A Perplexing Question


I find it perplexing that humankind, especially in the USA, inevitably ask the question upon meeting someone new, “So what do you do for a living?” It seems to be almost automatic. What is almost never asked, “What are the things you ENJOY doing in your life’s journeys?”

For me, to ask about what one does to make a living, to inquire about one’s occupation (therefore assigning a preconceived label to that person), rather than to inquire what passion exists in their hearts and soul seems to me to smack of insincerity. Outside of that delightful instance where one’s occupation is their life’s passion, most occupations are, more often than not, the daily grind of 40+ hours of being just a “cog in the wheel”.

If one’s occupation is the joy and thrill of their existence, it will come out in the question I ask, “What are the things you ENJOY doing in your life’s journeys?”

When I was a professional musician, I enjoyed my profession. As a fact, I never thought of it for one minute as a profession! When I punched gaskets in a factory, not quite so much enthusiasm.

One of the most interesting people I know is an insurance underwriter.  I was fortunate not to learn of his profession until days after we had our initial discussions about music (we shared almost identical musical inspiration), film, politics, books, etc. Had I asked him about his profession first, my guess is that no matter how hard I resisted, I’d have put him into a kind of a “trick bag”- a preconceived notion of who he is. It might have been a conversation killer, depending on my mood at the moment … “Oh, an insurance underwriter? That’s nice, pleasure to meet you sir.”

Inquiring as to what manner of “label” you can assign to a person rather than letting the person open up like a flower in bloom  … it’s just not for me.

I’m not trying to be didactic; just an idea that I put in the air that I hope takes wings.

4 thoughts on “A Perplexing Question

  1. Peppino, I completely agree with you. Especially to men the question is asked: what do you do for a living’. I am married twice and both husbands ‘did not do anything for a living’. I am the one who earned the money, not the man, but the woman. Both husbands were and are unlucky with this question. Both men are very interesting men, and they have their passions, interesting ones, but always in new groups they have to deal with this awful question first, before the other discover the man behind the face ( without work). For women it can be the opposite, why not asking about work? Only about for example: do you have children? Also an awful question.

  2. Thanks Nelleke, for your insightful response. I thought maybe the “What do you do?” question was primarily a U.S. thing. It’s sad to learn that we’re not the only culture that places such an emphasis on work. None of us, male or female, should be defined by our jobs even when we may have great passion for what we do to earn money. Some time ago I heard one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, speak about this. He was commenting on this preoccupation so many of us have to find out what others “do”. He is a native American, a member of the Spokane tribe, and he said he didn’t understand it until he began to think of it as a way of asking about a person’s “tribe”. While that’s understandable, it’s still not a healthy attitude – to define someone by their affiliation to a business or corporation, or for us to define ourselves by a corporate identity.

  3. Another awful question and one that people ask me all the time is, “What are you?” People can look at me and see whatever they perceive me to be: obviously, a woman of brown skin tone with a nose, eyes and lips of certain shapes, and hair of a certain type, but for many people my particular composition of features doesn’t fit into whatever category they’d like to assign to me. Am I African-American, Hawaiian, Hispanic? They almost never guess Native American (Cherokee tribe) with a touch of Irish. And does it really make a difference? Will they like me more, or less, if my genetics put me into a category that makes them more, or less, comfortable?

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