The Most Annoying Question in the Whole Damn World

the most annoying question in the whole damn world How many stories worth telling start with…”So we were at happy hour…”

It was an organized drinking affair for folks in our neighborhood into bikes and making the hood safer to ride them. Not surprisingly, the conversation was around – biking – specifically one woman I hadn’t known prior to this telling us about her ride to work in the mornings– the commute all downhill, the temperatures perfect and her dress flying off the back of her bike seat in the breeze. The commute home from work, she would tell us, was less ideal, inescapable heat, rush hour and as everyone in the neighborhood is all too aware – all uphill.

She went on to tell us happy hourers (who perhaps odd to many of you, were all quite engaged in the conversation) how she was working with her boss to encourage co-workers to take eco-friendly transportation, parking troubles on the days she drove to work, pros and cons of riding to work in the winter, pondering how she would ride to work and get her child to school on time come fall, how riding her bike to work actually makes work better – and so on.

What struck me in this was not what was being discussed – but – what wasn’t. I actually sat there, so shocked by this fact; I paid extra close attention to hear if someone, anyone, amongst the group was going to ask the question.

The question everyone asks.

The question everyone asks within the first five minutes of meeting someone. The question that seems so innocent – but is it really? The question aside from practically mandatory small talk, especially one where you are specifically talking about work – which is just always, always asked.

And no one did.

Not one person asked her, at any point in our quite detailed conversation about her getting to work – what she actually did once she got there.

You know the question, “What do you do?”

Literally, or for God sakes logically, “What do you do?” appears to be a question without boundaries giving the opportunity for the responder to share the activities he or she gets a particular kick out of – like hanging out with their kids , woodworking or standup comedy – for example.

But when this question is asked, of course, no one is hoping to learn anything remotely related to what puts a smile on someone’s face.

They are asking for a job title and a company name.

How you define yourself in our society, is so ubiquitous with the manner in which you get a paycheck that when someone asks “What do you do?” – there is absolutely no other expectation as to how you will answer, other than with a brief job description.

And from this information the asker silently determines how much money, stature, and likely, education, you have.

We would love to believe that isn’t true, wouldn’t we?

But it is.

And, worse, the response to this question in an embarrassing number of times, determines if the conversation will continue; or if the person who asked suddenly needs to use the bathroom.

This is when people will tell me, “That’s not true!!!!”

And to that I will say this – next time you are at a party and someone asks about what you “do” tell them you work at Chipotle. Not Chipotle Corporate – the Chipotle counter.

Ninety percent of people will be heading for the John within three minutes.

I promise you.

And before we all start pointing our sweet little digits at the shallowness of others, pay a little extra attention to your own body language, conversation and interest level when someone tells you what they do for a living (interesting choice of words, no?) and it turns out to be something you would never, ever, in your whole damn life consider doing.

In my exasperation of all of this I have found clever responses to this question.

I had a friend who consistently responded, “I drive around in my car and listen to music REALLY, REALLY loud.”

Back in the days where I spent many nights out at bars, my girlfriend and I were – Shirley and Shirley – the rodeo clowns.

When people ask my husband, a non-native English speaker, “Where do you work?” His response is, without fail, “Boulder”.

(As in where his office is located is in Boulder, Colorado.)

Sometimes I think it is his English as Second Language providing a literal answer to a literal question, but most of the time I think he is politely answering a question he finds an impossible bore.

I do find it interesting to respond with, “I am not allowed to talk about it.” And, when I have really, really had it with this question I respond, “Do you mean for money?” And my friends, I encourage you to try it because I shit you not – 100% of the time their response will be an awkward but affirmative, “Well, um, yeah – I guess that is what I mean.”

And with that – I challenge you with this – next time you meet someone don’t ask. Don’t ask what they do. Or at least don’t ask within the first 60 minutes of the conversation. If the conversation is shorter – not asking will unquestionably give you are far more interesting insight into who they truly are than knowing “what they do” ever will.

And If you do talk to them for an hour without asking, you will discover something so fascinating about them in regards to what they do outside of getting a paycheck, that what they do for it, will prove almost entirely inconsequential – because the reality being – in the story of most people’s life – it is.



8 thoughts on “The Most Annoying Question in the Whole Damn World

  1. Some very good points, Linda. Since I have been living and working in Ireland, Greece and the Czech Republic for the last 20 years I have discovered this question is mostly an American one. As a rule Europeans would consider it too rude to ask. Partly because they do not judge people (as much) by their employment but rather by their life style as measured by the time and place of their meeting.

    • Hi Michael
      Great point. Would be wonderful to see the US put less of an emphasis on what people “do” – and certainly would be even better – if, when we had that information about another, we stopped judging them because of it.

  2. your post would have been so muchmore enjoyable without the addition of ‘ I shit you not . . ‘

    believe it or not, not everybody talks like that!

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your feedback. I think it is important when you write or have an art form or some form of artistic expression that you do what is true to you. Writing the way I do is true to me. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Amen! That exact question and the pretense behind it was a driving factor in my leaving New York City for Denver several years ago. “I shit you not” 😉 that is the first question anyone ever asks in NYC.

    • Kelley!

      Nice move. 🙂

      Now we just have to keep our sweet Denver from turning into that. I was gone for a few years and came back and it seems to have taken a slight shift from people being here mostly because they love the mountains and our blue skies to people being here for the economy and well, not that it is a bad idea, I certainly like a strong economy, I just don’t want our hearts and minds to be all about economic$$, job titles and other less than typically extraordinary topics.


  4. I HATE that question. When I was at home looking after my two children, if I answered honestly, it was a killer to any further conversation, I felt like I didn’t exist, People actually walked away. Now I am back ‘working’ I still resent being asked as I have several self-employed jobs/activities/volunteering posts etc. and I find that the best answer to “What do you do?” is “As little as possible”. Meaning I potter about, I talk with people, I help those who need it, I take time to look around, I enjoy living.” Perhaps a better question would be “So how do you spend your time?” (each day, each hour, every weekend? Earning, lazing, being obsessed by something?)

    • Hi Angie,
      I couldn’t agree more and can’t help but wonder when this all started and why, in our society, the answer to that question is so important it is one of the first questions we asking. How boring. Perhaps if we all start answering the question with a completely unexpected response we will start turning the tides. 🙂

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