"What do you do?" uhhhh
June 11, 2021 5:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm very bad at answering what I do for my job. Usually it confuses people and shows people I don't really know what I do. I like to provide a better answer with the caveat that I hate this question so much but need to be able answer for two reasons. I would like to get better, as someone who doesn't identify as the job--- any tips? I want to walk the fine line of looking confident, answering the question but somewhat leaving at that..

There are two reasons I want to get better at this question: 1) As a new parent I'm starting to meet new dads; once we get past the baby questions, this comes up. I live in NY where most people are extremely career-focused, so they always ask "what do you do?" and confidently talk about their jobs as well. I'd rather not just straight up hate the person when they ask that and even may be related to 2) I will be applying to new jobs soon and want to be able to provide a good narrative. And are these two aims related?

A couple points: 1) I'm an IT consultant, and I often meet management consultants. IMO our cultures are extremely different and field questions that confuse me. 2) I'm definitely not my job. It's something I do to live. I never call it "my career", so it really isn't something I love to talk about.
posted by sandmanwv to Work & Money (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This won't help for 2, but for 1, a trick for moving on from a topic you don't want to discuss in depth socially is providing your conversation partner with a natural pivot to keep the discussion going with something else.

So: "Oh, I'm in IT consulting [optional, very brief, simplified description of what that means. Lately, I'm also getting really into baking. I just made..."

Or "I just got back from a trip to..." or whatever seems like a more or less natural segue to something you do want to talk about.

This won't dissuade everyone, but it at least gives people an offramp.
posted by eponym at 6:02 AM on June 11 [20 favorites]

Are there things about your job that you find interesting? Why do your clients decide to hire you? Often I find the best way to answer this question is to instead answer the questions above.

I don't know what kind of IT consultant you are, but something like: "some of the world's most valuable data lives in Excel spreadsheets that someone named Bob who left the company in 2012 put together. Companies hire me to go find all the stuff like this that they have lying around and turn it into a form that they can actually use and manage well going forward."

You are under no obligation to describe your job fully accurately, nor are they asking for your job title -- they're looking for some flavor of what it's like to be you during the day and something to talk to you about the next time they see you.
posted by goingonit at 6:03 AM on June 11 [10 favorites]

Hi! I've had a series of hard-to-explain jobs. Most people don't think my job really exists.

My job has been to either A: ask retailers (target and walmart) to take more of a product, at the corporate level, or B: Working for a manufacturer, but in the offices of Target and Walmart, designing retailers shelves, pretending to be unbiased, but secretly putting more of my products on the shelf, at a corporate level.

It's complicated. It's so complicated, I only partially understand why my job exists. Why am I getting paid by one company to do work for another? Why doesn't Target/Walmart/etc disallow me from helping my manufacturer (because they get free labor, but that's only part of the story). What agreements are in place here?

When people ask about your job, though, they are almost always making small talk. So, I find a small part of my job and I make it what I do. I find something that's light, levity, and gives a chance for a conversation that's interesting for both people.

"I answer emails for a living".
"I'm a double agent".
"I'm a travelling toilet paper salesman"
"I spend all day in spreadsheets and boring meetings"
"I work for XY, in Sales"
"My job is pretty boring, but I really like playing board games"

I find that little answers like this are much easier to start a conversation than trying to actually explain the nuance. I would say, about half of the time, when I say something outrageous (I'm a double agent), people don't even follow up. They don't care. The other half do care, and then I go into a longer discussion. Or, sometimes, they'll crack a joke, and I'll crack one back. (You're a travelling toilet salesman? That must be a shitty Job.)

So, for you, I'd answer with the following quips.

"I work in IT management." (True, simple, and it shows you aren't just in IT.
"I work at company XY in management." (True, you work AT there, and you don't have to explain the consultant bit.
"I work as a consultant, right now at XY."
"I tell people to make your internet go faster." or "I make all the computers at XY talk to each other."
"I hate talking about my job because I basically answer emails all day. But the coolest part is that in my office, there's a (something interesting to pivot)."

If they follow up, they are actually interested, and you can mention what specific projects you are working on. People hate activities and they love projects. Nobody cares if I'm designing 2000 Stores in storegenerator2000. But they do care if there's a new type of toilet paper coming soon, but it's a big secret, but you can tell them hints about it.
posted by bbqturtle at 6:04 AM on June 11 [9 favorites]

I'm an IT Consultant, I help businesses decide...
> what tech they need to properly function in this half-remote world, or
> how to get all of their disparate data sources connected and functioning as one large data source, or
> where they should be investing their money in order to stay relevant to customers who have embraced ecommerce.

And that's really all they'll likely care about.
posted by kimberussell at 6:07 AM on June 11 [8 favorites]

You need to have two job descriptions. One is the casual explanation to friendly acquaintances, and one is the elevator pitch for work and professional contacts. They are completely separate things with separate goals, and they should be entirely different.

If you don't want your job to be a defining characteristic of yourself, your casual job description should be as boring as humanly possible. "I'm in HR, I do payroll," explains like 2% of what my job is, but it is incredibly good at making sure no human person I ever meet ever wants to hear more. Give no detail, provide no color. Find the lamest most drudgey way to say your job in fewer than 10 words, make a face like you tasted ear wax, and then pivot to a hobby or activity you actually enjoy.

Your professional job description though should do exactly the opposite. Dangle just enough of the most interesting things in front of them to make them curious enough for follow up questions. So "I manage HR ops, I write compensation plans, manage the HRIS, and facilities reports up through me," or whatever else from the laundry list I do that would be particularly applicable to the person I'm talking to.
posted by phunniemee at 6:08 AM on June 11 [23 favorites]

I'm a biomedical indexer. I used to be a research scientist.

I have like... 8 different ways of talking about my job, depending on if I want to pivot immediately to something else, depending on how much I think I will ever talk to the person again, their own background, etc etc etc.

Examples that I have said, all true ways of describing my job, tailored for the audience/my conversational goals:
"I'm a government contractor" [changes subject] (let them think what they think... I want to talk about my hobbies)
"I index medical journals"
"I work at the NIH"
"I work at the National Library of Medicine"
"I work at a government library"
"I work on PubMed" (if they are in a medical or scientific field)
"I'm in health sciences... administration stuff"
"I'm a biomedical indexer"
"I read medical journals all day... I love it, but it's not very exciting to talk about"

The last one is the main reason I try to pivot immediately. I do really enjoy my job, but as a job... I'm not all about it as a part of my identity (big reason I left academia). Of course the usual outcome is we then talk about their job, sigh.
posted by gaspode at 6:15 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]

"'I'm in HR, I do payroll'"

Yeah, this is what I do. I say "I work in IT for an insurance company." There are only a handful of people who want to keep talking about my job at that point. Even today, most people I meet still think "IT" is some sort of magic that you have to be really smart to understand (which, if you really don't want to talk about it, you can lean into by using a bunch of jargon - "it's an Agile team architecting a firewall exception for the relational database we just implemented"), and I think insurance has been shorthand for "mind-numbingly boring industry" for quite a while now. That combination really lends itself well to a conversation pivot.

For professional stuff, I give my job title and then explain a few of my duties. "I'm a business analyst, which in my case mostly means writing specs and test plans". And then if it's an interviewer who wants more, I can go deeper into the spec-writing process (working with the business users to determine requirements, working with the developers to determine technical capabilities, etc.) I also have a fairly interesting (by insurance IT standards, at least) personal narrative about how I came to be a business analyst for an insurance company, so sometimes I'll lead with that. Sometimes it works as a pivot in casual conversation, because when I say I work in IT for an insurance company, people will ask if I majored in computer science, and I can say "no, I majored in ancient Greek history" which blows their minds.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:37 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]

Reason #1) They don't actually want to understand what you do, they want to make conversation and are trying to invite you to talk about something you know something about. This isn't about being stressed that you might answer incorrectly -- you just need to continue the conversation. You just need a three-or-four word explaination that allows them to say "oh, that's neat" or ask another low-stress question about it. My answer whenever the hairstylist asks me where I work, I say we sell paperless-office software. This is a grossly simplified and probably 70% incorrect answer but it is something a stranger has a vague concept of, and if they're really insterested they will ask more.

Reason #2) This one is good to give some thought to, because they *are* asking in order to hear an accurate answer, because they cannot take further action without it. This should be more of an answer of your responsibilities, and not a vague description. The people who want to known what you do professionally want to know what you do not what your job is called, so give the job title at the start, but immediately go into your top two or three responsibilities in the job. I'm "Director of Software Support" because a higher-up decided all managers get "director" in their title and most of my day isn't support, it's C# development while making sure my support guys are handling tickets.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:44 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]

I'm like gaspode - I have a lot of ways of describing my job (which I very rarely really want to talk about, especially in social situations).

- I work for a small tech company downtown
- I write software for banks
- I'm a Rails developer
- I'm in fintech
- I just work at a computer all day

In general I find it pretty easy to pivot away from talking about *my* job (short, boring answers, ideally with redirects) but yeah this does tend to lead to hearing EVEN MORE about the other person's job.

Talking about your work for hiring purposes is pretty different. Unless you think you're going to be leaning on these people you're meeting socially for job leads, you really don't need to tell them much about your job if you don't want to. In my experience there are two main reasons people ask about your job - to make casual small talk or to "assess" you and figure out what box you belong in in their mind. If it's just casual small talk, the boring answer and redirect to something more interesting will get you where you need to go; if they really want to assess you by your job, eh, do you want to play that game? You don't HAVE to.
posted by mskyle at 6:47 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

yeah these answers need to depend on the context of the inquiry.

social small talk, make it as brief and boring as possible, and turn it back to them. "I do IT consulting for banks and other large businesses. How about you (or "so what are you guys keeping busy with this summer"? etc.

professional networkng, quickly present your value proposition: "I help banks and other big companies maintain data integrity in tricky situations like platform migrations, big client changes, stuff like that." (or whatever the one-sentence summary is of the major point of your job.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:51 AM on June 11

What kind of questions are you getting? I feel like for most people "I'm an IT consultant" would be enough, maybe with the name of the company you're employed by or the ones you consult for. But if they're asking questions, maybe give us a few examples here.

(Also, if you can take the lead and ask them questions first, the conversation will often move on and they won't get around to asking you about your job.)
posted by trig at 7:00 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]

In my experience, when people make small-talk with me, they are just being polite, and they don't really care about anything I have to say -- or, at least, they don't care in any deep sense. If I'm asked a question, I typically keep my answers brief and try to throw the ball back into their court. I find that people are only too happy to talk about themselves, so I encourage them to do so. Another reason why I don't like to talk about myself is that I have a fear of appearing to be self-centered and/or boring. I'd rather have the other person be self-centered and boring. All of which is to say... don't sweat it. Just come up with some vague answer ("I do IT consulting, mainly with big companies"), and leave it at that. Chances are good that your answer will satisfy about 90% of the people who ask you the question.
posted by alex1965 at 7:08 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I am a programmer, but I am into hiking. Just hiked up west mountain. What are you into these days?
posted by AugustWest at 7:10 AM on June 11

Your reason 2 gives you a possible strategy: say "I'm in IT now, but I'm trying to get into X." Would that work better than trying to describe your current job?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:22 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]

I feel like, for any consultant, "I'm an X consultant. I help companies do XYZ" is great for casual small talk. XYZ should be "explain it like I'm ten" level - oversimplify it.

Shout out to the dad of a kid in kindergarten who replied with "I do IT security assessments for nuclear reactors." And then with a stiff upper lip endured for the one billionth time the question "OMG do they get hacked?"

(Answer: Yes, but never the bits that explode.)
posted by Omnomnom at 7:25 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I don’t like talking about myself period. Fortunately, it seems like other people really enjoy talking about themselves. So I use the short answer followed by a question technique.

“I’m a software developer. What about you?”

If they have already told me what they do:
“I’m a software developer. What do you enjoy about [insert their job title here]?”
posted by hilaryjade at 7:40 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I don't understand why "I'm an IT consultant, what about you?" isn't working for you, here. If they follow up with any version of, "Oh, tell me more," then you just say one sentence about the project you are currently working on, e.g., "Right now, I'm helping Target identify their networking needs," or "A small business just hired me to upgrade their accounting software." If they respond with any version of, "Oh, how do you like that?" You can say one sentence that is positive and describes something specific you like about your job in general or about the current project in particular, e.g., "Well, it pays really well and I love that my time is so flexible and I can be there for my family," or "The company that just hired me does really amazing creative projects for clients; I just love learning about what they're working on." Or you can say something mildly negative and pivot to something you'd rather talk about, "Honestly, it's kind of boring some days, but it leaves me plenty of time for my real love, watercolor landscapes."
posted by shadygrove at 7:50 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Nthing the reaction that random people don't really care to understand the details of your working life. My answer to this question got shorter and shorter, winding through my own IT career, until I'd just say "I'm in software" which satisfied most everyone except people in my own field. And with them, you can talk shop.
posted by Rash at 8:22 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I have a way more confusing/difficult to describe job than IT consultant and have several versions of my answer to this question:

I'm in marketing
I do marketing for a non profit
I do marketing for a trade association [this is actually inaccurate, membership/professional associations are different from trade associations but the latter is a phrase people better understand]
I do marketing for a non-profit association. [receive quizzical look] You know like the American Medical Association is for doctors, but I work for [name of association] which provides membership, education, and resources for [X profession]

I also have a different version for when I'm talking to people who know what [x profession] is or are interested in that field which gets a bit more specific, partly because I have a graduate degree in the profession that my organization serves so I like to geek out about it. This provides an opportunity to get into more substantive discussions about what a lot of people think is an interesting topic. But not everyone cares so I am very judicious about when I use this version.

One way to workshop this for yourself might be to write out a paragraph that you think describes what you do without worrying about length or complexity. Then cut what doesn't matter and simplify what is too complicated, over and over again. The key is the iteration - trying to go from a paragraph to 4 words is too hard, but going from 4 sentences to 2 sentences to 1 sentence to a 4-word phrase is easier if you do it step by step.
posted by misskaz at 8:49 AM on June 11

Another thing to be prepared for is the person who does want to know more about what you do, because they're a curious sort of person or there's a nugget that sounds interesting. I wouldn't lead with it but if you encounter someone like this who starts asking deeper questions, it's helpful to have an example at hand that is relevant to your average person's life. For me I might say "Ever wonder how your neighborhood/city ended up looking like it does? There are people who try to figure out where houses and offices and stores parks and roads should go and what they should look like, and my company supports people in that career so they can be better at their jobs and give us all better places to live."
posted by misskaz at 8:56 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

(which, if you really don't want to talk about it, you can lean into by using a bunch of jargon - "it's an Agile team architecting a firewall exception for the relational database we just implemented")

This is like catnip to me. If you use a bunch of big words/concepts I don't understand to explain your job, I will be asking you what an Agile team is, what a firewall exception is, what you implement a relational database for, etc. No matter what your field is.

What works best on me is: "I do X. But it's my job, not my identity, and I'd rather talk about Y and Z."
posted by aniola at 9:30 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice here. I would just warn you away from answers like "double agent" or other obviously false things. If someone answered that way to me I wouldn't follow up, but I'd be thinking 'this dude is kind of an asshole' or maybe to put a finer point on it, I would think you think my questions are boring or inappropriate and would feel bad about that for a second. Then I'm going to have a negative impression of you because I'll think you don't know how to behave interacting with people.

Your goal should always be to leave people feeling ok about the conversation. If management consultants are asking you weird questions, you could say "the business guys handle that end of things; I'm focused on the code/software/databases/whatever.
posted by jeoc at 9:37 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]

I do not have a traditional career (not do I want one). Ways that I have answered this question on debate ballots (I don't know why this is asked on debate ballots where I judge, but it is):
- COO of the FamilyName Household
- Travel Agent
- Personal Research Analyst

I've also told people "I work with kids" or "I work with horses" because those are both true.

I also try to preempt this topic with things like "What did you do last weekend?" or "What was your pandemic project?"
posted by Ms Vegetable at 10:05 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

If you don't want your job to be a defining characteristic of yourself, your casual job description should be as boring as humanly possible.

I want to emphasize this times 1000. A dear friend of mine works in tech, designing websites and apps. He's super ambivalent about his work and doesn't want it to define him, and doesn't want to be defined by it. He used to have jobs more aligned with his true interests, and I think it bothers him that he can't give one of the old answers. I've been around him a few times when folks ask him what he does, and he's given slightly flippant or confusing answers and then ended up going back and answering in a longer way because he doesn't mean to be flippant or confusing or rude. But he ends up spending more time answering because he doesn't have a simple, boring answer.

Folks are looking for a connection point. It's totally okay if you don't want to talk about work, but I agree that it would be good to find a simple answer to this question, and then a way to turn the conversation. "I'm an IT consultant. I help X company manage their Y and Z systems. So what neighborhood do you live in/where does baby Hercules go to daycare/what's your take on ranked choice voting in the NYC primary/etc."
posted by bluedaisy at 5:16 PM on June 11

It doesn't sound like it's hard to describe, rather it sounds like you don't want to describe it. So it's like trying to write a paper on a topic you don't know or you don't care about or you dislike. That usually doesn't work very well. A lot of people, including me, find it fascinating to learn what other people do 1/3 of their weekday time because there's often an interesting story behind how they got there and where it is taking them. Often times people got there by chance, somehow stumbling into a field or opportunity. It's also interesting to see how every person makes their own little contribution to the economy, to society, to the world, to culture, etc. through their work. Perhaps if you think about this topic in this broader human story sense - not as about what people do but about how they got there and where are they headed on that ongoing journey and how they fit into the puzzle that is civilization - you might find it more interesting and thus find yourself engaging in such conversations more naturally. After all, "what do you do" is really just a way to learn who someone is and what makes them tick and what kind of human productivity/creativity niche they fill in society. The reason I'm giving you this suggestion is because I don't think having a "better" description of your job is going to provide a real solution to the problem.
posted by Dansaman at 10:56 PM on June 11

I'm an IT consultant

I've been telling people "I work with computers" to answer this question since the 90s. Only in the last few years have I had anyone ask for more details, usually because they also work in IT... most of the time it leads to "Oh, I could never do that, I can't even program my VCR."
posted by mmoncur at 4:11 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

For number 1 I have a different situation in that I love my job and identify with it but I often don’t want to get into it in casual social situations because it’s a job that people a) don’t know much about and so hold negative stereotypes such as that all we do is take people’s kids away or b) do know more about and then either want to dump all their personal problems on me or hear war stories. So to manage this I just say “Oh, I work at a hospital [plus subject change.]” You could do this by just saying, “Oh I work for X company” even if you work them in a consulting capacity. I know doctors who also do this because they don’t want to end up being asked to look at someone’s mole or hear in detail about their mom’s cancer treatment at a party. I’m mentioning this because doctor is a traditionally “impressive” occupation, one that is easily explained, and one that everyone has heard of but doctors don’t always want to talk about their profession either— so don’t feel alone in not enjoying the “what do you do?” exchange or feel that your lack of enjoyment is because you have a weird or “unimpressive” career. Rarely have people pressed me for more specifics, but if they do I’ll mention the department I work for (you could say IT management) and then ask them a question in return. People generally love talking about themselves more than they want to listen.

For 2, think about what you’ve learned so far in your career and what you would like to learn in the future. While I agree with others who have said 1 and 2 have different goals, I think verbalizing this might also help with number 1 if part of your issue is feeling your job isn’t impressive or worthwhile. You probably have learned lots since you started and developed skills others outside of the field can’t even imagine! If there are new skills you might want to learn in a new job, that can also put you in touch with at least a small feeling of excitement about the field. When giving your elevator pitch you’ll be summarizing what you’ve learned and what you’d like to learn.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 12:59 PM on June 12

I work in Product Operations, sometimes the associated title is Product Specialist. No one knows what that is--and it's a wide-ranging job, and what it is can vary from company to company. So I've learned to either give the title and immediately follow with a short explanation, or to not give the title at all give a short and slightly humorous but true explanation. How I answer depends on what exposure my audience might have to the whole concept, what part of the job feels relevant to highlight, or sometimes just my mood.


"I work in Product Operations, which means I make sure bug reports get resolved and customer issues are integrated into the product feedback loop." (This one's either for people I know work in tech, or people I intentionally want to ward off from asking further questions by using techy buzzwords.)

"Oh, I tell engineers what to do."

"I wrangle bug reports." or "I'm a Jira wrangler."

"It's kinda like a baby PM."
posted by rhiannonstone at 4:18 PM on June 12

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