"I sit at home most days." Oh.. that's nice...
June 17, 2012 11:20 PM   Subscribe

In what kinds of situations might I be asked, "What do you do for a living?" or similar questions, and what can I say that won't turn people off (in professional or dating contexts) to explain or imply that I'm currently unemployed, disconnected with my field, and not looking for a job due to (an invisible) disability?
posted by mock muppet to Human Relations (36 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm between jobs, and taking some time off" is a polite way to convey unemployment and an unwillingness to discuss it further in a normal social context.
posted by vidur at 11:26 PM on June 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Hmm, if you're not looking for a job, what are the professional contexts? What is your goal in the professional contexts? Because that could change the answer you give.

In the dating contexts, I think a lot will depend on how you act when you explain it. If you act ashamed, nervous, or uncomfortable talking about it, I think you will lead other people to feel that way as well.

I think you should be just plain and candid about it, and say, "I've needed to take some time off from working to contend with some health issues I have." You could also do what my mom does. My mom was a SAHM most of her adulthood. Within the past 5 years or so, when people ask what she does, instead of saying SAHM, she says "I'm retired."
posted by cairdeas at 11:28 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of people will ask that as a basically arbitrary conversation starter. They don't care what you do, but it's an easy way to get you talking about something and in the process the two of you may discover further points of connection or common interests. It's a benign friendly thing, along the lines of saying "so, what would you like to talk about?"

In that situation your available moves are:
1) redirect the conversation to some other fact about yourself, or
2) redirect the conversation away from yourself entirely.

In both cases you can begin with a bland demurral on the question of what you do, something like "oh, I haven't been working much lately" or "work has been really slow" or "I've been out of the rat race for a while now" or whatever. Then - introduce a new topic, and let the conversation flow down that channel instead.

To accomplish 1, think in advance about one or two personal things you like talking about. Maybe you previously held an interesting job; maybe you have plans for a future job; maybe you have an interesting hobby or travel plans or whatever.

To accomplish 2, there are two basic strategies:
a) Make it about them.
The most obvious is to ask what they do for a living. Other options include: so are you from here? seen any good movies, etc.
b) Make it about some third party/abstract issue, rather than about you or them.
Remark on some local issue, recent movie, feature of your immediate environment (the decoration of the room you're in, other people you can see there, how the food was). Ask them for recommendations - for things in this town, for movies to see, whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:34 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know if it's just me or what, but I find it really obvious and sketchy to the max when people do that. Like if I were out on a date with a guy and asked what he did, and he said "Work has been really slow. How about you, what do you do?" that wouldn't be subtle to me at all, it would be really glaring and make me think he was hiding something really weird.

However, I think it's a great idea for a professional context.
posted by cairdeas at 11:38 PM on June 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yes, the "bland demurral then redirect" is for contexts where the person is just making polite conversation, or trying to see if you are a reasonable person or a wacko, and doesn't really care specifically what you actually do for a living.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:43 PM on June 17, 2012

I think it's fine to give your occupation when asked -- it's not as though, when you do go back to work, you'll drop ballet and become a fireman, or drop teaching and become an engineer, is it? And most of the time people are just making conversation. "Oh, a ballerina, how interesting..."

But people you would date, on the other hand, deserve to know you aren't working right now, in case that is a dealbreaker for them. Not that it should be, or would be -- but it might be, so you need to be honest. "I'm a ballerina." "Oh isn't that interesting." "Yes, I'm taking some time to deal with health issues right now, so I'm not working. What about you?"
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 11:51 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a friend who is a doctor but answers the question that he is the regional manager for Nabisco. He then starts to talk about Oreos.

But I would simply say that I am a fireman (or whatever is your actual field), but I am on the 60 day DL.
posted by AugustWest at 11:53 PM on June 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm on leave/I'm on hiatus/I'm taking a break/I'm taking some time away for myself/I'm on furlough/I'm on shore-leave/I'm taking some me-time. What do you do?
posted by facetious at 11:59 PM on June 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: My health went bad early - early enough that my only work experience was basically internship experience, and had to drop out of college after much difficulty. I've been out of school for years. I can't really stake any claim to what I consider to be "my field" (what I went to school for and what I still plan to work in, eventually). My disability is indefinite. It will get better eventually, but it's unlikely that that will be for another 4-6 years.
posted by mock muppet at 12:17 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest answering as though someone asked you 'tell me about yourself' instead - what would you say in that case?
posted by namesarehard at 12:21 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've found that either "consultant" or "researcher" is sufficiently vague to deflect additional conversation, and that if someone follows up with something like "oh, on what?" you can say "oh, various things" and then change the subject. Alternately, you can say something esoteric about the last book you read: "Lately, I've been exploring the migratory patterns of Southern albino woodpeckers, but it's still early in the research."
posted by judith at 12:26 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmmm. What about something like "I'm not able to work right now, but lately I've been really interested in [gardening/knitting/BMX racing]." Or even, "I'm not working right now, but..." People who are just making conversation will take your cue on the hobby or interest you mention, and people who actually asking can follow up, and then you say something like, "Oh, that's boring, I would rather hear about you," if you want to deflect or if you like the person or want them to want to date you you can say, hmm, "I'm taking care of some medical issues, but things are looking up."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:35 AM on June 18, 2012 [14 favorites]

I don't know if you would feel comfortable but a disability is nothing to be ashamed of. I would just say, "I've had some serious health issues I've been working on. I was studying such-and-such, and I still like to read about it/follow it when I'm able."

I mean, when people ask this question they are either just being polite, or wanting to learn more about you and your personality/preferences. If you can address both motivations with a response, they will be satisfied.

I don't know, I feel like I picked up a bit of embarrassment/shame in the way you phrased stuff. Prioritising your health and have a chronic illness/disability is nothing to be ashamed of, and frankly, only insensitive fuckwads would pursue a line of questioning about your disability when they receive a response like that. A normal response would be, "Oh you like such-and-such? What's that like?", and I think that's the response you will frequently get. People just want to know something about you that they can talk about. I mean, you don't just sit at home in a plain room doing nothing, do you? Just tell em what kind of things interest you.
posted by smoke at 12:39 AM on June 18, 2012 [16 favorites]

If you are in a date situation, then tell them how you actually spend your time.
If that is just watching TV, then either own it or change it. It probably will turn some people off, but dating is like that and honesty saves trouble later.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:41 AM on June 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Generally I think this question arises either as a polite conversation opener or when someone has been talking about their work and wants to give you a chance to reciprocate. I would see o problem with saying that you've had some health issues and turning the conversation in a different direction. But even if you were perfectly healthy, in this economy people are used to hearing that someone else is unemployed. If you want to fudge the truth a little, though, you can tell people you're writing a novel/poetry/screenplay: I've had friends who've done this and it seems to work, though you have to be ready with follow-up questions. You an squelch this by just saying that you don't want to talk about it because it's boring/endless/you're stuck and trying to think about something else/etc.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:09 AM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: While long-term unemployment is now less common than it was, it still carries a stigma that's hard to get around. (Hence your question, obviously.)

Many of the above responses will do, if delivered convincingly. I think people can more or less easily accept 'me time', what have you (and might even be jealous). But - how do I say this gently... most people - potential daters, employers - will want to be reassured that you do *something* with your time. It almost doesn't matter what - volunteering, part time non-academic study, anything that sounds like, and, ideally, is, some kind of sincere commitment. (Not that it need be earnest. It could be hang-gliding, if you mean it.) It doesn't matter that it isn't in the field you trained for, and hope to return to.

I understand that there are many conditions that preempt full time work, but surely there's something you can do? Or want to do? I can't guess the extent of your limitations, but they can't be infinite. This would entail really accepting what limits you face (in case you haven't), and finding value in activities that might not represent your ideal self, or that have little to do with the career that's on hold. (I say this because I think I'm hearing some self-criticism here too...) Here, there might even be - sorry, I know this sounds condescending - an opportunity for further self-exploration, and a reevaluation of values.

I apologize if I sound harsh. I'm actually coming at this from the pov of having been unemployed for longer than is comfortable (both to experience, and declare). Only when I started engaging with purposeful activity - which, no, isn't paid - did I stop feeling at a loss, socially speaking. Whether it's me offering more graspable cues more confidently, expectancy, whatever, I am getting responses from others that are a hundred times more affirming than when all I could offer was shifty eyes and mumbling.

(I also know you just want to be able to say something to people at a party or whatever, that will let you get through the night with your self-respect intact. IME, the best way to do that is to believe the story you're telling. And, really, I don't know how easy it would be to tell white lies for years on end. Any promising encounter will require telling the truth at some point or other. It might as well be one you can get behind.)
posted by nelljie at 1:14 AM on June 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

In what kinds of situations might I be asked, "What do you do for a living?"

If you're talking to an American, in my experience.

When I was unemployed I was just honest about it. I said I wasn't working at the moment, by choice. For some reason that "By choice" seems to make a difference. For some people, at least. It suggests you're still in control of your situation, I suppose.
posted by Decani at 1:16 AM on June 18, 2012

"I am retired, at least for the time being." Followed by "but I used to be in X" or any other conversational gambit, like "these days I mostly do Y", Y being your favourite non-work pastime. Your interlocutors aren't sizing you up; as someone mentioned above, they just need a topic of conversation, so give them one.
posted by kandinski at 2:35 AM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: Work IS a really big signifier in our cultures, so it's no surprise that one gets asked about it when people are casting about for points of interest to connect with others.

I had to give up my work to cope with an invisible [if you're not in my actual home watching the reality of it] illness. I understand your awkwardness around this question. If you did an internship you've probably had to give up something you were relatively passionate about. My commiserations.

I tell inquiring outsiders what my career used to be and a bit about what I'm doing with my time. Like "I used to run a Lit department, got burnt out and now do a bit of consulting from time to time. I'm doing a life drawing class at X gallery on Wednesdays... etc" You could say "I studied X, worked at Y for awhile, now I'm working from home on a few personal projects - A, B, C..."

I used to lay it out for people when I first became unwell, shared way too much about having surgeries or medication blitzes. I wish I hadn't felt the need to explain stuff that's actually very personal to people who are just going through the basic motions of a social dance.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:42 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Work, man.... I dunno."
posted by chrillsicka at 4:53 AM on June 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

"I was an architect but I'm currently not working because of some health issues. (if follow-up is necessary) Yeah, I miss it but I keep up with the field and I'm looking forward to returning some day."
posted by michaelh at 5:15 AM on June 18, 2012

The phrase you are looking for is "I am trained as a X, how about you? "
posted by crazycanuck at 5:28 AM on June 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

"I'm taking some time off to focus on me."
posted by inturnaround at 5:37 AM on June 18, 2012

How about "taking a sabbatical". I love the idea that someone can leave their job and then take a couple of years to re-charge, think, and ponder the universe. It's academic, positive and you can then discuss whatever it is that you're doing to interest yourself.

"I'm on sabbatical and it's great! I'm studying Chinese cooking, it's so interesting!"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:47 AM on June 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

"I've been working as X, but I've been taking some time away from that."
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:51 AM on June 18, 2012

Don't you have hoobies? Why don't you say that?
posted by two lights above the sea at 6:15 AM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: I'm disabled, too, and I wasn't in the working world long -- major solidarity from another person who got dealt a bad hand before they'd even had a chance to start a life. I'm realistically never going to recover and my disease is likely going to progress (this is my tenth year undergrad anniversary; bittersweet) -- my student loans for Big Fancy Education have been forgiven. In the saddest irony of all, the Social Security Administration dates my disability as beginning the second I graduated! I never had a chance.

One thing I've done in the past year, because I write and my former career (heh, if you could call it that) was mostly in editing, is form a small literary press. In the age of print on demand and Espresso Book Machines, this isn't as hard as it used to be. I write into my author's contracts that I have maximum flexibility on delivering everything. I did it because I wanted something meaningful to do in my spare time, at my own pace (and my health is too unpredictable for volunteer work of any kind). One of the things this has unexpectedly solved? That nagging "so, what do you do?" question. I used to be so upset by it, just like you, especially because I couldn't really fall back on an answer from my past.

What do I do? I'm a small press owner! People think this is the coolest thing ever. And it's true. I have an LLC and everything. I can talk about digital printing and distribution, share my opinions on Amazon's market share, talk about why I'm avoiding ebooks as a marketing decision (for now), etc. I managed to parlay one of my hobbies into an occupation. Nobody has to know I don't make any money off of it (I doubt many small press owners are in the black, incidentally) or that I work sporadically. I feel like I'm treated better by doctors who ask after my occupation as well -- by far, actually.

I highly recommend this tactic, if you have any hobby that you can spin this way, OP. Can you be a freelance photographer? A freelance copy editor? Etc? It's brought me a lot of self esteem and feelings of competence. However, I would discourage you from becoming a self-appointed "blogger," because that doesn't confer much legitimacy any more.

Puritan work ethic sucks. The people who will judge you for not working or -- worse -- give you lower quality care for not working are really being shitheads. But that is the reality that we both have to deal with. Part of disability is learning to value yourself as a human being, yourself even if you need to lay in bed curled up like a snail with the lights off and not your productivity/output -- but the "where do you work" questions are never gonna stop coming. This small press has been an interesting, healthy and rewarding solution for me.

Feel free to memail me.
posted by sweltering at 6:30 AM on June 18, 2012 [31 favorites]

Don't divert the question!!! It sounds super sketchy.

If you have some professional experience, you say "I'm an X. I used to work at company Y doing Z, but I'm taking some time off for my health. Here are some interesting anecdotes about my career, and here are some hobbies I'm interested in while I'm off work".
posted by no regrets, coyote at 7:49 AM on June 18, 2012

When I ask people this question, I'm not really asking about their employment history. I'm asking "What's in your head? What interests you? How do you spend your time? What worlds do you travel in? What gets you out of bed in the morning?"

Answer it like that. My SO was unemployed for a long time, and hated being asked this, but over time started getting that people just want to know more about who he is. So he started saying "I'm trained as an X and am looking for work right now in X field [because you never know, this could be helpful for networking], but I also act, do some writing, produce an event series, etc." It gets you onto more meaningful ground than "nice shirt" or something equally nonpersonal, and that's the point of asking. Just answer for the intent of the question - so what are you all about? - rather than dwell on the letter of the question.

And yeah, vague/evasive answers are probably appropriate in very light interpersonal contexts where you don't expect to interact with the people at length or ever again, but in any situation that's about dating or even close friendship, evasiveness is so obviously evasive that it occasions a big internal eyebrow raise and may raise flags that just don't need to be raised. In those contexts, be honest and open, if general, and don't bother with shame.
posted by Miko at 7:55 AM on June 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

In your situation, I'd say, "I've been to school for so-and-so, and still plan to work in that; I've done an internship." If someone says "Why aren't you working in that field right now?" you could say, "Know any openings?" Or if it's someone you plan to associate with, you could mention that you are dealing with health issues and/or that you plan to go back to school.

If it's just a social situation and some random person pokes you about what you are doing right now-- in my parents' crowd there are people who do this, to the point where it's rather unpleasant-- you can say something like, "I'm writing pornography. You know, like 50 Shades of Grey? There's lot of money in that."
posted by BibiRose at 8:27 AM on June 18, 2012

It really depends on the situation. If you think they're hoping to do some networking, you could do the "I'm trained as an X; how about you?" line. If they are just making conversation, you could say that you used to work in ______ but these days you're exploring other things or taking some time for yourself and you've really got into kitesurfing/reading/movies/volunteering/parenting/gardening/current events/etc. Most people are just trying to find a connection for the conversation.

If you tell people you're between jobs, they may continue to ask you about your work, since it's natural to want to see if there's a way to help you out by providing a connection. It might actually invite more questioning about your work.

If you feel like you're talking to an empathic, reasonable person, it's fine to mention that you've got a disability or health issues or whatever. But that part's totally up to you.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:15 AM on June 18, 2012

Personally, I would find any negativity in your presentation to be a bigger turn off than lack of employment. If you can frame your situation in a positive way, it says a lot about your ability to bounce back from a temporary setback (super important, to me). In a dating situation, I'm looking for long-haul potential.

"Yeah, I'm between jobs at the moment, but I'm enjoying doing X in the meantime and learning a lot about Y. Speaking of Y, let me tell you about ..."

In a dating situation, I would not be terribly keen if you told a technical truth which gave me the impression you were gainfully employed when you were not. Part of the reason to ask about employment is to figure out baseline spending for dating experiences. I'd tailor expectations and present free/cheap date ideas for someone unemployed. If it seems like you should be doing fine financially, but then turns out you have no income and cannot afford to do things (paying for yourself), that would come off as extreme sketchiness to me. I would start wondering about a drug habit or hidden marriage status or something. Honesty up front about unemployment would be much preferable.
posted by griselda at 1:18 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe say something along the lines of "You know how everyone always says your health comes first? Well, I was just getting started in X after getting my degree when I got knocked out by some unexpected medical problems (or say 'bad case of whatever' if you want to disclose). So lately I've had to focus my time on dealing with that. I expect to have that sorted out within a couple of years, and I'm hoping to pick up with X where I left off."

If you have hobbies or part time activities you can talk about, that's great. But sometimes disability really means being UNABLE to DO just about anything. Unfortunately there is just no way to convey this to many people, whose days are filled with so much activity that they cannot imagine what a life ruled by disability could be like, or that a person living such a life could be worth talking to. It can be really hard to find any common ground for conversation in that situation. Other people will just be flummoxed or freaked out, and not know what to say. Redirecting the conversation back to their interests, or to something common like the weather, can ease you through this awkward patch.

If you want to be mysterious sometimes, and be the target of some envy instead of scorn or pity, just say "I'm retired." "Wow! How'd you manage that so young!" "My secret." I had some fun with that one, back when I still looked way too young to be retired. Now, people just say, "oh."
posted by Corvid at 3:49 PM on June 18, 2012

That you are unemployed or disabled is nobody's business. You simply state that you do what it is that you do, or have recently done, and then ask them what they do, and follow up with asking how much they like it. After all, people want to talk about themselves more than they want to hear about you, so you can exploit that to avoid unpleasant conversational topics.

Of course, if cornered, you can always say "I've worked with several companies, most recently x." A tactful person will realize what you're saying ("I'm between jobs") and let it go, and a tactless person (or aggressive person) doesn't deserve to know details anyway, so you can change the subject.
posted by davejay at 4:05 PM on June 18, 2012

I've stopped telling people what I do, because it's such a boring conversation starter. My little line I use when people ask (and I think they're the kind who'll go with me) is:

"You know, I've decided to neither ask nor answer that question anymore. I realised a little while ago that I have friends who are electricians and economists and performance artists and beat poets, and often enough the fascinating people are the ones working in a supermarket and the explorers and poets can sometimes be boring and self-absorbed. I mean, what does a job really tell you about someone? So instead of asking 'what do you do', I've been asking 'what do you like doing?', and I think it's a much more interesting way of getting to know someone. Similarly, 'where do you like going' is a giant improvement on 'where are you from'."

I don't use it with everyone I talk to, but it's been great way to start some really interesting conversations with people.
posted by twirlypen at 7:06 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're just making small talk, saying you're between jobs right now but you're interested in X is totally fine. If you're on a date or talking to someone you plan/hope to have a longer term connection with, I would go ahead and acknowledge the health issue. It's honest and will weed out the flakes. As long as you are engaged in something, you won't come off as malingering or lazy.
posted by elizeh at 8:21 PM on June 18, 2012

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