Want to Kill a Convo? Ask Someone Their Job

Apparently asking people what they do is awkward, intrusive and rude.

Hot take: There is no better way to kill a conversation from the jump than by asking someone what they do for a living. We know—it’s the age-old default Q, from happy hour to the Little League bleachers and beyond. So for a question so quick on everyone’s lips to break the ice, exactly when did it jump the shark? And why?

I personally first saw the tide shift at a DTR bar prepandemic when I (regretfully) kicked off a convo by asking a potential suitor what he does. After popping off and calling me rude… let’s just say we didn’t get married. But only recently has that omen of a befuddling convo started to crop up in headlines.

Apparently, the inquiry is considered awkward, intrusive and rude. Awkward because people don’t want to explain their jobs (we see you, Chandler Bing). Understandable. But invasive? When did what you do for a living became likened to asking about age or weight? At some point, people’s career passions become something they compartmentalize and find convo about presumptuous—if not
downright disrespectful.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Most of our moms, dads or grandads (even maybe grandmas—yay feminism!)—if not some of us—likely find chatter about their daily grind affirming, an indication of not only who they are, but what makes them successful. Maybe especially women in some cases who, fun fact, couldn’t independently own a home, have a credit card or choose to leave her husband without his permission (um, what?) until the ’70s. 

So, our social experiment easily finds a gender and generational divide on this topic. Boomers, elder X’ers and many women find questions about what they do as not only taking a genuine vested interest in who they are, but what they’ve achieved.

“On the topic of asking about my job, as a working mom, I love when people ask,” said one Raleighite we spoke to. “I love to work; I like to work; hard and I like to solve challenging problems. I want to be in a position for others to hear that, especially coming from a younger female leader with a husband that has a career and with busy kiddos at home.”

But you can likely chalk up the mindset shift to one or two cultural shifts. Beyond ambition, there’s work-life balance—which pervades all generations via now-inundating technology that blurs the lines between the clear boundaries of work and home of yore. Sure, no one misses fax machines, and the advent of email was so efficient—until we found we truly could not separate the end of the workday with, well, the end of the workday. 

That possible burnout—and the conflation of work and self as one persona (read: I am not my job)—was a major indicator we found in our research and polling, especially as “work” tasks and experiences have crept into so many facets of our nonworking hours. A stark harbinger in a capitalistic culture that arguably applauds ambition and success above all else. 

Basically, the question is just loaded—from implications about net (and social) worth to common ground to, well, “it can seem kinda judgey,” said another Raleighite. “I don’t think ‘offended’ is the right word for me, but I do think it’s a cheap question. There are so many more interesting things to ask someone other than what they do for work. At best, it’s small talk that could lead to more insight about a person, but, at worst, it’s a social measuring stick.”

Perhaps Brad Pitt (er, author Chuck Palahniuk) prophesied it best in Fight Club: “You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f*cking khakis. You’re the all-singing,
all- dancing crap of the world.”

So, final take: Maybe skip the “what do you do” question—since it’s likely the most boring (or controversial) nonstarter. Besides maybe the weather. 

What to ask instead of “what do you do?”

How long have you lived in Raleigh?
What do you do for fun? 
Something you’re looking forward to?
Local cause you support?
Favorite emoji?
Last thing you saw or heard that you forwarded, to someone?

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About the Author

Angela Brown
Angela Brown is the author of our Business & Economy section.