Dreaded Question

We all know what it’s like to attend a gathering where there’s more than a few unfamiliar faces and where we feel a little awkward and out of place. In these settings, brief introductions, small-talk, and polite laughter are sure to get us through to the other side (i.e., home) provided we’re willing and able to tough it out. For me, however, toughing it out is a challenge I’d much rather avoid whenever possible.

Why? Well, there’s one particular reason that comes to mind:

Some time ago, I began to hate being asked, “What do you do?”

So What’s the Big Deal?

Over the last two years, I’ve found myself analyzing this question and why people feel the need to start just about any conversation with strangers in this manner. I guess it sparked my curiosity while I was in the thick of my job hunt, spending every waking hour thinking about my next moves and wrestling with the unknowns. Most days, I was sick of talking about anything job related and desperately wanted an escape. Unfortunately, this dreaded question (and the like) wouldn’t go away, and for the longest time, I couldn’t respond with a solid answer — at least not one I was happy with.

Most people expect the person in question to offer information about their job title and employer, but what does that mean for people who are between jobs — particularly longtime job seekers? Talking to a stranger about unemployment is no fun and opens up the door for more unwelcome questions that are, in my opinion, inappropriate for a first-time encounter.

Now imagine how uncomfortable it must be to entertain this question in a room full of strangers asking the same question back to back.

I’ve been there on a number of occasions, and it’s mentally taxing.

Before Things Were Complicated

Once upon a time, it was easy to have these types of conversations. When I was in school, I could simply blurt out, “Oh, I’m at student at UT . . .” Later on, after I entered the professional world, I could say, “Oh, I’m a City Planner,” and then proceed to explain the details of my work. There was no hesitation, no ambiguity whatsoever. I had something to identify with, and that made me feel more confident.

I didn’t realize how much until those titles were no longer there.

Fun-employment, and eventually, various forms of self-employment, forced me out of my comfort zone and made me shy away from inquisitive strangers and their vain attempts at getting to know me. Then again, it wasn’t just strangers I suppose . . . I felt the same discomfort while catching up with friends and old colleagues I hadn’t spoken to in a while.

I’m sure nobody cared that much, but I did (and oftentimes, still do). I wanted things to feel less complicated. I wanted my false sense of confidence back. I wanted people to perk up with curiosity about me and my professional endeavors . . . Not patronize me and offer advice on job hunting as if I had asked for it. Unbeknownst to me, I had grown accustomed to the comfort of being placed in a clear cut, “respectable” category, no matter where I found myself.

Unemployment and freelancing didn’t offer that.

More Than A Job Title

Do people really think that they’ll know more about a person once they have a handle on what they do for a living? I’m sure there’s hundreds of thousands of individuals whose job titles offer little to no substantial amount of information about their interests, values, and aspirations. Perhaps the question, “What do you do?” is just one of those safe icebreakers that can be used in any social setting and serves no other purpose than to start a conversation.

But the key is this: I control the answer.

If nothing else, the time I’ve spent wrestling with this question has forced me to think about the truth of my identity beyond a title or a profession. I’m so much more than what I subconsciously believe about myself, but I often forget. More recently, I’ve made a conscious effort to formulate go-to answers to remember, no matter who’s asking. It may sound silly, but it’s been helpful as I learn to appreciate the sum of all the things that I do (to pay the bills and otherwise) and to acknowledge all the things that make me, me. It also helps to write these things down.

I’ll admit, I still look for ways to dodge questions about my professional life from time to time and skillfully shift the focus of conversations from me to something or someone else. This lessens some of the pressure I feel in those moments, and I won’t apologize for it . . . Simply put, some days are better than others.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re like me and you’ve struggled with casual conversations about what you do professionally, understand that you’re not alone. You’re so much more than a title and a career. Consider all the things that make you, you; and remember that you have control over how you perceive yourself and the work you do, and that’s what matters most. Don’t let the fear of how other people might perceive you dictate the way you feel about yourself or the goals you’re working towards.

The next time you’re in one of those conversations, you decide what you do and / or don’t want to reveal about yourself and how, then keep it moving.


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