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What do you do?

What do you do?” – You have to admit that as a question it’s actually quite pathetic isn’t it? Think about all the things that you do. Those you enjoy most. Those impact your life most. Those that define you.

Of course we’re more familiar with trying to justify our existence answer with our work title (e.g. I’m an HR Director) or perhaps our functional area (e.g. I work in HR) or perhaps our industry (e.g. I work in Media). Think about it though…

Does your work title mean anything? Does it describe what you actually do? Does it convey your abilities, passions or purpose? Does it help the person answer the question behind the question?

No… but that’s OK – we’ve got a slick answer for that! We’ve got an elevator pitch up our sleeve ready to reel off when we are asked that fatal question “What do you do?”.

Fatal?* Well every time we answer with our perfectly practiced elevator pitch we pay zero attention to the needs of the person asking the question. We are only conveying how we think we should be seen. We are closing doors. We are not answering the question behind the question.

So what is the question behind the question?

Perhaps it’s “Who are you?”.  Have you ever tried to define who you are? Have a go – it’s not easy.

Perhaps it’s actually a request to “Tell me more about yourself” or “Tell me about the work you do” or even “I want to understand how you think”.

Perhaps it’s a social nicety to stall for time whilst we work out whether we really want to speak to each other… “Talk to me so I can work out if I like you.

Perhaps there is nothing more to it than our slavish following of old fashioned conventions built on the need for hierarchal status… “What is my perceived social status compared to you?”.  Perhaps it’s easy to see how we came to shorten this to “What do you do?”!!!

So I’ve stopped answering the question “What do you do?”.  I have no useful answer that authentically answers the question behind the question.

Instead I share my confession that there never seems to be a useful answer to that question.  Guess what? Every single time people agree and a much more relaxed and authentic conversation ensues.

Why not try it? Change the continuum. Create a different kind of dialogue. Find the question behind the question.

*Secretly I suspect every time we deliver an elevator pitch an elf falls & dies – they invented elevators didn’t you know. Well that’s what I tell my kids anyway…
Note : Coincidently, Julie Drybrough (@Fuchsia_Blue) has written a brilliant post  on this topic today also.  Do read her post “How do you do….?”.


5 thoughts on “What do you do?

  1. A client of mine from France just delights in the UK obsession with What Do You Do? She swears she now smiles enigmatically and says “Monkey Catcher” or “Juggler” or “wolf whisperer” – I think we could get some good suggestions on Twitter about how to play with the insidious “What do You Do?” question.

    Not happy about the elves dying. We need action!


    Posted by Julie@fuchsiablue | September 22, 2012, 6:00 PM
    • Love that story Julie – Monkey Catcher is my personal favourite! Let’s see what Twitter can contribute – I think #MonkeyCatcher is the perfect hashtag too. If that fails we can start a #savetheelves campaign!


      Posted by David Goddin | September 24, 2012, 5:55 AM
  2. Thank you! And yes. Couldn’t agree more. Save the elf. This was a little chink of light on a rainy Monday morning.


    Posted by Belinda Gannaway | September 24, 2012, 6:10 AM


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