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Why ‘What Do You Do?’ Shouldn’t Be The First Thing We Ask People

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You’re reading Life-Work Balance, a series aiming to redirect our total devotion to work into prioritising our personal lives.

We’ve all been that person. At an event, a party, a social gathering, meeting people we don’t know, reaching for a go-to inoffensive question: “So…what do you do?”.

We as a society have attached certain ideals to our professions. If we meet a stranger who turns out to be a doctor, we assume they’re intelligent and caring, right?

It makes sense that this is a reliable opener, considering it gives us impetus for further conversation, which is ideal when you’re attempting to make small talk.

But, consider how it feels to be asked this if you’re in a room full of people you feel out of depth with, or if you’ve felt judged by your career choices, or that you’d rather talk about anything else other than work, such as your hobbies and the things that bring you joy.

Unfortunately, it feels almost unnatural if someone comes up to you and asks about your pastimes, because we’re so conditioned to shape our identities around our work. 

In her instrumental text around work and capitalism, Amelia Horgan writes that the blurring of our work self and personal self happens because the latter is stifled by the former.

“The division of labour, with some coded as more worthy of respect than others, is a source of significant harm. That our jobs are one of the only places we can express ourselves is a great travesty,” she says. “It’s not that people should not find fulfilment in work but, given the time demands that work places on most people and the destruction of and cuts to other sources of meaning and fulfilment, there are only rare chances for other moments of fulfilment.” 

It’s a sentiment that Anthony*, 34, from London can attest to, having worked in retail for a decade. After leaving university due to mental health issues that his academic institution was ill-equipped to deal with, Anthony was left with few career options. He now works in a fast-paced industry that consumes most of his free time.

“I was in a room full well-off professionals recently. One guy, who has a high-end job at a prestigious company asked me what I do. I told him, and turned my head to pick up my drink. When I turned back to him, he was gone. He didn’t even bother trying to continue the conversation. 

“It’s not the first time something like this has happened. People just make assumptions. I feel so uncomfortable in these settings, reduced to my job. I want to leave my job, but what else can I do? ”

These assertions about our work have made 38-year-old Jennifer Hunter, who works in sports and entertainment in Oregon, US, want to be known outside of her profession.

Being expected to aspire to the American dream, compounded by her experience as a Black woman, means Hunter’s identity is often defined by her achievements. 

“In the US, the American dream has always been attached to material things. We aren’t really taught or encouraged to vacation or how to find success in love, life and joy,” she says. “I am a Black woman with an identity that is not defined by accomplishments.”

Hunter, a trained lawyer, wishes people would stop seeing her through this lens, and hopes Black people can stop being expected to be record-breaking, to be excellent, to be the ‘first Black person’ to achieve things.

Though she appreciates these milestones, she wants these unfair and burdensome expectations to cease, allowing for more nuance and understanding. 

“Being Black is a unique experience, I love all things about my culture from hair, food, music, dancing, how we talk etc., but being a part of the culture comes with challenges, particularly in the workplace. We’re expected to represent our race, to lead with our success and accomplishments, but we are so much more than those degrees and occupations,” she says. 

“A degree and a job is not a personality trait, but giving back to my community, inspiring other Black women, being a dope mum to my own little Black daughter is a trait, and that’s what matters to me, and that is success to me.

“For me, existing outside of work is paramount to my joy.”

The pandemic has meant many people are now working more hours than before, with a rise in people working multiple jobs, so it’s a novelty and a luxury to even have hobbies and exist outside of our roles. 

But we, no matter what our career status is, all have things that bring us joy. We can at least lead with that. Because, no one lights up talking about work as they do while expressing what they’re truly passionate about. 

*Name has been changed.

Life-Work Balance questions the status quo of work culture, its mental and physical impacts, and radically reimagines how we can change it to work for us.

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