Thursday, March 23, 2017

What do you do?

"What do you do?" or, "What are you doing right now?" - the token conversation piece. The question that inevitably comes up in almost every conversation with someone new - or someone we haven't seen in a while. We meet someone and we want to find out who they are, to place them in a box in our mind. We need them to be somewhat labeled - see what category they fit into. Or we are making small talk and it's just what comes to mind to ask because it's just what we do. It's always the go-to question that comes to my mind to fill a silence if I've just met a person.

I ask it all the time, and if I don't ask, I wonder. What do you do? Or, when broken down, "How do you make money?" or, "What schooling are you taking to later make money with?"

I think if someone landed on earth who was unfamiliar with our culture was asked this question, and took it literally (we aren't actually asking what they like to do, who they are, what they enjoy or are passionate about or anything like that. It's just that directly asking how they make money or what they're in school for is impolite wording.), their first response in respect to what they do would probably not be what they do for a living. I mean I'm sure that would be part of the literal answer, as it's usually the main thing that takes up our time, but I think that what we do to make money (or do to be able to make money once we graduate) is not really a good measure of who we are. It's what we all measure each other by, though.

I'm not criticizing people who ask this question - if I was I'd be criticizing almost every person I know, plus I'd be a hypocrite. I ask and answer it all the time, it's actually awkward not to. As soon as there is a lull in a conversation with someone new, it's what comes to mind to ask. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing either, you just want to learn about the person you're talking to and it's the most basic way that we go about that. I do, however, think it's something that is good to think about. I think it's a good thing to put some thought into what's behind this question that we are constantly asking and answering.

I realized how prevalent this question is only because of the extent that I dreaded answering it at certain times in my life. In fact, these times are also when I discovered how difficult it is not to ask it, as I would refrain from asking it in hopes that the person I was talking with wouldn't return the question. I would literally try to prep answers to this question before going to see people, but my confident and rehearsed (in my head) answers never actually played out well - I almost always ended up stammering some vague and insecure explanation.

This was at times in my life when I was insecure about what it was I was "doing." I mean, if I took the question literally, I could have easily told them all about how I spend my days, what I was enjoying doing at the time, things I was struggling with, stuff like that. What they were asking, though, was what I was doing as a job or what I was in school for.

I did a year of university directly after high school but didn't continue with it the following year for stress-related reasons. This was very hard for many of the people around me to understand, as I had always been a very academic person. I would dread gatherings where I knew everyone would be asking me what I was doing. This came from my own insecurity (I felt that by not being in school I was failing), and the question was always well intentioned, as were the suggestions and advice that would come after my stammered responses. I felt that people were making judgments and giving advice when they did not know my whole story, in fact, they knew very little of what was going on with me at the time. All they knew was what I was doing on the surface - that I wasn't in school (I got a waitressing job for a few months simply to have an answer to the question and then headed off to Peru for two months, which was an amazing and life changing experience for me). Ideally I would have been able to brush off their judgments, however, I wasn't in the most confident place in life during that time.

Matt and I started dating the following fall. Matt knew how hard I found it to answer the question of what I was currently doing, or with my life in general. He was so supportive and made it all so much easier for me, he helped me to be able to give a more confident answer even though I still didn't think the answer was a good one. Luckily once we were engaged, the question asked more often was, "How are wedding plans going?" - a question I didn't mind answering at all! Then with pregnancy, "How are you feeling?" was the main go-to and I found this question thoughtful and considerate and not stressful the way, "What are you doing right now?" was.

Now when people ask me I am able to happily respond with, "I have an X month old baby," and even if it is followed with "are you going back to work?" I am in a much more confident place and don't mind answering at all.

The lack of stammering in my current answer comes from the fact that I now have such a strong sense of purpose to my life, being a mom. I feel that motherhood is my calling and I don't know if I'll go back to get some post-secondary schooling one day or not, but for now I am really happy being at home raising Rose.

It did take some adjusting to, man when Rose was first born it was such a gigantic adjustment! It's like a losing and gaining of identity among so many other adjustments (such as adjusting to being a zombie with no sleep...). I think that in the beginning, I didn't even feel like a mom quite yet, so I had lost parts of my identity but that new part of me hadn't sunken in yet.

I remember one Sunday at mass the priest said, "Never say you are just a mom, it is the most wonderful thing you can be," and hormonal me teared up because that really hit me during that time of so much adjustment and change.

Anyway, my point with all of this isn't that we shouldn't ask what people do. I'm not out to change social interactions as we know them ;). I guess we can just ask other questions in conjunction with this one, maybe about what they enjoy doing or how they spend their spare time because I think these answers can give us a more rounded basis for who someone is.

Also, I have found it so eye opening to reflect on what my thoughts and judgments are after someone answers this question if I do ask it. Do I put them in a box based on their answer? Am I judging them the same way I felt others judged me when my answer was less than satisfactory? I think these are all great things to think about.

I think the point I'm trying to make with all of this is that the one issue I have with this super common question that it can imply that what we are "doing" is who we are and where our value lies. At least that is what I felt at the times in my life when my answer made me feel like I was a failure because my answer to the question said that I was failing - in the areas of education and (future) career. I also think that it is what comes after that implies this as well. I know the responses came out of a place of love, because people were worried that the choices I was making would negatively affect my future finances or success or whatever. Or they thought that they had advice or an angle that I hadn't yet thought of. However, I think that it's really important to realize that you never know a person's whole story. Also on the other side, I think a great solution is being confident in the decisions you are making and simply allowing others judgements and opinions slip off of you - easier said than done, especially for us people pleasers of the world!

I don't know if I got my jumbled thoughts across very well on this topic, but it is something that has been on my mind for years so I thought I would attempt to write out my thoughts on it! I don't think it hurts to put a little thought into it all.

Thanks for reading :)


  1. This was such a great post, Alicia. I can completely relate to dreading being asked this question (and purposefully not asking people in the hopes they don't ask back!). I think you are totally right when you said that what we do is where we feel our value lies. I loved reading this, it really captures how I feel a lot of the time and encourages me to be confident in my decisions! So thanks!!

    1. That makes me so happy that you liked it and can relate :) It's so awesome that we both get to be moms to babies we love so much because it really is such a great thing to be doing! Thanks for always reading my posts Riane :)