Why It’s Time To Stop Asking, So What Do You Do?

How exactly do you bring home the bacon?

Why It’s Time To Stop Asking, So What Do You Do?

So, what do you do?’ Innocent, innocuous small talk; an uninspired icebreaker. It’s what we need to know before deciding whether to keep talking or to look for the crab cakes. I get it. We don’t have a lot of time and it’s super important we size each other up with quick and easy labels. But even before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I hated this question.

The question belongs to a society where value is intrinsically linked to work. And the kind of work we do is linked to how much bacon we bring home. This line of interrogation is so inherently North American that most would be surprised to learn it’s considered très rude in European countries like France where talking about oneself is a sign of faiblesse mentale

Mais pourquoi, you ask? 
The French believe that attempting to establish some kind of social order or trying to (gasp) network at a party is tacky, tedious, gauche. What we do for money often doesn’t reveal anything about who we actually are. Because, here’s the skinny:

Lots of people don’t like their jobs.

Mondays don’t have a bad rap for no reason, and lots of people don’t wanna be judged by whatever it is they’re doing to get by. And anyway, would you talk to me any differently if I were a corporate CEO or an amusement park carny? 

Almost certainly yes.
Okay, carnies are an extreme example, and you probably shouldn’t ask them too many questions anyway, but for the under-employed, unemployed, or those who are without a ‘real’ job, this question is stressful.  Add to this the growing number of people whose job titles are less conventional and require some explanation. Do we really want to get to the heart of what Chandler Bing does all day?
And then there’s disability. Serious illness often impacts careers. In the midst of changing physical abilities and professional identities, having to confront the question of Who am I if I don’t do whatever it is that I used to do is a circumstance most don’t encounter until retirement, and not a question anyone wants to address at a cocktail party. 

As much as I feel I have a pretty good grip on who I am and what I bring to the table, I’ve not yet figured out how to distil this into a socially acceptable party response. “What do you do?” demands a clear-cut, one or two word answer, not an existential essay about how I’m an aunt, friend, volunteer, traveler, activist; a gossiping, wine-drinking smart aleck, part-time concubine, and well, blogger. 


Oh, you’re a blogger? But, what do you REALLY do?
The fact is, I do a lot of stuff. Interesting stuff. But I don’t always get paid in bacon, and isn’t that what you mean?
No doubt, there are people who love asking and being asked, “So, what do you do?” But not because they want to know more about you. More likely they want to blah blah and impress you with their own exciting career, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Instagram is for.
I’m not saying we should never talk shop at a shindig. I’m saying, let’s all take a deep breath and a big sip of sangria before launching into “What do you do”. How we pay the bills shouldn’t be the first thing we find out about each other. 


Fine. What the hell can we talk about?

In the interview for my friendship, or even for my attention, I’d much rather learn about what you’re reading or Netflixing. What’s your favourite brunch spot? Ask me how I know the host, or what I’m drinking. Ask me what I like to do, or how I’m spending my summer. 

The answer is to know yourself and who cares what other people think. But we still need the short answer that satisfies the nosy room. The question will continue to be asked, and since I can’t actually move to France, the next time I’m confronted with “So, what do you do?”, I will shrug and say “Whatever I want”. Then I’ll go find the Carny and ask him what he’s binge-watching with the Human Cannonball.

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18 thoughts on “Why It’s Time To Stop Asking, So What Do You Do?

  1. My favorite brunch place is Charley’s Crab in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I read MS Blogs and Alcoholics Anonymous literature. The last book I read and enjoyed was Awkward Bitch by Marlo Donato, a woman with MS from NYC. I’ve done karaoke once, about 15 years ago, it was Ice Cream Man by Van Halen. It rocked. My name is… “The Big Fat Panda.”


  2. Yes! This is what I'm talking about. If I'm ever in Grand Rapids, I will have brunch at Charley's Crab. And you are the second person in one week to recommend Awkward Bitch to me, so I am going to order it today.
    Thanks JE!

  3. This post, as always, is spot on! Full time smart aleck is my favorite. I have to tell you that I want
    to write these things down so I can remember to say something like this next time I feel the need to defend / define myself! And you truly do have a gift – making us smile in the face of this illness. If that isn't a bit of wizardry I don't know what is!
    Thanks again – Barbara

  4. Brunch at Charley's Crab is on Sunday, and is usually very busy, they slice prime rib… Enjoy Awkward Bitch. I bet you will.


  5. Amazing post! (… part-time concubine?)

    However…, I think you are a bit too down on bacon. In the past day, I have just ate some (ok, about 500g) of the best bacon ever, crazy good bacon – just snacking on it every time I go past the fridge. Honestly, who would ever bother with carrots? And I can think of nothing better than being paid in bacon…

  6. While you raise a good point, I once tried to take some bacon to TD bank and it didn't work out. I don't know about other Canadian banks but they assured me that, as far as they are concerned, bacon is not 'legal tender'.

  7. I am new to your blog. I love your humor! As I become more and more challenged with getting from here to there the "new" me is being is perpetually being defined. Awhile ago I realized that I can't use the phrase " I used to" which was inevitably the opening to my answer to your original question. Ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life. Now I see that the ordinary moments in our lives is where we can find real happiness. FYI my favorite brunch is home with friends. I need a new book but I did pick up a hankering for bourbon and I'm a bialy girl. If you're ever in Boston let's do brunch!

  8. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for your note, I'm so glad you found me.
    You're right about the 'ordinary'. Isn't that what everyone is working so hard to achieve, anyway? More of the ordinary time with the people we love.
    I like brunch at home when I'm feeling ambitious. I rock a mean French Toast. Actually, it's Martha's recipe and the secret ingredient is booze, natch.
    Boston is badass town!

  9. Neil Gaiman tells a wonderful story about how he was once asked "What do you do?" at a party. He said, "I write comic books." The other person looked disgusted and then asked, "And who are you?"
    "Neil Gaiman."
    The other person then exclaimed, "Oh no, you don't write comic books. You write graphic novels."
    And Gaiman said, "I felt like a hooker who'd just been called a lady of the evening."
    Now I'm beginning to think I should start conversations at parties with, "So are you a hooker or a lady of the evening?" although "What are you reading and can I get you another drink?" is what I'd really like to know.

  10. I'm reading Last Night in Twisted River (John Irving) because I will never stop hoping for another Owen Meany.
    Recently I was told 'You're not a writer, you're a blogger'. So I guess that makes me a hooker.
    And I would love another drink, thank you. Something with maraschino cherries.

  11. What does it say about me that I'd rather hang with the Carnie, because at least I won't be bored and my social awkwardness won't leave me standing alone or with someone eyeballing me like I'm crazy.

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