What are you going to be when you grow up?
A ballerina? A cowboy? An astronaut? (That was your humble author’s response)
What’s your major?
International relations. Economics. Pre-med. Business. Business. Business.
What do you do?
Have you heard this question answered as stated? Rarely does a person who is asked The Question hear the words and not the implication. But when it does happen, one realizes the cultural weight behind this, the most American of questions.
“Oh, I read a lot. I’m taking this course online on modern psychology and Buddhism and…”
Ah, no, I meant, what do you do for money?
We Gemstones find The Question difficult to answer these days, living our nomadic life. Then there’s The Question’s younger brother, “Where are you from?,” for which we also have a complicated answer. It’s not that we don’t enjoy answering these questions fully- we do. However, taking this for a teaching moment sidetracks from the questioner’s intent, which was an attempt to know who we are.
“What do you do for money,” we have been taught, is the quickest way to find out what a person is about, to find the hole into which we can pigeon them. An explanation of how our lives work financially is really just a small part of who we are. You already know it is also a small part of who you are. But don’t just know it in the way you know you should be exercising every day. Refuse to be that pigeon.
What do I do for money? Me? I’m retired.
It is here that I can take the conversation back to wherever I want it. While the person is trying to decide if I am lying or if I am crazy, I can take us back to that Buddhism class, building our tiny house, our chosen Burner family in Baltimore, our goal to never experience a cold winter again (or at least for the next several years). This small list tells a new person much more about who we are than our income strategies. We can turn the automatic filing away of a person into an actual connection over something that matters.We simply need to be willing to push back against the automatic call and response of American communication.
I don’t pretend that my little essay is going to change America’s mind about The Question. But I hope it might change yours. I hope you might answer the question as stated. When someone asks you what you do, tell them. Tell them your passion. When they press you on your job (which they will), give a three word answer. The person doesn’t realize that the default question is just an American bastardization of “Who are you, really?,” a question that, if asked, would probably not go over so well in our culture.
When “What do you do?” stands in for “What makes you unique?,” is not just as a shortcut, it is a reflection of our values. What you “do” in this country is who you are. But it doesn’t have to be. You can push back, and it works. This resistance has two benefits. First, as a personal reminder, a cue to “wake up” and to live just a little more fully in that moment as yourself. Second, it can also gently suggest to the asker the question they should be interested in.
And when you find yourself wanting to know more about a person, don’t take that shortcut. Instead, make the person think just a little:
What are you working toward right now?
I’ve just finished my book, do you have any recommendations for me?
If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?
If the person doesn’t have answers for these questions, they have also told you quite a lot about themselves. And yes, these questions might strike you as a bit uncomfortable. But you won’t make a real connection without pushing past the comfortable and automatic.
The most telling question is one that many will not answer. Many don’t have an answer to give, but asking it may alert them that they should. It is a question the Gemstones try to ask as soon as the person seems just comfortable enough with our presence:
What’s your dream? What are you doing right now in your life to get there?
Well, reader, what’s yours?