Let’s say you’re attending an event for work.
You know some of the attendees, but not all of them. Some
people are handing out business cards; others are talking to their colleagues.
After getting a drink, you head over to your friend.
Then someone joins you, and after a brief introduction asks,
“What do you do for a living?”
We hear this question a lot, we ask this question a lot.
But few of us think hard about what our answer means to
The Typical Responses to the Question: “What Do You Do for a Living?”
Some people automatically answer this question with their
Those who respond with a general job title sometimes do it
to avoid confusing people, like Anna Daugherty, a
Digital Marketing Manager at PITSS America LLC.
“When people ask me what
I do, the shortest answer I give is: I’m the marketing manager for a tech
It’s short and to the point, but it doesn’t fully describe
what she does or the kind of technology company she works for.
Compare this with saying, “We’re
experts in application modernization and digital transformation for legacy
Oracle systems,” which Daugherty agrees is a mouthful and often leads to
blank, confused stares in conversations.
Others try to be funny or avoid the question entirely.
The truth is, it’s hard to blame people who try to avoid the
question with humor. Who knows, they might have tried answering directly before
but got tired of explaining the complexities of their job, or the stereotypes
they had to deal with.
The True Question
If you think about it, the question “What do you do for work?” can be interpreted in different ways:
- How do you earn a salary?
- How much do you make?
- What is your social status?
- Are you richer than me?
- Is my job title above or below
- Is this person worth my attention?
That’s why in some cases, asking someone what they do for a
living can come across as offensive.
Situations Where this Question is Offensive
1. A Condescending Tone
Asking this question with a derisive or arrogant tone sends
the wrong message. It’s as if you’re assuming the other person is unemployed or
earning less than you are.
2. At a Hospital or Religious Service
Places where people might be grieving or facing a challenging
time in their life aren’t good venues for such a question.
These people are stressed and burdened with problems, which
makes them prone to seeing the question in a negative light. The question might be interpreted as, “Maybe you’re not working hard enough or
maybe you’re not earning enough, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened to you.”
3. Cultures That Value Privacy
Asking “What do you do
for a living” is offensive in some European countries, because it’s seen as
an invasion of their privacy.
As some Quora
answers suggest in this thread, work matters aren’t openly discussed with
strangers in European countries, and it’s not a culturally accepted
conversation starter like in the U.S. They would rather you ask about their preference in
vacation spots and sports team, at least according to the thread.
The Importance of Answering Well
Behind the double meanings, this question gives you a chance
to shape how people perceive you.
Answer correctly, people will get curious about what you do. If
you’re lucky, you might amaze some people and make others jealous. You get
instant credibility and new-found friends in whatever event you’re in.
If your answer is boring, you’ll just get a polite nod and
the conversation eventually dies down. Then you’ll be standing on your own,
wondering what to do or who to approach next.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to answer confidently and get a
positive response every time?
Answering Strategies Based on Social Context
Since this question can be interpreted in different ways, you
don’t have to limit your answer to your day job. The best answer depends on where and why the
question is asked.
Casual or Social Gatherings
In this situation, the question “What do you do for a living” is a conversation starter.
Yes, it’s boring. But it’s safe to ask and people are
already expecting to hear it.
You might feel uncomfortable answering this question,
especially if there are negative stereotypes surrounding your job or if few
people understand it.
Here Is a Conversation I Overheard at a Party
Friend: “I’m a social media manager”
so you spend the whole day playing on Facebook?”
For some jobs, you’re lucky to get a weird or funny response
like this. Others just get a blank stare because people don’t know how to react
to their jobs.
Worse yet, some job titles make people desperate to leave
Just imagine how some people would react after hearing, “I’m a financial adviser.”
If you’re financially savvy, you probably won’t get scared
off. Others are quick to end the conversation, because they feel like the other
person will start convincing them to get an investment account or life
Remember, you’re in a casual event. No one is doing any job interviews
or looking for anything to buy. Even if such events offer an opportunity to
meet potential clients and employers, that’s not the point of the event.
Next time someone asks you this, try to gauge their reason
Then tell them what you’re passionate about, and then ask
about their interests.
Your Conversation Might Go Like This
Stranger: “What do you do?”
You: “I’m passionate about cooking and scuba
diving. What do you love to do?”
Your acquaintance will either:
- Get curious
- Tell you what
they like doing
- Give you a
blank stare, because they’re not expecting your response
- Reply with
their job title, not knowing you didn’t ask the same question
Eventually, you will start talking
about the things you love.
Isn’t this better than talking about your job in a party
where people are trying to forget about their office problems?
This includes trade shows, job fairs, seminars, training
events, conferences, boot camps, and any other event where you meet people for
work or business. For freelancers and those working at startups, this can also include network
mixers and startup pitch competitions.
In general, you’ll meet two types of people in these events:
- Regular attendees: event participants whose primary goals are to
learn and meet new people.
- Decision-makers: these people could be speakers, business owners,
venture capitalists, angel investors, or recruiters. Anyone looking to hire,
provide funds, collaborate, or do business with someone they find in such an
event is a decision-maker.
Of course, decision-makers don’t attend these events just to
scout people. They’re also there to learn and make new connections as well. So they
have lots to do and little time to do it in.
Because of this, they try to avoid information overload. Decision-makers
only talk to people that interest them, and they’re quick to decide who is
worth their time.
Below are two ways you can be worthy of their attention.
1. Focus on a Niche
Focus on a niche to avoid getting labeled as a commodity. Here a good example:
Designer: “I’m a designer specializing in wall mural
designs for restaurants and retail stores.”
That sounds more interesting than simply saying you’re a
designer. If you say this, people will wonder if they’ve seen your
Here’s another niche example:
Health Insurance: “I help Baby Boomers navigate their entry
This is better than saying, “Our agency sells Medicare supplements,” says Danielle Kunkle of Boomer Benefits. It
identifies their target audience and niche, Medicare and Baby Boomers.
Kunkle continues, “People stereotype insurance agents as a
sort of used-car salesman, and we differentiate ourselves from this by being
educators first and salespeople second.”
Notice the words “insurance” and “sell,”
typical words on elevator pitches of insurance professionals, are not in Kunkle’s
2. Mention a Problem You Solve
Talk about the challenges or problems you solve as part of
your job. It’s even better if you can paint this problem as a dilemma, an issue
with no clear solution.
Example for a Fitness
“I’m a Fitness trainer
specializing in creating easy and fun exercise programs for clients who don’t
enjoy going to the gym.”
The first question you’ll probably get with this
introduction is, “How do you do that?” Others
might think you create home exercise videos then upload them on YouTube, but
either way this response gives you an opportunity to continue the conversation.
You might think these two strategies only apply if you have
an interesting profession. That’s why I used commonplace jobs as an example.
Whatever you do, you can make it sound interesting by
highlighting your specialty or the problems you solve.
“What do you do?” is a common question in networking events.
Whatever job title or description you use to answer this
question barely tells the whole story of what you do. Yet the mere mention of a
job title subconsciously triggers people to judge you, based on what they know
of your work.
A Couple Clear Examples of This
Job 1: Programmer
in Silicon Valley
6-figure salary, stares at the computer all day, probably an over-inflated ego
Job 2: Career Coach
Stereotype: “People are
either suspicious, or they immediately tell me everything they hate about their
careers. Coaching gets a bad rap because it’s easier to tell others what to do,
than to make changes yourself”, says Career Coach Carlota Zimmerman.
To avoid stereotypes, think of your answer as the first step
in teaching the other person about you and your job. Share something little
known about your profession instead of answering with your job title alone.
Examples of Information to Share
- Latest events in your industry
- Interesting information you
- Misconceptions about your job
- Work trivia
3 More Strategies to Better Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?”
1. Share a Story
Tell a story about one of your more exciting days at work.
When possible, include context to help the listener understand the more
technical aspects of your job.
Not sure how to tell your business’s story? This tutorial can help you:
2. Show Your Weak Side
Being vulnerable shows humility, which can dispel negative
stereotypes attached to some high-paying jobs.
Talk about the struggles you faced in your journey, and some
of the sacrifices you made along the way. Sharing your mistakes and challenges
humanizes you, and makes people more likely to open up to you as well.
3. Show Others What Your Job
Means for them
Show others how your job is relevant to their daily life. Don’t worry; it’s
easier than it sounds even if your job is technical or complicated.
Penetration Specialist. Sounds boring, right?
Not if you
describe it in this way:
do you do?
You: I fight
bad guys looking to steal your money and private information.
you a police officer?
You: No, I try
to break into websites (with permission) so I can find loopholes in their online
security. Then I help them write code to strengthen their website’s defenses so hackers can’t get in to steal your data.
It sounds more fascinating compared to describing yourself as a hacker or programmer.
Lender for Real Estate Investors
“I’m a hard money lender specializing in
working with real estate investors doing flips, holds, and new construction.”
I tell people this, their eyes glaze, I get a confused nod, and we move on with
life”, says Aaron Norris of
The Norris Group.
Now he responds in a way that makes his work familiar to
people with no real estate background.
“Have you ever seen
shows like ‘Flip this House’ on HGTV? We provide loans for their projects.”
Norris admits this response doesn’t fully explain his
work. But hearing the TV show’s name helps people connect the dots between what’s on the TV show and his line of work.
Some Situations Call for Self-Promotion
“What do you do for
How you answer this question shapes people’s first
impression of you.
In casual settings, it’s okay to answer this with no
intent to promote yourself or your business.
But what about the other times, when you meet a
decision-maker that could potentially hire you or do business with your
You shouldn’t think twice about promoting yourself.
You’re doing yourself and others a favor by talking about
what you’re good at. If your skills can solve the problem of whoever you’re
talking to, then it’s not self-promotion. Instead, it’s a two-way street where you help
each other out.
That’s why you should always have an elevator pitch and
personal brand statement ready. Read
these Envato Tuts+ guides to learn how to create a personal brand that goes beyond your job
- BrandingYou, Incorporated: Defining Your Personal Brand
- Branding7 Steps to Building a Head-Turning Personal Brand
How do you handle the question “What do you do for a living,” and how do you adapt it to different social situations? Let us know your best tips in the comments.