say when someone is ill too so I see why people say it.

        I think ‘Oh that really sucks… let me know if there’s anything I can do to make things more comfy for you when we hang out?’ would be like my FAV ever answer. I personally really like it if people just sort of keep the sympathetic section to a minimum and then move into a straight forward how can I make things easier type thing.

        The worst answer for me is anything that mentions how someone they know was cured already through [insert weird and improbable thing]. Even if people are just trying to be helpful, it just sends this message like ‘why aren’t you doing the weird thing and being well again?!’

  76. Fish said:

    If I’m feeling low energy, I take the question literally. “What do you do” can mean anything interesting that I do. It helps that I’m a literalist (not on purpose, just, how my brain works), so they’d need to say “what do you do for work” before I felt trapped in giving a work response.

    If I’m feeling high energy and extroverted (which is rare, admittedly), then talking about the social convention currently happening can be a nice diversion from it. So for example:

    “what do you do for work?”
    “Why do you want to know?”
    “just curious. So what do you do for work?”
    “No, why is really important. Isn’t it strange how we take for granted that how we earn money is an intrinsic part of who we are? What do you suppose that says about our culture?” followed by “is that really what we want our culture to be? What would you want it to focus on instead, if you were all powerful and could change it?”

    …then derails about moral values (which can be interesting and actually get at “who are you?”), or talking about the part of me that they feel actually defines a person in an ideal world, OR persistence on the bad social convention (followed by “I’m trying to steer you to some other topic because I find this social convention really dull, and while I hoped that was obvious perhaps I dropped a cue. So, given that I’m not going to answer you, how should we proceed?”)

    But, I have to be really high energy and on my game for this to work, because it involves pushing the other person’s boundaries by talking about who they really are and with a negative twist that I’m doing it by using their common question to pick apart the culture they’re from (which generally means low-investment in this specific relationship. Like, I couldn’t do this with a partners parents), and most days I’m just not that high energy/confident. So, this definitely isn’t a silver bullet. But, it might be a nice hammer for your toolbox if your problems happen to be nails.

    A side effect is that you may come off as an overthinker/super meta/blunt/cocky/a literalist/faux philosophical/a burden to talk to because who wants to think that hard during small talk/kind of an ass. I happen to be okay with most of that, because if someone doesn’t care about social implications of minutia then those opinions of me are spot on (and if one does care, then those still aren’t far off mark). You might not be ok with that, in which case you might avoid this approach.

  77. Roman said:

    When I was unemployed my stock answer to “what do you do?” was “Wait for the economy to stop sucking.” – It usually gets people talking about how bad the economy is, rather than anything to do with my not having a job.

    • barb said:

      I like this! It’s funny and rings true.

    • HA! I like that. I mean, aren’t we all? Regardless of situation? You’re all but guaranteed commiseration.

  78. sdgsdg said:

    this topic is a double-edged sword. I vividly remember the time I have asked a stranger “what do you do?” in the presence of an aquittance I don’t care much about, who was perfectly healthy (maybe a bit depressed, but I was more so), but had parents rich enough to spend her days doing nothing for money and making vague plans involving her gender studies doctorate she spent a lot of money to get in a different country. She had, before the person I have actually asked could open her mouth, intervened with something like “stop valuing people based on whether they are employed, you capitalist pig”. I am sorry to this day that I have not faux-patiently explained her that, you know, some of us peasants actually do need to work if we want to live (in this shitty east-european country, but I bet benefits in the USA are shitty as well), and we are allowed to talk about how we spend most of our waking hours without worrying about hurting the feelings of the artistocrats.

    actual disabled people are a different thing, but especially in faux-activist lefty circes I have met a load of young, wealthy and unthinking people who think that anyone getting employed is betraying the Cause / is a mind-washed consumerist. Which is all the more annoying if you know how little you get to consume from a minimum-wage job.

  79. SherryH said:

    Ah, the joys of being ever so slightly clueless. I’ve always treated this as a general interest question, rather than a job-related one, so it never bothered me, even as a SAHM-I just answered with hobbies or things I was pursuing in the moment.

    As a person who now has a very visible disability-I accessorize with dark glasses and white cane these days-I almost never get asked this any more. Which is kind of frustrating in its own right, the unspoken assumption that I *don’t* work, couldn’t possibly work. It’s true that I don’t currently, because I’m still going through rehabilitation and learning the skills I need to navigate the world without my eyesight, but I’m working toward working, and I do so much else: I write, I read, I do historical recreation, I’m learning weaving, and I even dance. I guess what I’m saying is that the intersection of work and ability can be fraught, no matter which direction you approach it from.

    I think I’m going to switch to “What do you like to do?” or “What do you do for fun?” except maybe when I’m with my husband at Chamber of Commerce functions, where most people own or run their own businesses and it’s a context-appropriate question. And maybe not even then.

    My recommendation follows Goat Lady’s and many others here: However it’s meant, treat “What do you do?” as “What do you like to do?” and guide the conversation into personal interests or activities. Or sidestep with “Oh, I really don’t care to talk about work” and reflect it back to them or change the subject. And I do love the “Why do you ask?” to derail persistent nosy interrogators. I must remember that!

    Best of luck, LW. I hope you’re able to find answers that fit for you!

  80. MJ said:

    I love in DC where everyone’s first question is “What do you do?” with an optional connotation of “and is it important enough that I should keep talking to you?” But I grew up in the South and Midwest, where the question is ALWAYS, ALWAYS “Where are you from?” or it’s variant “Are you from around here?” It’s such a great alternative, because (with follow ups) it gives a person the chance to tell their whole life story:

    “Are you from this area?”
    “Not originally – I grew up in Memphis.”
    “Oh, cool, what was it like there?”
    [They talk about their childhood for a bit.]
    “Neat! How long have you been in DC?”
    “About two years.”
    “What brought you here?”
    [They talk about recent developments in their lives.]

    • Lee said:

      One note about “Where are you from?” — it has unfortunate connotations for a lot of people of Asian ancestry, because so frequently if they say (e.g.) “Boston”, the next question is, “No, where are you REALLY from?” *eyeroll* I strongly suggest the “are you from around here” form under those circumstances, because it doesn’t carry that baggage.

      I’ve lived in the South for 2/3 of my life, and the automatic question in Southern culture is, “Where do you go to church?” Boy, if you thought saying you don’t have a job is awkward…

      • barb said:

        Ditto for brown people. Upon hearing that I am indeed American, I’ve had someone say, “Oh, I thought I heard an accent” (meaning Spanish or Indian or Middle Eastern) despite my quite strong Midwestern accent. They hear what they want to, I guess?

        Not being southern, I’d never heard that church question before! This should get it’s own column- I can’t imagine what I would say to a well-intentioned but clearly sheltered person who asked this. It sounds like such an awkward situation.

    • I’m not from the UK so someone from there please chime in on this, but I’ve heard/read a lot that “where are you from?” can be a less-than-great question there as well because it can have connotations of you trying to figure out the person’s social class.

      • wol said:

        I live in the UK, and it had honestly never occurred to me that it would have that connotation – I don’t think that’s a huge issue. If anything, regional accents mark social class more than most other things, so I guess that noting that someone has a specific accent could be done in a snooty way, but there would pretty much have to be malicious intent for it to be taken that way. It’s certainly less of a marker of class than asking about someone’s job.

        Having said all that, I personally dislike “where are you from?” because I can’t give a simple answer to that question. Id on’t really know what it means for me, and if I’m in a bad frame of mind, it can have connotations of “you don’t belong here, where is your place?”, which leaves me with “well, I don’t really have one…”. But I think that’s very specific to my personal history!

      • slfisher said:

        Where I live there’s this huge deal about People Born Here (people often introduce themselves by saying, “I’m an nth-generation Idahoan”) and People From Elsewhere, Probably Someplace Liberal Like California, so that question doesn’t work so well here, either.

    • I really dislike the “where are you from” and “why’d you move here?” questions. The first answer, for me, is complicated enough that I usually say “a lot of places” with an engimatic smile; and you had better believe that I do not want to explain to a stranger that I moved here for a relationship that no longer exists. There’s also something really off-putting to me about having to defend where I live to someone. Ask me what I like about my current city instead.

      • Commander Banana said:

        Me too – I’m a military brat and was born/raised in another country and speak that language, but I’m not ethnically from that country (as in, I would not say “I’m Countryan”), and I hate having to explain it because I have to say that my parents were in the service, and then deal with whatever that person’s feelings about military service are.

      • Friendly Hipposcriff said:

        Indeed. I’ve moved twice before the age of eighteen, and then every 3-5 years since (with a few flat changed on top of that); my places of residence cover around a 1000 miles in all directions. ‘Where are you from’ is really hard to answer, but ‘all over’ doesn’t seem to work as a conversation stopper, not even when I go ‘the very south, north, and west of country x’. (Also, I’d like to pick the point of bringing up that I was born in x, because I hate ‘but your English is so good’ (that’s probably because I grew up speaking English; I’m bilingual) or ‘I once knew a person from x’ or, worse, ‘I know a person from x, I’ll introduce you’.

      • Rana said:

        Ditto. With the exception of a ten-year stretch growing up, I’ve never lived at one address for longer than 3 years. And I’m sort of literal in my thinking, so I find myself trying to summarize it all up (I used to default to “I’m from the West”, but then I added some other regions to my list, so that no longer works).

        Basically, I’m an over-thinker who doesn’t do small talk well, so questions like this are really fraught for me, rather than fun conversation starters.

    • canomia said:

      I get the “where are you from?” All the time at lindy hop events because people come from all over the place to those things and it always gets complicated. Do I answer with where I live now or where I lived for most of my adult life or where I grew up or where I dance? It tends to be like “Well I’m from X originally but now I live in Y but I do most of my dancing in Z” and by the time I’d done they’re confused and/or bored with me. But if for some reason the question leads to me getting to talk about where I grew up I’ll be super happy because I love that place and can go on about it for ever if someone will listen.

    • Commander Banana said:

      SO TRUE. I’ve literally had people walk away from me when they decided my GS level wasn’t good enough, or something.

    • Oh! So that’s what I spent part of my life getting that question (when I lived in a particular region). I was so unused to it. I still have no idea how it’s supposed to be answered. I’d usually freeze up a bit and start giving the list of places I’ve lived, which at the time involved mentioning four different states in the US. How do you define “from”? Do they mean, where did you grow up? (which in my case is at least only one state, unlike some people I know, such as my partner who would need to list a few states and two countries) Or do they mean, where did you most recently live before moving to here?

      I had actually assumed it was based on my accent, since a lot of people respond oddly to it and make some very weird guesses about where I’m from, but it probably was just the standard regional amalltalk question of the area.

      Just to be clear, I don’t mind the question, and it didn’t offend me. I just found it very confusing, since so many people I know have moved around a fair bit. But it’d be nice to have a better idea of what the expected answer is for the question.

    • TO_Ont said:

      I get that question sometimes and it’s a kind of confusing question, because it could mean ‘what city do you live in now’ or ‘what city did you grow up in’ or even ‘what country are your parents from’. Usually I would say where I grew up, but sometimes they then assume I’m just down for the weekend or something!

    • whirlie-gog said:

      In Miami everyone’s first question is “where are you from?” With the expectation that you will answer with the South American or Caribbean country you or your parents are from. This question is very important because you do not want to guess that someone is from the wrong place. (That goes bad very quickly.) If you say that you are ‘from here.’ Then they come out and ask you where your family is from, so you will have to explain your lineage.

  81. This question often sends me into a whole anxiety laden panic spiral. I do *lots* of things, but I’m not recompensed in any meaningful way for any of them, nor am I in receipt of any out-of-work benefits (though most assume I am on account of the lack of paid employment). The notion that one’s activities are only of value if they furnish you with a salary is (sadly) widespread enough that it can be hard to remember it isn’t actually true.

  82. I have a tendency to go straight for “I am incurably ill and cannot work. What I do with my time is…” and then talk about stuff that interests me and ignore/talk right over any questions about my illness or doubts about my inability to work. (if they persist, I may snap at them and say something like “If you really MUST know, I am in pain and exhausted all the timeand will be FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. So you’ll understand that I don’t want to discuss my illness in detail with strangers?”).

    When I don’t want to drop the “incurably ill and unemployable” bomb straight into what the other person thinks is a casual conversation, my go-to is “I’m a student” – cos it’s sort-of true. I learn stuff.
    I’ve been known to go for “I’m disabled people’s rights activist / LGBTQ activist / professional autistic person”, “I’m a safer sex educator” (no one pays me but I still do it) “I’m a writer”, “I have a blog that’s been quoted in newspapers and read out in Parliament”, “I’m between Uni courses right now”, “I’m a benefits advisor” (again, sort-of true cos I do give advice but no one pays me), “I teach cookery” (well, I have carers who cook my meals and they learn a lot doing it)…

    Basically, I say anything that is something someone theoretically *could* pay me for but no one happens to be paying me for it (I know what my rates are if anyone *wants* me to be a professional trans / autistic / disabled / LGBTQ person for an event).

    Failing that, I say I’m an amateur magician or that I collect dolls. No one ever seems to know quite what to do with those answers though.

  83. “Gainfully unemployed” is one I’ve used myself. If they press you about it, just smile and say it’s a very boring story and then do what Goat Lady said and use some techniques to get them to talk about themself.

  84. I think it’s a common question that annoys people in many different situations for different reasons, but sometimes that question, though intrusive, is unavoidable.

    In my situation, I am a stay at home mom, but my child is in school. I also have an invisible disability that prevents me from working a 9-5 job. I need that quiet time at home to take care of myself everyday. Like you LW, I DON’T like to discuss it with perfect strangers. I abhor this question for many reasons besides my current health issues.

    It tends to be an assessment question from other parents or teachers as to, “How much can I ask of this person?” in reference to volunteer work at the school.. (“Oh, you’re a stay at home mom? Great. Here’s a 12 inch thick pile of construction paper I need someone to hand cut shapes for a classroom project by tomorrow.” That has actually happened.) Or because they want free babysitting..(“Oh, you’re a stay at home mom? Oh, I’m so relieved to hear that! I really need someone to watch Johnny during winter break while I work!”) Or because they want me to entertain them if they are also a stay at home mom..(“Oh, me too! We should totally go shopping/get coffee/workout together tomorrow!” which I’m not at all interested in or able to do with my time) I keep myself busy with hobbies or resting or taking care of my own family and home. People hear “stay at home mom”, and somehow interpret, “someone with way too much free time that needs something to do, I’m gonna do them that favor right now!”

    What I say to this question is, “I do freelance work from home.” It doesn’t matter that I don’t actually get paid for it at the moment. If they press for more information, out of interest, then I name off my hobbies (photography, writing, illustrating, music) If I get a comment or question about how much it pays, I just say, “It doesn’t pay much” with a smile.

  85. wol said:

    I tend to favour straightforward and truthful over clever, so I think if you have hobbies (or regular social engagements, or other obvious ways of spending your time), it’s fine to talk about them. What the person is really asking is “how can I start a conversation with you?”, and by telling them your interests, you’re responding to the spirit of the question if not in the expected way. If you really don’t do much at all, then I would just say “Oh, not much [at the moment] – what about you?” If they push the point then they are being difficult, not you, but you could try “I’m not working at the moment – let’s talk about [your job / your interests / an interesting TV show you’ve seen / this strange weather we’ve been having].

    Thinking about some of the comments above, in relation to freelance work or other non-9-to-5 structures. I think a lot of people are very much in the routine of being employed for 40 hours / week, and can’t really imagine doing anything else. I’ve definitely met people who are genuinely fascinated by how you might imagine a life that doesn’t include that structure, and what it might be like for professional artists / musicians / independent consultants / etc. I’ve experienced some fairly intrusive questioning, but often I think it’s come from a place of genuine bafflement and interest, and it hasn’t occurred to the people asking that they’re effectively putting my lifestyle and finances under a microscope. Of course, there are always some people who are outright rude and judgemental, but I don’t think that that applies to most of the people I’ve met.

  86. charlie said:

    A few things. I’m awkward and feel awful talking to people most of the time, and I would just say answer the question you ‘wish’ they would have asked regardless of whether they asked it. Then, as soon as possible ask them a question back and get them talking about themselves.

    Jokes are awful. To answer with a joke is to vaguely let the other person know that something isn’t right, and it makes them feel squeevy. Someone else had a great response about this. I hate it when people respond with a joke. I’d much rather hear ‘Can we talk about something else?’

  87. LW, I know it might not meet your comfort level, but I’ve found that when the environment reads as being not too welcoming to lighter or more personal discussions (whether because it just seems like they’re expecting the paid work answer, or because I don’t have the energy to be sunny discussing what I’ve read or what I like to do, or because lately I’ve been focussing on a particularly weird aspect of my hobby[1]), a response of “Oh, I’m looking for work.” before a deflection (“How about you?”) seems to work.

    I know this isn’t true in your case (you said you can’t work, so I am guessing you aren’t looking for work), but maybe you could change that up to “Oh, I’m looking for a project.” or toss off something like “Organizational work, mostly”? There are ways to describe what you do do in a way that makes them slide past people’s radar as “boring office work”, and other people have already come up with a ton of suggestions for deflecting if people push. There’s also the “Oh, it’s boring, I’d rather not. (deflection/clever question from this thread)”

    I know this make-it-vaguely-sound-like-I’m-engaging-in-ritualized-gainful-employment might not work for you, but I figured I’d toss it out there as a suggestion. (That said, I am going to try practicing to remember the “answer the question you wish they’d asked” thing. It sounds awesome.)

    Also, honestly, it’s not on you to make the other person not feel awkward. I mean, I get not wanting to make them feel awkward, and I applaud the sentiment, just wanted to say you get to take care of yourself first on this.

    [1] E.g.: Digging up an extensive list of post-apocalyptic video game settings and trying to categorize them.

  88. It’s annoying that we can’t find an all-purpose question that’s exactly at the intended intimacy level of “So, what do you do?” Honestly, I don’t want a new acquaintance to ask “What’s your story” or even “What do you do for fun” when I’ve known them for all of 60 seconds. It’s not that I’m super secretive; I’ll be happy to answer those questions once we’ve been conversing for around five minutes. It’s just, I need a question I don’t have to think about to get started. What I do for money is relatively straightforward and I can answer in a sentence or two. Ask me what I do for fun and I’ll be awkward and stumble over the answer. Of course, this is exactly why “What do you do?” would be hard if I didn’t work due to an illness or disability that most people have never heard of.

    An excellent alternative at parties and events is “How do you know [host’s name]?” or “How did you get involved with [organization hosting event we’re at]?” I’m scanning other commenters’ answers for other stock questions geared toward other kinds of meetings.

    • Phospher said:

      My mother once complained that my dad was bad at starting conversations at parties. “He can’t do it. You know, he can’t just go up to people and say “who are you and what is your purpose?'” I thought the idea that this was standard small talk was hilarious so I tried saying “who are you and what is your purpose?” once at a party (I told the little story as a lead in so people were fore-warned I was going to say something slightly odd.) It kind of went through awkward and out the other side — it was such an over-the-top question that people didn’t seem to feel weird about not having a pat answer, and I got some really fun, interesting answers. Some talked about their job, some their life aspirations, some their relationships. I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all solution, indeed, I’ve never had the nerve to do it again, but I thought it was interesting that the few people I tried it on responded well to a “let’s make it MORE awkward! Thereby acknowledging it was already awkward!” approach.

      • Paula said:

        “Who are you and what is your purpose” sounds like something you’d hear on Star Trek so if nothing else you’ve got the geek angle covered. Bonus points for Patrick Stewart voice!

    • SarahTheEntwife said:

      I like the “what do you do when you’re not at (conversational location)?” or “what are you up to these days?” that have been suggested, since the slightly different phrasing I think gets it out of the “discourse phrase with one specific meaning even though it sounds general” territory without being either snarky or overly personal. A lot of people probably will answer it with their job, since hey, it’s something that’s a big part of many people’s lives, but it doesn’t sound awkward to answer with hobbies or other general things-one-does.

      I’ve recently found that “learning Hittite” as an answer gets a rather hilarious range of reactions because it’s not usually a thing they’d realized people actually do. (Work? Work is moderately annoying. But it means I get to learn Hittite for free! Let us discuss Mesopotamia now.)

  89. I have a good friend in her mid 30s who just tells people she’s retired. Which I think makes sense, does not work, does not intend to work. And now she has a bunch of fun hobbies that she does. But yeah, I guess I”m not a person who would pry into an answer like that so I don’t know if it leads to a lot of annoying questions or not.

  90. Gilraen said:

    So I actually hate, hate, hate being asked “what do you do for fun?” by someone I just met. It flashes me back to high school where I never liked the right music, and reading and fandom are geeky, and I’m not into sports, and nobody can start a conversation from “oh, you know, hang out with friends, but mostly just chatting?” so ahhhh, what vaguely socially acceptable answer can I come up with that doesn’t make me sound insanely boring? Is it just me?

    • The thing is I actually have a bunch of hobbies, so I could list a group of things customized to every audience. Depending on who it is means who knows I am a gamer,knitter,blogger,redditor,dancer,painter, reader, singer…… yeah. So this is also a question I dread.

      I tend to try to make it more about a specific recent event that I did that was fun. I was just in my first dance performance, I have been reading htis great book, i got to meet one of my favorite authors so and so, I went to a convention about a bunch of TV shows I like, over the weekend I went with some friends to this new bar and we hung out for hours so on and so fort.. I feel like that gives you more to talk about than just generic categories of things, and a lot of conversational jumping off points.

      I also think that you should not worry so much about if they think your answer is “right.” I never liked the right stuff either, I always had geeky or weird interests. But I like what I like, people are asking because they want to get to know me, not find out if I fit in their friend appropriate box. (And if they are asking for the latter reason I am MORE THAN HAPPY to be left on the outside, thanks.)

    • Knights Who Say Knit said:

      Agreed, and I was just about to comment saying the exact same thing! It’s not that I actually think there are “right and wrong” (or “cool and uncool”) hobbies to have, but my particular brand of social anxiety sends me into that teenage-ish not-cool-enough spiral whenever someone asks me about my hobbies. I know it’s irrational, but that’s anxiety for you.

      And being in grad school, that spiral gets combined with the “hobbies? I can’t have hobbies I need to be working on my PhD 24/7” shame spiral (even though I’m big on self care and actually having hobbies and interests outside of school and my program is not that bad in terms of inculcating us with that kind of shame). And that PhD shame is worse now that I’m done with coursework and my grad school work is totally self directed, and I suspect it’ll get even worse six months or so down the road when I actually start working on my dissertation (right now I have a few different pre-dissertation requirements I’m working on). So yeah, the hobbies question is a fraught one for me, but I can talk to you about my degree if I’m in not too anxious a mood about it, and I can always talk your ear off about my TAships or the tutoring I do on the side. So the paid work question tends to be a bit less fraught (although it can be, since the whole PhD program is technically my paid work and that can sometimes also be a touchy subject).

      In sum, I really like the kinds of questions like “what do you do when you’re not (bowling/hanging out at this bar/taking your kids to soccer practice/insert whatever activity the small talkers are currently performing)?” or “how do you spend your time?”, which leave it open for people to talk about paid work, or school, or hobbies, or things that don’t quite fit neatly into just one of those categories.

  91. Ž said:

    I have a few different ways of saying what I do. There’s the overly honest thing where I say my girlfriend and I are working on something that might bring in revenue someday, hopefully before it’s too late, but usually I try to rephrase it to make it sound like it’s already a paying job.

    It’s easier than saying “I’m slipping through the gaps in our society’s threadbare safety net. How about you?”

  92. vanillapies said:

    Hey up. Sorry if this was covered already (I’ve only read all the comments my browser cached this morning), but I like being super literal about something I’m actually enthusiastic about, which I’m doing at the time.

    “What do you do?”

    “Right this minute I’m trying to perfect a blueberry pie recipe. Attempts 1-7 were over-blueberried, attempts 7-9 were a bit underdone and I set attempt 10 on fire. But I’m hopeful. What are you into?:D”

    At this point it isn’t usually a conversation about anyone’s job anymore (and is likely to have detoured into ‘what is the most unusual thing either of us set on fire)

    Alternatives:

    “Trying to to teach my pet cat/rock/stick insect not to fall asleep on my face me when I have a revitalising face mask on. It just gets messy. Although my pet cat/rock/stick insect has had an unusually glossy sheen lately. Hey have you read “Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor”? Awesome book…” *babbles on about book at this point, hopefully turns into conversation about books, pets or training*

    The last answer is almost entirely made up (apart from the bit about the book – really interesting read, starts off with animal training and ends up with human-behavioural training for yourself and other humans around you) as I haven’t used a revitalising face mask since I was 14 and my pet rock went traveling without me as it got sick of my inactive lifestyle.

    But that sort of thing 🙂

    • Luminous said:

      Based on this comment alone, I would love to have a conversation with you! It sounds like you really know how to open up some interesting and unusual topics.

  93. blackbird said:

    I’m currently unemployed and actively looking for a job, which brings with it similar conversational bear traps – I don’t want to tell everyone who knows that I’m looking for a job that no, haven’t been successful yet, yes, already tried it at X employer, no, I don’t want to go into the reasons why I applied for Y job and not Z (mostly because applying for Z would be a waste of time and effort with my resume and I’d rather do Y anyway).

    Mostly, people who don’t know about my unemployment are very easy to redirect with “Talking about work is boring” or “Nothing interesting” or something similar with changing the subject directly after, but people who know about it, especially those who’ve had the same job for decades or those who retired sometime in the last century (yup, grandma, talking about you), seem to think they can tell me all about job hunting while not being willing to ever let it go.

    • dkf said:

      According to a poster higher up, you should try funemployment! It means being unemployed while being rich. [ and y’all wonder why people are cautious around all these answers…]

    • ‘no, I don’t want to go into the reasons why I applied for Y job and not Z (mostly because applying for Z would be a waste of time and effort with my resume and I’d rather do Y anyway).’ Urg, this was one of things I hated during the last stretch of time I was unemployed, people suggesting I apply for x job that I KNOW I cannot get. ‘Oh just apply anyway!’ No thanks. Putting my all into an application is very draining, and it’s not just being negative to say you know you’re not in for a chance with a job you have no prior experience in and lack most of the qualifiers for, it’s being realistic. I’d rather spend my energy looking for and applying for jobs I know I’m in with a chance with.

      dkf, that was a bit out of place as a reply to blackbird as it had nothing really to do with what they said.

  94. Aurora said:

    My comment when I was unemployed was “I’m between jobs right now,” and then changing the subject. They really didn’t need to know (especially if there was any chance the data could get to potential employers via “friendly” conversations) that part of why I left my old job was because of severe chronic depression. “I’m between jobs” seems to shut people down on the “why don’t you have a PAID JOB RIGHT NOW,” and another good line I’ve gotten is basically “Yeah, the economy sucks right now” or some kind of equivalent statement that even employed folks can totally sympathize with. Everyone knows someone who got laid off in downsizing or who had a hard time finding a job when they “should” have had an easy time or maybe business is super slow for them and the company is teetering or etc etc etc. And it shifts the topic onto current affairs rather than *you* and what *you* do and why *you* aren’t working right now. Then nudge the topic toward other stuff you actually find nice to talk about.

  95. Jane said:

    Oh God.

    As someone who is — A. temporarily underemployed (as in, I have a short-term job that requires about five fewer years of schooling than I have) B. disillusioned with everything about the master’s degree she is completing (sure, I’d love to do something with it! . . . there aren’t even paying jobs in the CORE of my profession right now, and I do some weird peripheral shit that people think is nice but are unwilling to pay for) (also my advisor sort of told me she wouldn’t write me a recommendation without mentioning my poor mental health, and I am not sure what impact that is going to have on me searching in-field?) and C. semi-functional (my parents have supported me for various periods as an adult for sort-of legit mental health reasons, and other reasons that I imagine most of my peers would interpret as me being fucking lazy) — this question just sucks giant clods of cat crap.

    Some people are obviously asking it to be judgy. (In my current context, my worst fear is one of my high school classmates who has been steadily employed since then using my spotty job history to make fun of how the “smart kid” ended up being a drain on society anyway.)

    But even when it’s someone who I know is nonjudgmental, it’s just NOT SOMETHING I WANT TO FUCKING TALK ABOUT. I don’t want your tips on job hunting. I don’t want your assurances that I can find a job in this region (THAT I DO NOT WANT TO WORK IN.) I don’t want to explain how little I care about developing a “career.” (“I expect to have a depressive breakdown that completely sabotages my progress about every four years, so I’m not going to get too worried about my job advancement.”) You, strange person, don’t know anything about my field or my specialty or what I want to do! Why are you offering me advice?

    Everything about my employment/education/training fills me with shame and BADFEELS. CAN WE PLEASE TALK ABOUT OUR PETS OR THE WEATHER NOW PLEASE. OR HOW ‘BOUT THOSE COOKIES ON THE SNACK TABLE. THOSE THERE ARE SOME FINE COOKIES AREN’T THEY.

    • philae's friend said:

      That’s funny, I don’t remember writing this comment or being named Jane, but I’m 100% sure you are me!

      The shame and BADFEELS are so intense that I’ve given up on all but the most superficial of socializing. My hope is that some day, I will have clawed my way far enough toward some modicum of normalcy that I can just pretend I am normal and NEVER EVER EVER talk about this period of my life to anyone.

  96. Kate said:

    I’ve done “Oh wow, do we have to talk about work?! Let’s talk about something fun! What do you do for fun?” successfully.

  97. Im in the same boat (dont really work due to disability) and I struggle with the question; on a good day I dont mind telling, but on a bad one I dont feel up to the inevitable follow up of “oh! Whats wrong with you?”

    I usually settle for “oh, not as much as Id like, really. How about you?”

    It does depend on context tho. At an art exhibition private view “I write, and I enjoy photography, but Im nowhere near the standard on show here! You?” At a geek thing “I used to be a unix sysadmin, but Im not always well enough. I do like [geek thing] though, do you?” and so on.

  98. DameB said:

    I have a differently fraught but similar situation. I’m a SAHM who has one kid and she’s already 9. I stayed at home for a zillion reasons but that’s a highly highly controversial decision in my world. And now that she’s at school, there’s the universal expectation that I will go back to work. Which I haven’t done, for complex reasons (emotional, economic, and logistical, rather than mental or physical health). But I don’t want to start revealing the details to strangers.

    Like others, I’ve successfully used “I’m a freelance writer and editor,” with a breezy smile. When they ask if I’ve written anything they’ve read, I say, “Oh, no it’s all fiddly and dull commercial writing,” and that makes their eyes glaze over, so they are thrilled when I follow it up with, “But I’m a total foodie! <>.”

  99. Amber said:

    Could you mentally add the “-for fun?” and just start talking about your hobbies or interests? Probably nobody would risk major awkwardness by correcting you.

    I will go on for several (boring) hours about any of my writing projects or my current efforts to learn how to make chain mail. I have a job but trying to explain it makes people’s eyes glaze over so I prefer not to talk about it.

  100. Stella said:

    Reading these comments has made me realise that basically any question we ask about others can, and sometimes will, hit a nerve. But most of the time, the questions come from a good place – it’s the follow up that reveals the character of the person asking.
    There’s no perfect response to a question that hits a nerve, but “ah, that’s something I don’t enjoy talking about” is a no-fuss response everyone can relate to.

  101. Anyanka said:

    Sometimes I find that depending on how the question is asked I want to reply with my different stock answers. Like, if someone’s being incredibly snooty/judgey/coding “How much of a worthy person, deserving of my attention are you?” I might reply with “Masturbating to/writing Pacific Rim slashfic” or “Reading about how to destroy capitalism,” but people who just seem awkward or trying to do the ‘start a conversation’ might get more stuff about what TV shows I watch or what fandoms I’m in, the crochet I’m learning, etc.

    I really hate the question, partially because I hate small-talk in general, but also because answering honestly that I’m a student inevitably leads to ‘a student of what?’ and then I have to tell people my majors and then they ooh and aah and wow, isn’t that a lot? Which 100% sounds to me as ‘you’re too dumb for that, don’t you know?’ So, yeah, ‘what do you do’ is not really a question I try to ever ask people.

  102. Lisa Katz said:

    I took a semester off of college due to an illness, and was unable to handle more than some temp work on and off for some of the time. When people asked me what I did, I often said, “I go to the school of life”. It generally got a few laughs, and if pressured I’d say that I “saw a lot of movies at the Music Box and the Three Penny” or that I “hung out with people I like”. The funny thing is that some people got the impression that I was a trust fund kid gone bad. I didn’t dissuade them. 😉

  103. K said:

    I’m coming at this from the POV of an abled-bodied sex worker, so I have quite a lot of experience dodging questions about my job but no experience being disabled.

    It’s often pretty easy to distract people from asking about your job at all. People love to talk about themselves, and if/when it occurs to them that they should be asking you questions as well they tend to mirror the questions you’ve asked them. So you can often avoid the subject entirely by questioning them in-depth about non-work related things. Hobbies, favorite TV shows, how they know the host, favorite places around town — whatever subjects you can safely talk about.

    Admittedly it can be pretty exhausting to steer the conversation so carefully whenever you’re talking to someone new, but it’s pretty easy if you’re talking to someone interesting who likes to talk about themselves. Or even better, someone who is obsessed with your favorite TV show.

  104. Aurora S. said:

    I find that when people ask the, “What do you do?” question when they meet you, it’s because they’re trying to judge where you fall on the socioeconomic ladder so they can calculate your worth as a human and decide in their minds how and if they should establish dominance. Whenever someone asks me what I do, my answers vary from, “Oh, I do lots of things,” to, “I eat bonbons and read trashy novels on the couch.” Sometimes I follow it up with, “Why do you ask?” (I LOVE “why do you ask”, because it often turns out it’s because the other party is being nosy, and “why do you ask” is the politest way of saying, “MIND YOUR OWN GODDAMN BUSINESS.”)

    “For a job in which you earn money” is usually implied rather than asked outright, so taking the question at face value deflects the question. I can only remember once when asked the, “So…what do *you* do?” question and answering with my hobbies, etc., someone saying, “No…what do you do, like for a job?”…and of course, I replied with, “Oh. I see. Why do you ask?” 🙂

  105. Lately I have been having this question a lot too. I’m living abroad, and I think in the context of where I’m living now, that question makes me feel much more uncomfortable than at home. I’m doing an internship and volunteer work because I lack professional experience on my field, but these are UNPAID, even though I have lots of responsibilities and work a lot for them. As soon as they learn I’m not paid for the jobs they get very condescending, meaning I do not have a real job. This question sucks, as it reminds me every time how I can’t get a job and that I don’t make a living wage. Maybe I’m biased but most times it seems to me people ask this question with a classist intention.

    So having a mental illness condition, feeling low because of not getting any jobs, people making me feel less valuable….. really sucks. People should move on from this question, because what does it say about us anyway?! it’s sad how even close people don’t seem to mind or even care about out unpaid jobs, because they do not consider them real jobs.

    In general I treat these jobs as they are, and leave unpaid out. Eventually in the conversation it will come up, but by then I found something else to reply back with and it’s okay… doesn’t solve the issue though…

  106. TJ said:

    A new friend of mine, when I met her, asked me “how do you spend your time?” instead of the typical question, and I loved it. It doesn’t fully skirt the issue at hand here, but it’s a very open ended question that allows you to answer as you like. I am employed full time and like to talk about my job but realize that’s not true of everyone, so I’ve taken up this particular phrase in place of “what do you do?” when meeting new people.

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