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What do you do with “What do you do?” January 14, 2009

Posted by Yvonne in Distinctions, Power of Dialogue.

The standard formal greeting used to be “How do you do?” Followed by “Very well, thank you … and you?” Now, it seems to be “What do you do?” … for which my consternation at devising an appropriately terse and common response leads to this post.

Something must have happened with the turn of the New Year.

I’ve had several recent occasions to meet new people and have encountered some difficulty in responding to this inevitable and perhaps innocently posed question: “What do you do?”

So far, my odd and unsettling response is something like: “About what?” because I can’t help thinking: perhaps I didn’t hear them correctly or completely. Frankly, somehow I can’t tell whether they are asking: what do I do …

  • about my laundry? or
  • about global warming? or
  • when I’ve put too much salt in the soup? or
  • about the financial crisis? or
  • in a pinch?
  • In most cases, of course, the enquirer really just wants to know “What do you do for work?” or “… with your days?” or some such common interpretation of the question as a way of starting a conversation. People probably don’t care much what do I do with the trash (though if they posed this to mom, the avid recycler, they would certainly learn a lot!)

    Now, if you look at my Professional page, it would give some inkling as to what I do for work. But in most settings, anything I can think of for my reply to that question usually has too many consonants or is too abstract to be getable. Generally if you’ve seen me in action you know and if you haven’t — well, words don’t help much.

    And sure, I can trot out some job title I’m currently fulfilling — that might do — but that’s not what I do, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spend much time in conversation on it. I actually don’t think anyone is really interested in what I actually do for work. That would be somethings like this:

    • packup computer, paper, files,
    • go to the office
    • greet coworkers and listen, say a few words
    • read email and respond
    • file papers, move files around
    • think a little bit
    • update documents
    • schedule things
    • deal with technology not working, needing correction
    • deal with people not working, needing correction
    • deal with myself not working, needing correction
    • attend meetings or conference calls followed by most of the above repeated
    • break for lunch
    • repeat until time to depart for home

    So frankly, I’m really really tired of this same old question, and would like to suggest we play with the “What do you do …” problem by hearing the question a bit differently, vis: What do you do to …

    1. contribute to humanity?
    2. enjoy life?
    3. amuse yourself?
    4. get food?
    5. feel useful?
    6. use your talents?
    7. fill your day?
    8. learn?
    9. challenge yourself?
    10. get out of the house?
    11. make your parents proud?
    12. discover life?
    13. make a boatload of cash?
    14. be creative?
    15. make a mark in the world?
    16. pay the mortgage?
    17. affect your community?
    18. be known?
    19. engage with others?
    20. participate in life? 
    21. show off?
    22. feel accomplished?

    I think I’ll take this list with me … and from now on if anyone asks me the first part of the question, I’ll just select the end of the question from my list and respond from there. Or maybe I’ll give them the list and see what they are interested to hear. That’s sure to create a more interesting result.

    Good. I feel so much better now!

    In closing, to get around to answering the question: “What do I do?” without recreating the Professional page … well, clearly this is what I do when you ask me what I do:

    I listen keenly, from particular and broad contexts, hear what is said and what is not said, look into my life, reflect, think a lot about language and meaning and human interaction, and then provide whatever insight and learning I can glean so that others may benefit and life would be enriched. Essentially I’m all for increasing conscious communications.

    So Terry-Linn, Chuck, Peter and Foster, thanks for asking! You have each contributed to my coming more aware.

    Now, what do you do?



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