That question: So, what do you do?

19 Dec

Difficult question (2)

I was at a party last tweek when, out of the blue, I was asked That Question. You know the one. The one you avoid answering (or even avoid being asked) if you don’t currently have paid work or if you’re working in a job you’re not especially proud of.

So, what do you do?

A pleasant, friendly enquiry, not unexpected at a social gathering, meaning, “What’s your job? How do you earn a crust? What useful function do you serve in the economy?”  It seems such a harmless question when you have a job, income and place in society in the conventional sense. But not all of us do.

My response? In this case, I trotted out the old “portfolio career” cover story. I mentioned a bit of this and a bit of that, brushing the enquiry aside with as few details as possible and then quickly asking about the other person, so as to change the focus onto them. Luckily, he was a talker. I’d side-stepped the need to disclose anything about my current status (which I would describe to myself or family and close friends as convalescence or sick leave). I learned a lot more about the guy I was chatting to.

Then, on Monday evening when participating in a hobby, that same question popped out again. Except, this time, it came with added emphasis, including a reference to the fact that I used to wear a suit to work:

So, you used to be a high-powered executive* What do you do now?

*(His words, not mine!)

This caught me off guard. I realised just how much of a gulf there was between what this guy (mistakenly) perceived my old job to bes and what I’d actually done that day. In fact, I’d let the gas man in to take a reading and written out 4 Christmas cards. Oh, and I’d opened a card from my mother containing a pDifficult questionostal order (which had felt a bit weird at my age). But that’s how I’d spent my day. My plan for the following day was to buy stamps. Hardly a high-powered executive.

How did I respond? Surprised, I went for a transparent dodge. It left the questioner in no doubt that I was avoiding answering, and left me wishing I’d had a bit more practice at lying. He stepped away, I stepped away, and we both pretended we were just getting on with our hobby.

In both cases, I’d succeeded in concealing the truth of my situation. In both cases, I’d put distance between myself and the other person. In both cases, I felt I’d had a lucky escape.

During a recession, it’s probably more socially acceptable to be “between jobs”. But on the other hand it’s probably a less good time to ask the question. What do you say when asked “So, what do you do?” Here are some options, including suggestions by the lovely twitter people, for how to respond.


  • .Respond with a vague job description

I end up saying I’m now freelance, which is a total lie. – James (@polarbear3127)

“I’m a consultant” suitably vague? -Lexx Clarke (@LexxClarke)

Some retired people say the R word proved offputting to others so they may dress something up into ‘consultancy’ to ward off any negative reactions, especially when dating. – Roslyn Byfield (@RosylynByfield)

Ah, the portfolio career. This was the option I took at the party last Friday. It’s a delicate balance. I mumble about this (which I used to do) and that (which I’ve also done) and the other (which I’ve done a bit of in the past). I’m always hoping the questioner doesn’t do this, that or the other and therefore see through my story. I try to make this, that and the other all sound pretty dull, so the questioner doesn’t enquire further. But then, at the same time, I try to make it sound a little interesting so they don’t think I’m a total waste of time to chat to.

I think that probably I should sit down and write out a fake portfolio for my portfolio career (which did once exist but now doesn’t), so I can reel it off as needed. And also so I remember what I’ve said to people!


  • Lie

I lie to taxi drivers and the women on the check out because I am so mortified. I know I don’t look ill, either. – Velveteen Rabbit (@velveteen85)

A Sufi master once said to me, “Ask a man no questions, for you may force him to lie.” That is true. If you put someone on the spot in a social situation by asking them a direct question like this, you may create distance by forcing them to fend you off with a lie.

Personally, I’m a terrible liar. If I’m going to lie, I know I’ll need warning and time to practice. When surprised, my lies are unconvincing – as they were on Monday. And I do believe that, if you’re going to lie, you really should take the trouble to lie convincingly. It’s only polite to put the questioner at ease rather than embarrass them with a bad lie.

I rarely ask people a direct question like “What do you do?” It’s not that I’m not fascinated and curious about what other people do. I am! It’s just that I’d rather let people tell their own story, in their own time. That way they reveal what they’re comfortable with you knowing. I’m not sure if people think I’m dreadfully self-centred for not asking what they do. Or perhaps, when engaged in a hobby, it just doesn’t matter.


  • Deflect with a reference to personal issues

“I’ve had some family issues” is a good short term cover, and also technically not a lie as you are in your family … – ZaFoosBoootla (@dav0lah)

An alternative could be, “Ooh, I’ve been off this past week. Women’s problems.” I’d imagine that would probably curtail someone’s curiosity.


  • A defensive response that keeps people at a distance

Ask them to ask you an easier question. Meliora Rose (@meliorarose)

 I hate that question, and need to find a suitable sarcastic answer. Sure someone will come up with one … – Martin (@msmithbass)

I always answer, “what do you mean, what do I *do*??!” Sometimes it makes them realise the rudeness & stupidity of the question – PWX (@flossiepie)

On the one hand, this response means you keep private what you want to keep private. On the other, it creates distance rather than intimacy. It doesn’t help develop friendships or potential work contacts. It just says “no”.


  • Humour

Just tell them “I kill people with my mind.” Government pay is great! – My System (@JazzyJ1112)

Replying “for business or for pleasure?” normally gets a laugh, so then you can change the subject! come to the woods (@cometothewoods)

I spend most of my time drugged up to the eyeballs in a psychiatric ward, just out for the day. Now, where’s the hors d’ouerves? – Martin (@msmithbass )

You put the swirls in cats eyes marbles … Design new chocolates … Taste tester for mouthwash … The voice on the lottery show “I read, I write, I cook, I dance …” Sally Price (@saspist)

You’re an activist! Now people will avoid you for new reasons! – Verity Allan (@verityallan)

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” – FWT (@FWT4)

The most popular response was humour. Always a winner.


  • Avoidance 

My personal favourite and, it appears, popular with others too as a means for not having to give a vague job description, lie or deflect the question with sarcasm or humour. Just keep away from social situations where you might meet new people. That’s one I employed to good effect for a long time after coming out of hospital: I stuck to socialising with people I knew well.

I was speaking to a guy last Friday who’d isolated himself from other people since the 1980s. That’s when he’d lost his job and got his diagnosis. Ever since then, he’d kept himself to himself. He went to the gym, worked out, left – without making eye contact with anyone (except at the day centre we both attend). All for fear of being asked, “So, what do you do?” He was too ashamed he wasn’t working.

I suggested we sit down together, work out some lies, then go out and practice them on people! Thirty years is too long for a lovely guy like him to steer clear of people. Perhaps, if we each have our own convincing cover story to throw people off the scent, we might be more comfortable with meeting new people. Until then, we’ll both continue in our small social circles.


  • Honesty

During the twitter conversation that led to the writing of this blog post, no one said they’d come clean and say they weren’t working at the moment due to mental illness. It could be a bit like marching into a nursery school in the 1980s and announcing you had HIV/Aids. That would have guaranteed a frosty reception.

Times are changing, but people who feel comfortable saying they’re not working due to mental ill health still seem in the minority, and understandably so: there’s still a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination against people with mental ill health. I long for the day when I can talk about my convalescence from mental ill health in the same way as people do about their experiences of physical illness. But we’re not there yet.

So, in the meantime, I think it’s time to polish off my portfolio career patter and practice those lies so that next time I’m not caught off guard.



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18 Responses to “That question: So, what do you do?”

  1. A Gay Mentalist 20 December 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Hi there, i’m similar with direct questions. I think this post sums it up nicely. The one asking “so what do you do” is one of the worst. It brings out all sorts of emotions and feelings doesn’t it. A bit of guilt, self hate, anger, sadness, etc… Avoidance often is so much easier, especially avoiding any social gatherings where conversations are involved. Best wishes

  2. peter 20 December 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    I was ashamed of my diagnosis but now I think ‘well that’s your problem’

  3. Karen 21 December 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    I do occasionally trot out ‘freelance writer’; it’s not a lie as such, as I do freelance write. I just don’t do it that often!

    However, I’ve increasingly developed a ‘f**k it’ attitude, after years of shame. So, depending on who I’m talking to and/or how I’m feeling at the exact moment, I quite often tell them now. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how accepting most (though certainly not all) people who’ve got the honest answer have been. After trying to hide my mental health problems for over half my life, I’ve grown tired of pretence and find honesty the easier option – but I know others’ mileage inevitably varied, because mental illness is still so horribly stigmatised. I look forward to the day when being able to be honest about this type of thing is the norm, not the exception.

    Very interesting post about a very pertinent issue – thank you 🙂

  4. blanche69 30 December 2013 at 7:23 am #

    I say I’m not well enough to work.. Why lie? Why be ashamed?

  5. panic 4 January 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    It’s important to be direct and honest. Colluding with shame based ideas can keep you feeling like shit. Don’t be anyone’s slave, be bold, be authentic. The world is full.of phoney executives and spivs, what do they give to the world? F all.
    Have a healthier New year, (and a good topic.)

  6. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA 4 January 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    What a great post, on a very sticky subject. I dread social situations where I might (read: inevitably will) be asked that question. Thankfully, I’m using this permanent state of disability to work on a novel and a memoir, and I blog unrelentingly, so I now have the “I’m writing a book” answer, which generally satisfies people. Of course they want to know what the book is about, so I have a standardize shpiel that is mostly true, and they all swallow that willingly. A great side-step. Of course there are always the rude nosey ones who won’t stop at that, and I usually have an urgent need to use the loo if that occurs! But for the most part, sad to say, I isolate and avoid social interaction like the plague.

    • panic 6 January 2014 at 6:43 pm #

      Somehow I don’t think your are sincere. What’s so special about you that you need to be facetious? Please tell.

      • Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA 6 January 2014 at 7:14 pm #

        I don’t understand what I said that gives you the impression that I am being facetious. This is absolutely straight-up how it is with me. What is it that I said that gives you that impression? I’m hurt, to tell you the truth, although I don’t know you. I would appreciate knowing what gave you the impression that I was being facetious, because I don’t see anything at all. I’m a severely disabled recluse, and I’m very uncomfortable with strangers, and you’ve reinforced my fear.

  7. quinceanera 6 January 2014 at 11:25 pm #

    This one article alone shows off your excellent writing skills. I am very impressed with your views and interesting content. I hope you intend to continue writing more informational articles.

  8. alex 7 January 2014 at 6:38 pm #

    Sorry Laura, but I thought you were a facetious psychiatrist when I saw the M.D. having a go at benefit scroungers. It is getting very nasty at the moment. I misunderstood.
    Please accept my apologies.

    • Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA 8 January 2014 at 12:03 am #

      That’s OK, alex. I wondered if it was the letters after my name. If you feel like it, you could read the “About” on my blog to see what happened to me as a result of my bipolar disorder. I keep the letters because I earned them and nobody can take them away from me, regardless of what was lost. Take good care–Laura

  9. alex 7 January 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    At the moment, all the bad aspects of society is being projected onto benefit claimants. It is reminiscent of pre second world war recession hit Germany, where the Jews and mentally unwell were made the scapegoats and demonized.

    Benefits claimants did not cause the financial crisis, yet are taking the brunt of public anger because they are an easier and more convenient target than trying to address the failings of the financial system, education system and governments reckless borrowing.

  10. Lance 14 January 2014 at 3:25 am #

    I absolutely abhor this question. At the moment, I have a very well paying career in a career field that I have zero interest in. Answering this question opens the conversation up towards an industry that I hate, and in some cases leads to assumptions of my character/personality, ultimately leaving me feeling unsatisfied with my answer since I’m in a position where I am saving to quit. I am a go-getter and hearing myself say “It’s temporary while I prepare for my future”, makes me cringe. I’d rather avoid the question in all. I very much enjoy being around Europeans; This question never comes up.

  11. Alex 26 January 2014 at 11:56 am #

    What’s so good about people who DON’T have mental health problems………!

  12. haarlem 30 January 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    There is certainly a great deal to learn about this topic. I really like all the points you have made.

  13. Rose 11 May 2014 at 2:31 am #

    “So, what do you do?’

    “I’m a student.”

    “And what do you study?”

    “Mental illness.”

  14. Me 2 November 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    So… I’ve probably been guilty of asking this in the past, and being no stranger to mental health issues myself I can understand the difficulties. But when I’m standing canapé-in-hand, staring at my shoes and grappling with my immense social awkwardness, what can I ask instead? What can I say to move beyond weather observations and into getting to know someone? Is there a way to make people feel more comfortable discussing themselves, and/or reassure them I’m the last person who will judge them based on the answers?


  1. Mental health: A journey of firsts | Sectioned - 9 May 2014

    […] time I’ve been so concerned about being asked “So, what do you do?” that I’ve avoided meeting new people and become adept at deflecting personal […]

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