3 Reasons I Hate the Question ‘What Do You Do for a Living?’

A stressed person is surrounded by coworkers wanting help.

A stressed person is surrounded by coworkers wanting help.

At 26, I now have a clearly defined set of social obligations – the first and foremost being to be a “professional.”

I was able to hide behind “student” for a long time, even turning to that answer at times when it wasn’t completely true (I mean, how different is a recent graduate from a student really? And isn’t two years ago still fairly recent?).

But as I get older, my fall-back answer weakens, and I face the dreaded question on a regular basis: “So, what is it that you do?”

In the US, this question is so commonplace that it often comes right after asking someone’s name, as if knowing what someone “does” is just as important as what you will from then on out refer to them as.

I never thought much of it until I lived in Cuba, where asking someone what they do is a much more personal question. It’s kind of understood that everyone is doing what they need to do to bring in resources and survive.

Asking people to get into details is not only overwhelming – for some people, it can put them in social danger. I’m thinking, for example, of people who work in informal economies or who do work not traditionally seen as “respectable.”

I came to appreciate the difference. For the first time, what I did didn’t feel like a crucial part of who I am.

Then I came home.

And I wasn’t working.

People would ask me what I do, and I felt insecure as I answered, “I’m unemployed.”

They often reacted as if they had just found out I was suffering from an illness – like, “You know what, girl, I’mma pray for you. I know you gonna get better soon.”

It’s a discomfort I faced almost daily, because the question is that prevalent.

But, seeing as it took me living a couple years in a blockaded country to see the absurdity in it, I understand that many of us don’t give it much thought. It’s one of those things that has become so automatic, it’s unexamined.

But we need to examine it – and we need to do so through a feminist lens.

So I’m going to explain three reasons why I hate the question “What do you do?” in the hopes that this question might come to seem as absurd to others as it now does to me.

1. ‘What You Do’ Is Reduced to How You Make Money

I’ve tried to get creative with my answers to this question as a way to sidestep it altogether. The truth is, I do many things. I read books, I spend time with my sister, I talk to friends on the phone. The verb “to do” actually offers a lot of flexibility of interpretation.

The fact that we flatten everything that verb could potentially mean to what you do to generate income speaks volumes of our cultural values. We know this question has a function, because it’s such a crucial element of our greetings and introductions.

I believe work is human – survival is the most intense job of all. I love to work. I enjoy my labor and observing the fruit thereof. I consider work a fundamental element of being alive.

Capitalism manipulates this element. It reduces our labor to what we do to make money within this system and places that work on a value hierarchy. That hierarchy then serves to justify denying some people a basic living wage.

Capitalism depends on a culture that reduces the value of our lives to the value of our labor when sold as a commodity in the formal economy.

We deny the inherent worth of people who are unable to sell their labor in recognized markets, whether because of a disability or because they do traditionally feminine work that is seen as something to be freely taken.

Or, as was my case, because you are just straight-up unemployed. And we judge others as if their failure to participate is a failure of their character.

Part of my own insecurities stemmed from what I worried others would assume about me far beyond my literal employment status.

In the US, what you do to bring in resources is not just synonymous with your worth, but is also used to make assumptions about your intelligence, values, and even how long some might consider you worth speaking to.

2. ‘What You Do’ Is Used to Evaluate Your Social Capital

From the perspective of a class migrant, the concept of a “profession” for me bears the mark of the middle class.

Growing up, my parents never talked about their careers or professional development.

They talked about bills. They talked about all the things we couldn’t afford. When I would ask to go to McDonalds or Walmart, my mother would respond that we didn’t have McDonalds or Walmart money. She responded like this so often, I spent a part of my childhood believing each store had its own form of currency.

And jobs were things they hated, but did because we had bills and hella shit we needed that we couldn’t afford to buy. Jobs were also not just for adults. Once my sister hit working age, she was waiting tables. And when my time came, I started the hustle as well.

Not because my parents wanted to groom us with healthy capitalist values – work hard, earn yours, pull yourself up – but because every person of age in my family needed to be working for us to survive.

It’s funny confronting the pressure now to turn professional because of my age. I’ve been working since I was 15. That means I’m already 11 years into my working life.

And therein lies the difference, I note now. What was survival for my family and I (that is, existence in the most literal sense) is now a figurative existence in the social spaces I occupy. For example, it’s very common for me to hear people talk about how someone is now a “real person” because they have a cozy, conventional middle-class job to which many of us don’t have access.

The underlying message is that a real existence is about having a socially-glorified job. What was just “work” for my parents is the cornerstone of people’s self-worth in the middle class, where what you “do” communicates a bit about your social capital.

Networking events lay all these dynamics to bear. They’re often little more than an open invitation to assess people’s social capital and get your schmooze on when you find the connection you want to exploit for upward capitalist mobility.

We ask people what they do after we ask their name, because their work is basically a part of how we’ll refer to them from then on. This is what you do. This is who you are. This is what you can and can’t do for me.

And socializing becomes another part of the rat race.

3. People Want to Police ‘What You Do’

Please allow a short anecdotal detour to explain this point.

During my time in Cuba, I shaved my hair off. Something I had done many times before. I didn’t think much of it. After, I went downstairs to talk to my host grandmother like I did multiple times a day. Suddenly, everything was different.

She insisted I looked like a boy. She said she wouldn’t talk to me until I put on earrings. She was furious that my appearance didn’t conform to conventional gender norms.

I was shocked. I began to see everything differently.

I looked in her eyes. I looked at her hair, her outfit. I looked around at the life she had created for herself. I felt that she attacked me because my gender fluidity forced her to confront how much she had constructed her life and identity according to what she thought it meant to be a “woman.”

I realized then that inhabiting the truest version of myself can be threatening to those who are convinced there’s only one path to a worthy livelihood.

I believe “what do you do for a living” also serves as a way to police the vocational decisions of others. While we praise those who do socially celebrated work, we punish those who do not. Or we treat people who turn to alternatives with suspicion.

After being unemployed for awhile, I decided I wanted to work for myself. The responses got worse. When I said I was looking for work, people reacted as if I were ill. When I said I was working for myself, people lost their sympathy – as if it were worse that I didn’t have the dignity to even look for work.

I became self-employed in much the same way I became gender non-binary. I decided to live without worrying about explaining my decisions to others. It’s up to me to define and identify my success. Especially if I want my labor to belong to me in some sense.

It hit me that I do not have to provide for myself in easily digestible, recognizable, or socially acceptable ways.

And if I did, I would have to abandon the parts of myself I hold most dear.

***

Now, you’re probably wondering: What is it that I do, exactly?

And the answer I tend to give is that I have done whatever I have felt called to do. My “work” has been primarily wage labor I engage in to bring in resources for the activities that matter most to me: study, dance, language learning.

The parts of me I’m most proud of can’t be easily articulated on a resume. Most of what I do has nothing to do with how I generate income.

In his famous BET speech, Jesse Williams thanked his parents for teaching him to put comprehension over career. That’s the closest thing I’ve heard that resonates with what I do.

My short life has been about trying to understand my position in a global community, trying to reconcile my tumultuous path so I can love myself and those around me better, trying not to take life for granted.

I have focused on getting my heart broken, being broke, and figuring out how to pick up my own pieces. What do I do? Well, I have a hell of a lot of stories to tell.

For now, I work on finding comfort in whatever I find myself doing. I work on using my own standards to determine my self-worth and success.

Sam Carter is a black being, first generation child of an immigrant and two parents who never went to college, a revolutionary artist, and a survivor. Follow Sam on Twitter @computercavemen or visit their website.