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Why 'What Do You Do?' Is the Wrong Question to Ask

"I work from home" provides no information. "Nothing," while tempting, belies the truth. "I work for my husband," makes me feel like I've set the feminist movement back 60 years and I'm riding shotgun with Betty Draper.
12/09/2014 10:44am ET | Updated February 8, 2015
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Ever since I quit my "real" job -- the one that required me to put on a cute outfit and leave the house every morning -- I've had a problem with the question "What do you do?" I tend to fumble around a response before slowly slinking off or feigning interest in a distant object. Without the benefit of a traditionally defined job, there is no quick response.

Even in seemingly innocuous situations, "What do you do?" bothers me. I live near the U.S. border, so the other day, a girlfriend and I took a quick cross-border shopping trip. As we pulled into the customs stop, I experienced the sense of worry and guilt which always accompanies the exchange with a customs officer. Even though I am not smuggling goods, or in possession of firearms, tobacco or fruit, I feel compelled to establish a rapport with this person.

I notice the officer's last name, and comment that we may have a similar heritage. We engage in (what I feel to be) some witty banter, and then he carries on with his routine interrogation: "Where do you live?" "How long have you been out of the country?" At last, he gets to "What do you do?"

The officer is simply following procedure. Still, my friend and I both hesitate. "I work from home" provides no information. "Nothing," while tempting, belies the truth. "I work for my husband," makes me feel like I've set the feminist movement back 60 years and I'm riding shotgun with Betty Draper.

Finally, my friend answers. "We stay at home."

The customs officer grins, then laughs, and in his Eastern European accent, says, "This is what we call a domestic engineer." Hilarious.

The funny thing is, my friend is an actual engineer. She has a degree in mechanical engineering -- from a respectable institution. Not that she practices. Who has time between schlepping the kids around and all these shopping trips?

We laugh along, mainly because we are balanced on a tenuous line which separates us from one country to another. Yet, we both know we are not happy with our answer, or his.

A number of friends who work at "real" jobs tell me they find themselves equally uneasy with the question, and their ability to answer it. Unless you have an unambiguous title -- doctor, teacher, blacksmith -- your response provides little explanation. Often, regardless of how fulfilling a job may be, it's hard to distill the essence of what one does down to something a layperson will understand. And, as one friend pointed out, by that time, it sounds so banal and life-depleting it makes you want to quit on the spot. Moreover, you still haven't divulged anything about who you really are. The truth is, even back when I had my "real" job with its pat answer, I often thought, Isn't there a better question?

It's a North American obsession, this tendency to ask after someone's occupation. Rarely will you hear, "What do you do?" posed by a Brit. The British believe it impolite to ask, as it assumes one must do something -- as opposed to being a wealthy land owner or member of the peerage. Imagine Lord Grantham or The Dowager Countess approaching a houseguest at the Abbey with this line. Say what you will about landed gentry, but when it came to common courtesy, they had it down.

In our culture, "What do you do?" or "What's keeping you busy?" have become default salutations. With the exception of customs officials, I assume these questions are rhetorical. I mean, does anyone actually want to know what is keeping me busy? Some days I get down to business, but other days the minutia of my life makes me want to run around with my hands raised in horror like an Edvard Munch painting. Unless I have earth-shaking news to divulge, I don't feel compelled to reply. And clearly, if I were doing something earthshaking, I wouldn't have time to sit around and explain what's keeping me busy.

More and more, when it comes to this matter, I tend to think less of the inquisitor, as if his asking stems from a lack of imagination. If you want to get to the heart of who I am and what I do, ask me what I'm reading, or where I've travelled to lately or what I bought the last time I cross-border shopped. Not only is the question more interesting, but so too is the answer.