How do I describe "what I do" without gainful employment?
June 6, 2016 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the US and I know that matters. I am frequently faced with the question of what I do for a living and I never know how to answer it. I am not working due to health issues that aren't immediately apparent. But I also am passionate about a couple things that often lead to questions about who I am. I just don't know what to say.

This question flusters me a lot. It usually comes from a few places- either new aquaintances want to know what I do for a living, or people confuse some of my hobby interests as coming from acedamia. Which, while flattering, leaves me feeling a little like a fraud and I always have trouble redefining what/who I am without making it sound trite.

I was a web designer and later user experience designer. Then a few years back, health problems, haven't been able to go back to work, though I still try and at least sort of keep abreast of the industry. But I also am very into marine life, with a specific interest in seahorses and plankton. I read a lot about these areas, especially academic and research papers. I sometimes even write about them on my website. And being out of work has give me reason to pour myself into that as its a way to pass the time. But my writing has tapered for the same physical limitations. And my research has subsequently tappered, even though I have waves of working on it.

The reality is that I'm in the process of applying for disability. I may never work again. But that right there is a conversation killer. Sometime I lie just because it's easier, but that doesn't always work well. Sometimes I indicate I'm taking some time off, and people seem to assume I'm somehow independently wealthy (I'm not). Other times they assume my knowledge of the hobby persuits means that's my profession. And when I explain its just a hobby, then the question moves to what do I do? It doesn't help that it's also not so simple as a hobby; my website on the topic is marginally well known for the niche area it occupies. But I have no idea how to translate that into who or what I am.

An example that occurred just a couple hours ago - on a plane, taking to a passenger about why I was visiting their fair city- for a en event related to my hobby, but one that is hosted at a university. They asked if I was a marine biologist. I explained that no, it was just a topic I was really interested in and this was more and hobby I am extremely interested in. I didn't feel I could lay claim to being a writer on the topic in that instant, because I haven't been very prolific due to some wrist problems. The conversation progressed, and later they asked if I wasn't doing that professionally, what did I do? So I defaulted to web designer because the truth was too complicated and didn't have a clear answer.

Another time, I was talking to a fellow hobbyist and explaining some deep dive research I had been doing. After down real nerding out, his question was "what do you do for a living?" I think the implication was how do I have time to dig up this window. I didn't want to say "well, being out of work for a few years means I'm bored and find ways to fill my time." Even though that was really the right answer.

I have tried over the past few years to figure out how to answer this line of questioning. I know other countries, jobs aren't nearly as important to identity. Be that as it may, this is the place I live.

And I have tried to explain the health issue/disability for being out of work, but that tends to make people uncomfortable so I stopped in most contexts. Some do, but mostly they don't.

I'm certain the question revolves around my own crisis of identity since I've been unable to work. I've tried to figure that out too, but I still don't know what the answer is, and haven't been able to square who I was, who I want to be, and where I am now.
posted by [insert clever name here] to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Can you describe yourself as a blogger? You sound like you are one. And this is vague enough that it could be "how you make a living, how you make some extra money, or just what you do for free" and people would be rude to pry into it.
posted by quincunx at 7:41 PM on June 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think there are different "right" answers depending on who's asking.

If it's someone you're reasonably certain you'll never see again, like your plane passenger, absolutely little white lie. It's none of their business how you make money or your state of health, and what they're really asking is probably more like "What do you spend the majority of your time and energy on, so I can adjust my conversational approach to you accordingly?" You could say you're a web designer, you could say you're "a career hobbyist", you could say you are currently between gigs and using this chance to focus on your interests, or you could make something up. They won't see you again; the goal in the moment is to have a nice conversation as a way to pass time.

If it's someone you probably will see again, like your fellow hobbyist or at a friend's party with friends of friends, you should be more truthful, but there are still plenty of ways to hedge your answer. The "between gigs" line has worked very well for me in the past in this case - with you, if you see them again later they might ask if you've got a new gig, and then you can fill them in on the status of your disability or if you've recently written articles, etc. You can also say something like "I'm really interested in [hobby]" and explain it a little bit. If they press further with questions as to how you make a living with your hobby, just deadpan reply "I don't." Then laugh to put them at ease and say something about why you're so passionate about it. If they don't get the point that money is a sore subject for you, you can straight up say "money is a sore subject for me". They might apologize or change the subject, go with whatever they want. I know this is hard to do but in that scenario the pushy person is the one being rude. My point is though, be truthful with people who you'll see again, but don't feel like you have to overshare. Acquaintances are allowed and expected to have blank spots in their information about each other.

If you have some kind of official volunteer relationship with an organization, that is a great half-answer to the question that works in most case. "What do you do for a living?" "Oh, I volunteer with [organization] doing [thing]." "That sounds very rewarding" "It is!" and then later on they will go "wait, they said volunteer..." but guess what? You're no longer having a conversation!

You're right that this will become an easier interaction as you settle your own identity crisis. Maybe finding the answer that feels right to you when people ask can lead you to what you might actually do.
posted by Mizu at 7:42 PM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

"My background is in web and ux design but I've recently switched into independent research on [niche marine hobby] and am currently developing my presence in that field through publishing my research"
posted by greta simone at 7:42 PM on June 6, 2016 [15 favorites]

The answer to the question "What do you do?" is hobbies x, y, and z. If pressed with "Yes, but what do you do for a living?" just smile and say "Well, that's more complicated. My hobbies are what I'm really interested in."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:50 PM on June 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you're 40ish or older, you can get away with "I'm retired now." If you like, you can pick something to be retired from. If they press on with how young you are, you can add "Yes, I'm pretty lucky," leaving out degrees of luck. If strangers press beyond that, they're rude and you can tell them white, gray or filthy lies.
posted by sageleaf at 8:02 PM on June 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

"Independently poor"
"Bon vivant"
"Retired early due to disability. I don't have much money, but I have time to indulge my interests."

I am homeless. I typically describe myself as a freelance writer, which is true. Most people are not looking for a real explanation about how you pay the bills or whatever. They are a) just making conversation and b) trying to find some nutshell handle for how to relate to you.

I had similar conversational challenges when I was a homemaker. People did not know what I did all day if I said I was a homemaker. I eventually began describing myself as "a military wife and homeschooling mom." People were more comfortable with that because it gave them some place to go with the discussion, some concept of what my life was about that they could relate to. That's all most people really need from you.
posted by Michele in California at 8:06 PM on June 6, 2016 [22 favorites]

Forgive me being a little off-topic…Are you interested in pursuing study in your hobby field? I.e. going to school for it? It sounds like you are already an expert of sorts. If so, even part time, you could take up studies in your marine hobby. Then the answer to your question becomes "I used to be a designer, but now I am studying marine biology, with a focus on plankton and seahorses" (or whatever appropriate). Add to that "I also write on the subjects that interest me."

Additionally, whether or not you are a prolific writer or consider yourself just a hobbyist should not preclude telling people that that is what you "do". Frankly I think it matters less what they think than how you feel about what you do with your time. A sincere explanation, when warranted, should be good enough for anyone.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:17 PM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think there is something to be said for being at least a little honest rather than trying to keep up appearances, at least in some situations. I spent a childhood lying about what my mom did (she was mostly unemployed due to mental health issues and we lived on social security but I always said something else to save face for her) and spent time doing something similar for myself and that only perpetuates the idea that what we do for a living defines us and that it's not OK to not be OK. Totally glossing over that part of your life also makes it harder to really get close to someone, if you are looking for friendships.

I'd maybe mention that you're out of work due to some health issues (without going in to a lot of detail) but that you occupy your mind with [hobby] and then mostly talk about hobby.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:19 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

You are answerable to anyone and do not have to explain anything. I do not work and when someone asks me, I let them know I am gainfully unemployed. Then I leave it to them to figure it out.
posted by metajim at 8:24 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

If the other person doesn't really care and isn't likely to follow up on your answer, just saying "web designer" is fine. But I think in most cases the best answer to give is the true one: "I used to be a web designer but I had to stop working because of health issues."

The problem is that people are asking you the question as a way to keep the conversation going, but they don't know how to follow up after you give that answer. It seems rude to ask you about your health problems, but maybe too callous just to go on to another topic when you might be suffering or even dying.

So what you should be focusing on is what to say after you've answered the question that will help move the conversation on, ideally something on the upbeat side so the other person doesn't feel like you've just disclosed a tragic secret. Something like, "The upside is that I've had a lot more time for my hobbies." Asking the other person a question of your own is probably a good idea, too.
posted by Redstart at 8:30 PM on June 6, 2016 [13 favorites]

The good news is as you get older you can claim to be retired. Then they will ask from what. Ugh.

I have been on disability for 28 years. I can't believe it has been that long. I have never found anything but the truth to be a good fit. But at times I feel resentful that I am being forced to talk about something so personal with a stranger so I make stuff up. The lies are around things I know something about like dog training, addiction, Horticultural Therapy. It can be quite fun. Other times I dodge the question by keeping them talking about themselves.

I wish I had a good black and white answer for you but I don't. It depends on how feel at the time about myself and the person. Sometimes I am comfortable telling the whole truth, and sometimes I'm not.
posted by cairnoflore at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd definitely encourage to be truthful with people you know. I dated someone who pretended to live off freelance income until I finally asked the obvious question. We dated long enough that he met my family and continued to pretend his volunteer work was a job. My family would then ask me follow up questions that required elision on my part until I told him I wasn't comfortable. I wish he had owned it from the beginning instead of putting me in the position of 1. asking him the obvious 2. lying to my family's inane questions about how his work is going and how much time he has off for the holidays.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:53 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

"My background is in web and ux design but I've recently switched into independent research on [niche marine hobby] and am currently developing my presence in that field through publishing my research"

This answer would set my weirdo-sense a-tingling--it sounds like the person had a job in web design, lost it, and is now pretending that his hobby is the equivalent of being an academic researcher on an arcane topic. I think saying simply that you're taking some time off work due to health issues is fine, as long as (a) keep it at just that level of generality, not going into specifics unless they're someone you genuinely want to share them with and (b) you follow it up with another sentence that carries on the conversation. People don't generally care deeply about your job per se; they're just making conversation. So if your sentence is, "fortunately, it has left me some time to pursue my hobby, blahblahblah, and spend more time with my cats!" then they know where to go with the conversation.

And I agree with everyone else that if it's someone you're unlikely to encounter again, there's no harm in just saying "user experience design." Most people have no idea what that means, and it sounds really, really dull (no offense; I have a family member in the field!).
posted by praemunire at 11:14 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hear you. I think greta simone has it: people just want to connect even if they are hurting you and you feel judged (ask me how I know!). What has worked for me is a mix of asserting my qualifications and experience (confidence boosting), the honest truth (the best policy), and something I am excited about (people love excited people and then you're changing the subject!). Or just say UX.

For non-plankton peeps, when you want to start a longer conversation:
"I worked for most of my career in UX, where my speciality was making the maps in travel apps user-friendly. It was a fun challenge but I had to stop for health reasons... but my real passion is oceanic microfauna. Crazy, right? But did you know that without plankton the world food chain would collapse?"

And at the conference when you are feeling insecure that you don't get paid as much as whomever you are talking to (this is me):

"I am so lucky to have the time to go to conferences to learn the latest research on phyto-nucleo-kelopsis! I am actually trained in IT but had to stop doing that for health reasons. It's a bummer but I loved your paper on planktokelpowhatever... I was reading Dr. Whale's paper you cited last week for an article I am preparing for publication. I was wondering what you think of his methodology."

"(Critique what of Dr. Whale). What publication?"

"Right now I am behind the popular blog Seahorsin'Around. But that reminds me, do you think I could start submitting to 'Seahorse Quarterly' as an independent scholar? I don't have a Ph.D. but I would love to write a literature review on daddyeggsackogenesis."

And you're off!
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:17 PM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

I didn't feel I could lay claim to being a writer on the topic in that instant, because I haven't been very prolific due to some wrist problems.

Non-academics write whole books about complex subjects (a comedian wrote about evolution, recently); journalists cover popular science and make no claims about having PhDs (which I guess they'd do, if they had them). Try actually freelancing, why not - pitch some stories to a few places (go popular, though). Get paid for a handful of articles a year, if you can, and (I at least think) you can say, "I write".

A casual acquaintance probing for more, for detail about your financial situation doesn't deserve an answer.

Tell close people more, for your comfort and peace of mind - what needsmorecowbell suggests makes sense to me - and yeah, clue serious dating partners in on the financial situation.

I like some of the things this YouTuber has to say about invisible disability, maybe you'll agree. (Or maybe not - but, I think it might help to find a place for discussion and support about all this.)

I have chronic wrist problems, too - not a fan of Dragon Dictate, but some people have managed to make it work, maybe that and/or other tech and devices could work for you? When my wrist's ok, I rely on ergonomics and take breaks. (I've had so many keyboards... it's trial and error, but you might hit on one that helps. I've hacked some surprisingly helpful if kooky DIY setups...Try a compact keyboard, resting on your lap (I use a cutting board sometimes) with elbows close to you and supported (via an adjustable chair and or bolster pillows), angled at 90 degrees. If the keys on the keyboard are closer together, and the board's at a slightly negative tilt, your wrists can rest in a more natural rotation, at a natural angle. Mouse on a smaller cutting board, on a nearby pillow. There are special pens, etc., that can help with annotation, haven't tried those.) When it's less ok, I wear a brace (per med guidance) and peck with the bad hand. Yeah, it's slow, esp with rests :/ but doable, for me. Good luck.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:01 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

In your specific case, I think I'd just go with "I'm a science writer." Anyone who quizzes you about how much you write or how much you make is an ass.
posted by advicepig at 7:48 AM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I get the impression that you may be more interested in knowing the answer than the person asking the question.

Health issues have defined your life lately, and it seems like they will be a major factor in determining your pursuits in the future. It would be incorrect to respond to the question of what you do by trying to describe the various facets that make you what you are. "Well, I'm probably going to be partly disabled, but I like to study tidal ecology."

If I were to think of what you are as a bucket, and what you do as what one puts in the bucket, I would call you a writer. The conversation, then, would move on to what's in the top of the bucket at the time. "I'm researching sand dollars for my blog." Maybe (later on during the bus ride) you'll find it appropriate to discuss the research you've done on South African Blivits. But first you are the writer, and the world is your oyster.
posted by mule98J at 9:57 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I run a blog about [x]."

If they are into [x], you just found a kindred spirit. If they aren't into [x], chances are they'll drop the topic, because the standard followup questions "oh, is there a lot of money in [x] blogging?" are kind of rude, but even if they do press with that, just say "It has good days and bad days."

If they are a good conversationalist, but they aren't into [x], they might go with "Oh really? I didn't really that [x] was a topic that people blogged about," which is your cue to nerd out.

For what it's worth you aren't alone in being made to feel uncomfortable by the "So, what do you do?" question. But, for what it's worth, also know that the people who are asking you are not trying to make you feel uncomfortable. I will admit to being totally blindsided the first time I heard a friend (who is in kind of a similar situation to you) describe how it distressed her. Since then, I've tried to focus on other lines of questioning. But honestly, most people just want to learn a bit about someone by finding out what they do for a third of their days.

So, something short and quick for most strangers is all you need.

You might also consider rebranding yourself in your head with respect to your "hobby." If you're travelling to conferences for it, you run a famous-to-the-right-people web site for it, and it's taking up most of your time, it's not "just a hobby" for you, so don't think about it that way. If you don't want to claim to be a blogger or a writer, I think you can just say "I spend most of my time researching [x]." and leave it at that. Who cares if they assume that you're independently wealthy? Who cares if they assume that you're poor?
posted by sparklemotion at 1:13 PM on June 7, 2016

I'm in the same boat - and I totally agree that this is a situation where you need to A) Read the room and B) Determine what you're okay sharing.

I don't often go out and meet new people - well unless it's doctors! And, I'm pretty open about the fact that I'm dealing with health problems. So I pretty openly say "I'm in marketing and I currently work on art and design and have an Etsy shop that keeps me busy when I'm well enough."

I also don't like to be a bummer so I pepper talking about health stuff with jokes if people ask about it. It's a pretty all-encompassing thing in my life right now anyway. Not that I go telling people right when I meet them. It was a little weird when I left my job so I kept it honest but vague - just focusing on "health stuff" though my boss knew a little more detail. That was really the most annoying when people were asking about your new job and you're like "uhhhh..."

So yeah, if you're comfortable saying you've taken time to sort out some health stuff but you work on [hobby] but previously worked in [field] then do that. Otherwise just mention the hobby stuff you work on. It's really none of their business how you make your money and I've learned to not give a fuck about it either. People are generally making conversation.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:55 PM on June 7, 2016

Just say you're a writer; if they ask what sort of writing you do, you write about marine biology. This is not a lie - it's accurate. If you get to know the person better, you can tell them more about your history and disability, but new acquaintances are not entitled to know every detail about your working life.
posted by lunasol at 3:07 PM on June 7, 2016

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