The Question I Wish I Was Never Asked

‘Tis the season of cocktail parties and awkward social gatherings. I say awkward because I’m not used to going out at night and chatting with people I don’t know. Over time it gets easier and I tend to warm up with a few sips of wine. It’s those first few minutes after entering a room that are the worst. I never know who to make eye contact with or how to introduce myself. Usually it’s best to get there early so I can be a part of the established group. That way as others enter the onus is on them to join a conversation already started.

Am I the only one who worries about these things? Surely not.

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I’ve attended my share of holiday social events this year and while most of them have been mildly diverting, I am getting a little tired of answering my least favourite question in the world. You know the one I’m talking about.  It’s asked in every single conversation with a stranger, typically right after names are exchanged. I’ve asked it myself, for lack of anything better to say, but it always feels uncomfortable and makes my eye twitch.

“What do you do?”

They mean profession, of course. What do you do to put money in the bank? Or, in other words, how much money is in that account anyway?

In our supposedly classless society, job choice is the only means we have to judge our place against others. Doctors and lawyers are at the top of the scale and are sure to impress, the same way titled nobility made a mark several hundred years ago. Military is right up there too. Second comes any other position that requires professional certification, et cetera, et cetera.

In all fairness, most people don’t mean anything by the question. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it’s instinctive. We ask it mostly to be polite and because we genuinely don’t know what else to say; we might hope it will start a longer dialogue.There is often simply nothing else to ask. To not ask would be strange.

Knowing this, it still bothers me. It still comes off as a little too searching, a little too supercilious. “What do you do? Tell me so I will know if you are my social superior, equal, or inferior. What is your social rank?”

One could argue I may not feel this way if I had a job in the higher social strata and one would probably be right. However, I don’t feel that one’s profession defines them. There is so much more to a person than what they do to earn a living. You never know what choices they have made or what opportunities were or were not available. Though one person may be a highly specialized surgeon, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is any more capable than the person she hires to weed her garden. She just had more education.

Education is a tricky thing. Quite a few years ago after a frenzy period of studying I took the LSAT and was accepted into law school. If I had gone ahead with my plans, I would have graduated from said school two years ago. Life had other plans and I ended up going a different direction. While I wonder where I might be today had I gone that route, I have no regrets. I may not be a lawyer but I have many other accomplishments of which I am proud. Does it make me less of a person?

It strikes me that dogs don’t do this. At the dog park Shiva doesn’t run up to other canines and sniff them to see how expensive their collars are. Nor does she watch them arrive and gauge where she stands in their ranks based on the price of their human’s car. Instead, dogs seem to seek out others with similar interests and personalities. Shiva doesn’t know she is a mutt. All she knows is she likes to run and play and seeks out other dogs who frolic with the same energy.

Maybe I can learn something from her here. Instead of asking that icky middle class question, perhaps I can phrase it differently. Rather than asking “what do you do?”, I can ask “what do you enjoy?” That way I will learn more about the person as an individual and find out if we have anything in common.

Of course, if all else fails, I can stick to my favourite question and avoid all awkwardness completely. The one line of inquiry that instantly starts a warm conversation with almost everyone I’ve ever met is so simple I often forget to pull it out. But it’s guaranteed to work almost every time:

“Do you have any pets?”

Do you have any tips for social events? What question do you dislike being asked the most?

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26 Comments on The Question I Wish I Was Never Asked

  1. jet
    December 18, 2012 at 11:10 pm (1 year ago)

    I hate that question too, because if I tell people my job title, most people don’t know what it means. A large number of people don’t even know the organisation I work for even though they pay money to it once or twice a year. My job is pretty boring to talk about, so when they ask questions I tend to gloss over it!
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  2. caren gittleman
    December 18, 2012 at 11:11 pm (1 year ago)

    So much insight and truth in this post.

    LOVE the idea of asking “What do you enjoy?” Or “Do you have any pets?” I am definitely going to think of you when I use them in the future!
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  3. 2 brown dawgs
    December 18, 2012 at 11:15 pm (1 year ago)

    Oh when they ask, “what do you do?” they mean for a job? No wonder I get the odd looks when I go into our latest training set-up. ;)
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  4. Tena @SuccessJustClicks
    December 18, 2012 at 11:24 pm (1 year ago)

    I definitely dis-like the “what do you do” question. But I HATE even more that I feel the urge to say, “well, I worked for Cornell University’s extension system until the recession hit and my funding was cut” before saying I am a small business owner that does dog training because I don’t want people being judgmental on my CHOSEN profession.

    Definitely like the “what do you enjoy doing” question. I actually don’t generally initiate about pets/dogs because I inevitably get asked about a certain famous ‘trainer’ and I want to avoid that discussion :) HAHA!
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  5. houndstooth
    December 19, 2012 at 12:07 am (1 year ago)

    Oh, you’re asking the wrong person here for help in social situations! I am horrible at those things. True story, we went to hubby’s EMA dinner at a really nice restaurant last week. None of the other SAR people were there for various reasons, so there was nobody else there that I knew at all. Anyway, we sat down at the only place left for two people next to a group of four that all worked at the same place and obviously knew each other well socially. They never said a word to us! I waited for my husband to make some kind of introduction and it never happened. If I hadn’t gotten steak for dinner out of it, I’d have been rather ticked off! lol

    Anyway, I think asking people about their hobbies or pets almost always gets an interesting response, so I vote for sticking with those!
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  6. KellyLou
    December 19, 2012 at 12:23 am (1 year ago)

    I actually don’t mind that question as it gives me a lot to talk about, I’m proud of what i do and what my organization has achieved. The question I really HATE is the have you finished university question. And the looks when I say I’m still working on it. Nevermind the fact that I have a job that I love and am proud of, they mark me by where the progress in my degree (which is in an unrelated field of course).

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  7. one person's view
    December 19, 2012 at 12:57 am (1 year ago)

    I live in a community where almost no one has pets, and the women either teach or sell stuff out of their homes. I get laughed at for having an education.

    If I was you, I’d answer that question with, “I blog… oh, well, I have a job doing X, but really I’m a blogger.” They’ll either be admiring or confused, which is better than condescending. :)
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  8. Julie
    December 19, 2012 at 2:43 am (1 year ago)

    I really loved the look on people’s faces when I told them that I was a dog-walker :) “You can make a living walking dogs?” was always their first question – ha ha! Of course you can – all of the silly people that work 10-12 hour days need someone that can walk their dog :)

    It’s my least favorite question too – I’m not really impressed by anyone’s title or position – I just like nice people! (especially PET people!)
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  9. Ann Paws
    December 19, 2012 at 2:48 am (1 year ago)

    I can totally relate! I haven’t had any adult only, non children social activity in almost 5 months now… trying to keep my sanity! So I don’t get asked this question much since I became a stay at home mom. I used to love to answer the question when I worked as a vet tech and I think I could have talked about it for a lot longer than most people would care to listen lol… I haven’t had to answer the question with “I am a blogger” yet, wonder how that convo would go?
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  10. sara, oreo and chewy
    December 19, 2012 at 8:00 am (1 year ago)

    You tell them ….” I write a blog”. I think they will be really, really impressed. Then, you give them the link to someone else’s blog so they don’t start reading yours, which would make things uncomfortable!

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  11. Georgia Little Pea
    December 19, 2012 at 8:12 am (1 year ago)

    I remember being asked that question shortly after I “retired”. When I said “housewife”, the person instantly switched off and walked away. Imagine. A month earlier, she might have become my best friend.
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  12. Maggie
    December 19, 2012 at 11:18 am (1 year ago)

    Oh, man. Social situations. I’m so awkward. I just went to a holiday party this past weekend, and it was incredibly stressful. I never know how to insert myself into a conversation, especially with people I don’t know. However, the one question I’ve found that works well is, “What do you do for fun?” People love to talk about hobbies and weekends, it seems, more than their jobs!
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  13. Gizmo (@GizmoGeodog)
    December 19, 2012 at 11:36 am (1 year ago)

    What an excellent post this is…Thank you so much for putting into words what I often feel…Though I did got to law school, pass the bar and practice as an attorney for a while, I chose not to continue…What I do for a money is just that…I do it for money…It says nothing at all about who I am…I wish the question was “What do you enjoy?” That would mean so much more
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  14. jan
    December 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm (1 year ago)

    After years of hearing “As little as possible” as an answer, I usually just say “Tell me about yourself.” That seems less economically intrusive. I may start asking about pets though. I’d never thought of that.
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  15. Blueberry's human
    December 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm (1 year ago)

    I hate that question. Probably cause I am just an administrative assistant. Not very impressive and I once thought I saw a tumbleweed roll on by during the awkward silence that followed. I know people don’t mean to ask it to be cruel, but it is pretty natural to feel superior to those that have the lower income, less impressive job titles.

    Great post by the way – I love the idea of asking about if they have pets or what they like to do for fun to steer clear of the awkwardness!
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  16. Jodi
    December 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm (1 year ago)

    Well typically I sniff them first. If they smell badly I don’t hang around for the conversation, no point to it. :-)

    Usually for me the first few minutes are awkward but beyond that, I will talk about anything.
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  17. Julie Lowe
    December 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm (1 year ago)

    I had a slightly similar detour in my life. Since the age of 4 years, I knew I would be a veterinarian. I was enroute, headed that way, with high honor roll and considering attendance at Cornell University. Then…I met a boy. Who, 30 years later, I realized was wrong for me. Now divorced and in animal rescue I answer the question the way I’d like to, which is mostly focusing on my charity work. Sure, I have a job — but that is not what I live for.

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  18. Annie
    December 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm (1 year ago)

    My favorite answer to the question – What do you do? is “as little as possible” – after the usual stunned look – I like to say – I have a very full life with work and volunteering – and then throw the question back – what about you – what do you do – it gets people talking about themselves – which is what most people like to do anyways -

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  19. Kolchak & Jodi
    December 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm (1 year ago)

    I hate that question. Seriously, who wants to answer “I work in Sales for a small regional glass company.” Livin’ the dream. Living. the. Dream.

    I tend to answer the question with what I *DO* not what I do for work. People are surprised by it. “Oh, I like baking, hiking, and long walks on the beach!”

    They usually laugh and ask what I do for work to which I answer “Boring stuff. Who wants to talk about pushing paperwork around? What do you do? And don’t tell me about your job. I want to hear about the fun stuff!”
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  20. PepperPom
    December 19, 2012 at 9:40 pm (1 year ago)

    OMD!! I hate that question! It is particularly stressful when you are disabled and can’t work; no matter how intelligent, educated, and talented you may be. Over the years I have adapted to my hidden disabilities, but the first several years, I dreaded that question. I was so happy to move away from an urban area and into a small town where people are less materialistic.
    Now I answer with my hobbies like “I sew, I blog, I train my dog. But personally I try to avoid asking that question when I can. I like the “what pets do you have? Do you have pets? What food here is good tonight? Have you ever______? ” type of conversation starters. Although now that I have Pepper, usually talk is all about her. My favorite topic! :)
    Hugs,
    Pepper
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  21. Kelly Ann T.
    December 19, 2012 at 10:25 pm (1 year ago)

    Its funny, I learned along time ago, when you ask people from other countries “What do you do?” they tell you their hobbies. Americans tell people their jobs. I now answer that question with my hobbies. I like my answers much better now.

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  22. Coralee and Finn
    December 20, 2012 at 10:25 am (1 year ago)

    So very insightful. I recently chose to leave my profession, a profession which did, for a long time, have a great impact on how I defined my self as an individual. I still haven’t gotten beyond that split second of panic when I get ‘the question’. Thanks so much for your perspective on this!

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  23. Brooke, Cessna, Aspen, canyon & Rogue
    December 20, 2012 at 11:32 am (1 year ago)

    This is also a question I dislike. I am blind and therefore finding work has been almost impossible. I have gone to school, received two university degrees, and still employers will not take a chance at hiring me.

    When we are out and someone asks what I do, there’s always an awkward silence before I say I’m unemployed. I tell people about the random university courses I take for fun and about all of the exciting things I do with my dogs, but no one seems interested because, as already mentioned, I am unemployed, so…I guess, unimportant to those who do work.
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  24. Donna
    December 20, 2012 at 10:30 pm (1 year ago)

    I’m not a party person at all, and I stress over going to them and who I’ll talk to as well. I never give much thought to the job thing as far as class, (if they look down on me for my work, then they are not someone I want to associate with anyway. That said, I do sometimes wish I had a “cool” job (like novelist perhaps) rather than just an office worker. Only cause it’s boring. :-)

    Happy Holidays Kristine!
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