How to Answer “What Do You Do?”

At a party. At the office. At a networking event. At the beach. On the bus. You get it — in all of these settings, you get asked, “What do you do?”

Are you tired of what you’re saying, much less of the question? Have you arrived at the point where your answer receives frowns, not follow-up inquiries, or the question necessarily reduces you to your job title?

Optional pre-work: View the ever-shared “Golden Circle” TEDx Talk to learn more about the differences between the why, how, and what of work.

Join me in practicing three different ways to engage with “What do you do?”

Practice 1: Change the question

picture of a question mark

What question do you wish people were asking you? Silently replace “What do you do?” with a question you are interested in, will find refreshing, or are prepared for — and answer the silent question instead. Some questions you may want to imagine someone asking, with sample answers, are:

  • “Why do you do what you do?” — I work to reduce childhood hunger.
  • “What question inspires you?” — I explore how we might improve our city’s bus routes while not increasing overall costs.
  • “What motivates you?” — Each day, I get to interact with animals that benefit from positive human contact.

Practice 2: Toggle between mission and function

picture of a two-ended arrow

Do you explore all parts of your identity or identities? You may be used to telling people the job you do and never have articulated the value of what you do. Or you may be used to sharing your vision but haven’t spent much time on the practical ways you achieve your dream.

  • Try a mission-based answer: Maybe you typically give a functional answer like, “I audit government grants.” Instead, think about what auditing government grants allows to happen. Is it that you help nonprofits be financially healthy, so they can focus on what they like best: doing good work?
  • Try a function-based answer: Maybe you give a mission-based answer like, “I want the rivers in our town to be clean enough to drink from,” but you don’t know where to go from there. Think about an intriguing aspect of how you accomplish your purpose. Is it that you train 100% of residents in a certain zip code on household disposal? Is it that you are designing a new waste-water system?

Practice 3: Deny conversation

picture of a circle with a line through it

Have you ever not wanted to engage? Even in non-dangerous situations, “What do you do?” from a stranger does not obligate you to discuss much of anything, and you may use a short response to deny a potential conversation. I acknowledge this may be more difficult for members of certain groups who can be painted as “disagreeable” for simply being confident. Depending on the situation, the following are all OK:

  • “Hello, I know you just arrived, but I have to meet someone.”
  • “Hi. I can’t talk right now.”
  • “Thanks for saying ‘hello’, but I’m focused on something else right now, so I won’t be able to talk.”

Read more about my nonfiction writing here.

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