What Do You Do, Semantically Speaking?


What is the correct answer to this question:  “What do you do?”

Because the correct answer (apparently) is not “poop.”  Nor is it:  breathe, eat, sleep, wash my dishes after dinner, vacuum my house…poorly, shampoo the dog against his will, DVR new episodes of Big Bang Theory, or drive ten miles per hour above the speed limit.  It seems when you offer one of those answers people don’t ask, “Oh, how do you like it?”  They roll their eyes at you and flip you off as they walk away.

Any of the above answers are true and fitting when asked the simple question, “What do you do?”  People get pissed off because our cultural implication is they are actually asking “What do you do…for money?”  So the conversation usually goes something more like this:

  • “What do you do?”

   “I’m a trash man.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “I’m a police officer.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “I’m a hedge fund manager.”

Semantically, this is all wrong.  The latter doesn’t answer the former at all.  It would be like saying, “What do you eat?” and the answer being “I am Italian.”  In that scenario we would infer that the answerer probably eats a lot of pasta.  But what if he has Celiac’s disease and can’t eat pasta?  The inference has failed, and we still have no idea what this person eats.

On the other hand, if we actually answered the question “what do you do?” it is likely we would confuse the askers more than clarify our occupations for them:

  • “What do you do?”

   “I throw refuse into the back of a truck I ride on.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “In between going to people’s houses to attempt to reason with loud, drunk people, I sit in my car most of the day and read people’s license plates.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “I steal people’s money and make it look like I don’t.”

This does give us a clearer image of what the answerer does on any given day, but as far as a job title goes, who could begin to guess?  For example, lots of people throw stuff into the back of a truck.  That is what trucks are for – to just toss shit in the back of them and then transport said shit from one location to another.  What this man does depends on the asker’s definition of “refuse.”  Some people actually throw manure into trucks, yet we don’t call them “trash men.”  And, after all, isn’t one man’s trash another man’s treasure?

Sometimes people ask me, “What do you do?” and I am inclined to say, “I am a writer.”  This would be both true and a lie at the same time.  Do I write?  Yes.  I’m writing right now.  That’s how these clever words got on this page.  And “writer” is on the list of acceptable answers, so I wouldn’t be scoffed at as though I’d said “shower.”

However, I am still misleading the asker because the inference is that I do this for a living.  “Writer” is only a fair answer to “what do you do?” if it would be followed by a question like, “do you make any money at it?”  To which, of course, I would laugh out loud until my eyes became blurred with tears and my sides hurt.

If someone really wants to know what your job is, without having to navigate the confusion of semantics or having to follow up with uncomfortable financial questions, wouldn’t the best question just be, “What is your job?”

Or, even more specifically, “What is the job you do that someone else pays you to do?”  Cause, you know, some people might answer the “What is your job?” question with something like, “Mowing my lawn.  And my partner does the laundry.”

24 thoughts on “What Do You Do, Semantically Speaking?

  1. This earned a smile from me at “‘What do you do?’ ‘Poop,'” and a LOL at “In between going to people’s houses to attempt to reason with loud, drunk people, I sit in my car most of the day and read people’s license plates.”
    I have always had a problem with this question. And it was always so telling that the correct answer to the question was about only one narrow part of our being, related to money, which said so much about my culture.
    Thank you for the wit and humor which you used to bemuse a fundamentally incorrect question.

  2. “What do you do?”! I am a stay at home mother!. I wonder what would be a more apt description? I am a lazy pretend to be, busy woman who does lunch! Or I am a stuck listening to white noise that is the voices of my children woman, or I am a frustrated career somebody who gave it all up! None of which describe me, but in the eyes of others who knows? Good post!

  3. Great way to probe a question that many people just answer plain and simple. It is always refreshing to get a new perspective on something so mundane. I will never answer it the same ever again.

  4. I often answer the “What do you do?” with “I roam around on the planet Earth.” . Not only this “What do you do?” question, there are a lot like this.

    Nice post you have here.

  5. This is such a clever post. Semantically true and definitely engaging. “What do you do?” “I pretend to work at the computer on my desk while my mind explores the intricacies of the plot I’m working on for the book I hope someday to publish (which will be followed by a screenplay which I will sell to a producer on the condition that I get cast as the main character, after which I’ll be a star and will have to avoid photographers as I try to maintain some semblance of privacy when I do my weekly grocery shopping and heywhereareyougoingI’mnotfinished….”

  6. That is my least favorite question EVER! When people ask me “What do you do?” my response is allllllllllways “Love it” That’s what I do. When people then ask… well, what’s “it”??? My reponse is “everything. I’m just loving it all” The truth is, I work in finance and feel like a total skeeze talking about it (see hedge fund manager above) so that’s my way to dodge the question :) Great post!

  7. Rumor has it, the operative question in the south was quite different. Supposedly, a woman would be asked, “What was your daddy’s name?” and a man asked, “What do you drink?”

  8. Pingback: What Do You Do, Semantically Speaking? | The Irrefutable Opinion | Rane's Blog

  9. Love this — because you’re absolutely right. That said, if one assumes that “What do you do” is an elliptical phrase, simply leaving out “for a living,” it might be considered a little less inaccurate (though it still warrants your second set of responses — throw things in the back of a truck, not garbageman). I have myself been guilty of asking “what do you do” (though I’ll often add, “not necessarily for a living,” to give them room to expand on the concept.) But a great observation. There are so many things these days where we don’t say what we really mean. I love keeping people on their toes when it comes to language.

    And from one writer to another, hope you do get to make money at it someday.

  10. Pingback: What Do You Do, Semantically Speaking? A Post I Really Like – Exit Only

  11. A funny (humorous) post and a lol. Like the idea of questioning the mundane. I’ll never look at ‘What do you do?’ in the same light again. Thanks for dropping by my ‘morethanreading’ blog – because I have found your humour! Thanks.

  12. Taking care of dead people was my favorite work, until my back could no longer bear the incredible physical demands required in said line of work. No, it was never scary, I answer to those intrigued with the topic of death and other morbid aspects of mortuary work. To tell the truth, its the ones who are still breathing that scare me.

  13. I’ll take the “writer” or “author” dodge. I try to keep my day job out of the mix, because people react to you differently when they know your day job. I prefer to let the judgment(s)/assessments roll out based on who I am. That comes, more tellingly, in what I write.

    • Speaking of “reacting” to you differently when people find out about what you do for a living…much interest was generated when I was in the funeral service profession, especially the embalmer aspect. I’d almost be embarrassed because I’d be drawing a small crowd, at times. Everybody wanted to know more. Years after, when I was forced into a more mundane career direction, due to a bad back injury, nobody blinked when I told them I worked for the government processing work comp claims. That was boring…and I admit, the job was boring. Certainly.

  14. Funny post…and true. It’s funny to watch people’s reaction when you tell them what it is you do for a living.. For instance, if I say, “I’m a construction worker,” the reactions aren’t very impressive. But if I say, “I’m a Union Official in a major construction union in NYC,” the reactions are more positive. Then if I say, “I’m a Columnist in a Woman’s News Magazine,” all of a sudden they want to know more, especially the women. So sometimes, it’s not what you actually do, but rather, how you define it that makes the difference.

    People are nosy, though, aren’t they?

  15. Aye, it’s a pretty lame question, and it does lay bare our emphasis on money and employment, but it is small talk, after all.

    I’ve tried asking “so what’s your story?” or “what are you all about?”, even “how do you spend your day?”, but these have all failed spectacularly because they demand too much information too soon. Personally, I’m quite happy to offer too much information. I see a new repetoire of answers opening up:

    ‘What do you do?’ – ‘I make mountains out of molehills’
    ‘What do you do?’ – ‘Pretend it’s not going to happen’
    ‘What do you do? – ‘Poop’

    Why not?

  16. So you’re not a writer….for money…..as in, someone paying you to do so. Well here is the Universe telling you that you SHOULD. You have enough talent and humor and skills to write for a living, start part-time. Now go, be a writer! For fun, and then the money comes. (You know, “Do what you love and the money will come”). Keep up the nice work.

  17. I have one I hate even more and that is when I walk into my doctors office and he asks, ” so how are you doing today?” Response: “Oh fine…..just give it a few minutes, it might change.” Isn’t that like sitting in the ER, and a nurse walks by, and asks the same thing, when you’ve just broken your arm, and it’s the size of a baseball bat, black and blue, and sheer agony is imprinted on your face?? LOL. I’m just peachy, thanks for asking!

  18. I am so happy you liked my blog because that led me to discover yours. I can’t wait to say, “poop” the next time someone asks me what I do. And, no, I don’t make any money doing it.

  19. this is both funny and astute. as an efl teacher, i often have to ask my students this question, and now i’ll be able to realize its implications that much further, thanks to you. thanks also for liking my last blog piece several weeks ago (sorry i didn’t thank you earlier–i’ve been “blazy,” meaning “busy and lazy”). i look forward to reading more of your work!

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