Lets say youre 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.
How do you answer the question: "What Do You Do for a Living? (photo source)
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 others.
The Typical Responses to the Question: "What Do You Do for a Living?"
Some people automatically answer this question with their job title.
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 themarketing manager for a tech company.
Its short and to the point, but it doesnt fully describe what she does or the kind of technology company she works for.
Compare this with saying, Were 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, its 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 you?
- Is this person worth my attention?
Thats 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. Its as if youre 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 arent 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 youre not working hard enough or maybe youre not earning enough, otherwise this wouldnt have happened to you.
3. Cultures That Value Privacy
Asking What do you do for a living is offensive in some European countries, because its seen as an invasion of their privacy.
As some Quora answers suggest in this thread, work matters arent openly discussed with strangers in European countries, and its 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 youre lucky, you might amaze some people and make others jealous. You get instant credibility and new-found friends in whatever event youre in.
If your answer is boring, youll just get a polite nod and the conversation eventually dies down. Then youll be standing on your own, wondering what to do or who to approach next.
Wouldnt 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 dont 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, its boring. But its 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
For some jobs, youre lucky to get a weird or funny response like this. Others just get a blank stare because people dont know how to react to their jobs.
Worse yet, some job titles make people desperate to leave your company.
Just imagine how some people would react after hearing, Im a financial adviser.
If youre financially savvy, you probably wont 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 insurance.
Remember, youre 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, thats not the point of the event.
Next time someone asks you this, try to gauge their reason for asking.
Then tell them what youre passionate about, and then ask about their interests.
Your Conversation Might Go Like This
Your acquaintance will either:
- Get curious
- Tell you what they like doing
- Give you a blank stare, because theyre not expecting your response
- Reply with their job title, not knowing you didnt ask the same question
Eventually, you will start talking about the things you love.
Isnt 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, youll 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 dont attend these events just to scout people. Theyre 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 theyre 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:
That sounds more interesting than simply saying youre a designer. If you say this, people will wonder if theyve seen your work before.
Here's another niche example:
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 Kunkles answer.
2. Mention a Problem You Solve
Talk about the challenges or problems you solve as part of your job. Its even better if you can paint this problem as a dilemma, an issue with no clear solution.
Example for a Fitness Trainer:
Im a Fitness trainer specializing in creating easy and fun exercise programs for clients who dont enjoy going to the gym.
The first question youll 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. Thats 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
Stereotype: Cushy 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 its 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 learned recently
- Misconceptions about your job
- Work trivia
NetworkingNetworking for Introverts: How to Connect with ConfidenceLisa Hunter
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 businesss story? This tutorial can help you:
WritingHow to Tell Your Business StoryDavid Masters
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. Dont worry; its easier than it sounds even if your job is technical or complicated.
Your Job: Penetration Specialist. Sounds boring, right?
Not if you describe it in this way:
It sounds more fascinating compared to describing yourself as a hacker or programmer.
Job: Money Lender for Real Estate Investors
Im a hard money lender specializing in working with real estate investors doing flips, holds, and new construction.
When 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 doesnt fully explain his work. But hearing the TV shows 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 a living?
How you answer this question shapes peoples first impression of you.
In casual settings, its 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 company?
You shouldnt think twice about promoting yourself.
Youre doing yourself and others a favor by talking about what youre good at. If your skills can solve the problem of whoever youre talking to, then its not self-promotion. Instead,its a two-way street where you help each other out.
Thats 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 title:
BrandingYou, Incorporated: Defining Your Personal BrandLisa Hunter
Branding7 Steps to Building a Head-Turning Personal BrandJulia Melymbrose
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 forum.
Browse through ourprofessional resume templateson Envato Elements orGraphicRiverto find a great resume design.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2017. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.