One of the most common questions asked when people meet each other is “What do you do?” and I have decided that by and large I am going to stop asking that question. I think there are some good reasons to ask the question and I think there are some appropriate situations to ask the question, but I don’t know if it is the best question to ask in normal situations.
Some appropriate situations would be industry conferences, networking events, and similar situations where people are gathered for the purposes of business. If I am walking a trade show floor and speaking with other industry professionals, then what do you do is a very appropriate question. After all, we are all there to find out what other companies offer, and people want to know what you do for your company. Sometimes it is so that the other person knows if you can help and sometimes it is to see where you rank but more on that later. If you are at a networking event the whole purpose is to know what other people do so you know if you can help each other. These are great reasons to ask someone what they do because in these situations you need to know what they do. What they do defines the relationship you will have.
What about a BBQ or a party? Why do we ask people what they do at a party? Sometimes the question is asked because you are interested. You meet a person and there is something about them that jumps out at you, so you ask, “what do you do?” Sometimes it is asked out of habit and in innocence. You are really not sure what else to say so you ask the fallback question. Usually, it starts with the phrase “so.” So is a great way to start a question you really don’t care to know the answer to. So, how ‘bout them Sox.
The Bible says in Philippians 2:3 that we should “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” and that “as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal 6:10)” We should be looking for ways to do good and build up other people. But what does this have to do with asking people what they do when you meet them?
For starters, do you care when you ask people what they do? I know, to be honest, sometimes I do not. I don’t really care what you do for a job. When I ask this question without caring I will probably walk away from the conversation and forget what you do. Or I might walk away and remember what you do but forget who you are which is far worse.
Sometimes, I think this question is asked to see how you stack up against the other person. It is an uncomfortable point, but I think a true one nevertheless. Sometimes this question is asked so you know where on the social scale you and this person are. Are they above you or below you. Who is better? Which one of you has more clout and pull in the world. Asking what do you do helps define the relationship in a way that places priority over a relationship. I could get into some details on this but it would take up much more space than we have and would turn into an article on social stratification. In short, if we ask the question in order to establish priority over relationship we have done an injustice to the person we are meeting.
We should never ask the question to see where we stack up. We should also never ask the question if we are just trying to see if we can get something out of them. I think sometimes the question is asked so we know if this person would be a good resource for us. I really dislike this reason for asking. It turns people into a commodity and strips them of their humanity. That’s right I went there. Asking what someone does in order to know how you can use them (or if you can) takes away who they are as a person and turns them into something to be used. They are no longer a human being they are a resource for you to use. A thing to be taken advantage of. When asking for this reason you might as well just ask them “what value to you have to me? Are you a top-shelf tool or something I leave in my junk drawer only to move around when I am looking for something more useful?” As Christians, we believe that people are created in the image of God. People are image bearers of the Almighty and to reduce them to items and resources is not only a tragic waste of relationships but a desecration of someone beautifully made.
That all being said I think there is a better question that can be asked. I think if we really want to get to know a person and we really want to show interest in them we can ask a better question. A question that cuts through the murky wishy-washiness of social interaction, social stacking, and gives them their proper place as an image bearer of God. The question is “what do you like to do?” now granted you might have a better question but I am going with this because the focus is put on them. It takes the focus off of comparisons and place on their personhood. It says to the person you are a person and I want to know more about you. I have tried this out a few times so far and it has worked wonders. I met a man who likes to fish and hike. I have met quite a few people who like to play video games, some who like to play music, and many who just like to spend time with their families. A fair amount of the time I find that people will tell me what they do (as in how they make money) when telling me what they like to do but that is no longer the point. The point becomes relationship. If someone likes to fish I say hey I like to fish (I am not any good though) and we can talk about something they enjoy which can move us into other conversations. The question of “what do you like to do” opens up a whole new world of conversation that would be otherwise closed if I only cared about their ability to make money.
Like most things, it is about the intent. What is the intent of asking a person what they do or what they like to do? What is the purpose of having a conversation with someone? Are you trying to just be nice? If so then be nice and ask them about what they like to do. I don’t think we should define people by how they make money or what value they have to us. We should be looking to see who they are as human beings created in the image of the Almighty God. That would be nice. So let’s be nice and find out something about someone today.
Just a thought,