How do you respond politely to someone who asks, “What do you do?” I was told that it was rude to ask what one did for a living. Please advise. ~ SCG

Unfortunately, this question has become all too common. If you find yourself in a situation where someone asks this very direct question, they may fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The Socio-economic snob (Now I know how much money you probably make)
  2. The One-upper (Oh, I’m a Doctor, too)
  3. The Networker (Here’s my card, are you a potential customer?)
  4. All I think about is work, work, and work (I have no life and you probably don’t either)
  5. Seriously, I’m listening (genuinely interested, but doesn’t realize the question may make you uncomfortable)

Whatever category, we want to make sure you’re prepared to answer this question.

In general, it has always been the perception (in most cultures outside the USA), the “What do you do?” question is too forward or impertinent. While some might consider it to be acceptable idle chit-chat to get a conversation going, others might view it as intrusive probing.

How to turn the conversation around:

The Questioner: “What do you do?”

Possible Answer: “I do a lot! Currently, I’m busy finding works of art to decorate my new condo. My new favorite artist is ______. Do you have a favorite artist?”

Believe it or not, it works!

A more appropriate way this question could be phrased is:

“What line of work are you in?”

By phrasing this question in a more open manner, you are giving the respondent an opportunity to give an array of answers that go beyond what they do for a living, ultimately enhancing the conversation and allowing for a more meaningful and deeper conversation.