Getting Beyond "What Do You Do?"


We went to a dinner party recently, nothing too fancy, just board games, pizza and new friends.  But the inevitable “What do you do?” came up.  I hate this question.  Often it’s meant as a conversation-starter, or an ice breaker.  But if you’re talking to someone who is unemployed or unconventionally employed, you immediately push the conversation into awkward territory.

In my husband’s uber-competitive field, the question feels more like an inquisition.  “What do you do?” masks as “Are you more or less successful than I am?”  and “Do you know anyone important who can help me get ahead?”  When I was teaching, I got some condescending “Ohhh, good for you!” responses.  Now that I answer, “I’m a freelance writer,” I’m frequently dismissed.  End of conversation.

The most frustrating part for me is that the situation makes me feel like I have to defend myself.  I want to say, “I’m a freelance writer.  I have a Master’s degree from an Ivy League university.  Where I went for free because I’m that God-damned smart.  And yes, I did the Peace Corps, just like you did.  I just don’t need to talk abut it constantly.  And I can bake delicious molasses cookies. So there.”  Luckily, I don’t stoop to this level, but the thought that I’m tempted to is embarrassing enough.

Stay-at-home moms, I empathize with you.  My spouse and I have made a choice that we are both comfortable and happy with.  I’m a freelance writer because it’s a job that will allow me to be with my husband, during this time period when we move frequently.  But feeling like other people judge me, underestimate me, or dismiss me because of this choice can be frustrating.  I understand that many people’s identities are closely tied to their employment.  But I am more than my job.

Here’s how I start a conversation, without asking, “What do you do?” and without feeling like a cheese ball:

  • Have you been to any great restaurants/plays/events/concerts here?
  • What do you like to do outside of work?
  • Did you do anything fun this weekend?
  • How do you and the host/hostess know each other?
  • Are you from the area?
  • Mention something interesting you have recently read about/heard about and ask what the other person thinks about it.

If you have any other suggestions, please share in the comments.  I need to up my small talk game.

One Trailing Spouse

career identity as spouse

Credit Image: family playing mahjong via Shutterstock


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.

Recent Posts by emily.e.mcgee