Oh, so you're a [insert profession here]! How [insert whacky generalization and misguided curiosity here]?
April 28, 2008 9:02 AM   Subscribe

What is the first question people ask when you tell them what you do? Are there common misconceptions or generalizations that people make? How do you tactfully and/or humorously correct them?

For example:
"So, you're a linguist eh? How many languages do you speak?"

I'm interested in good, helpful responses to the above example, as well as parallel constructions to other fields/hobbies/interests that are commonly misunderstood. Also, factual and scientific background information about why these generalizations occur and some good face-saving techniques (for everybody) would be useful.

posted by iamkimiam to Human Relations (155 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "So you're a social worker huh? Do you have to take people's kids away from them all the time?"
posted by greta simone at 9:05 AM on April 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

Usually it's "Can you read my email?"

And of course, the answer is yes, I can, if you happen to work at my company, but knowing how many people work here, it's highly unlikely I ever will unless Legal asks me to archive your email for some reason.
posted by Karmic_Enigma at 9:05 AM on April 28, 2008

It used to be...

Me: "I teach English Education."

Person: "Good, kids need to read some more/Geez I hated Shakespeare/English was my least favorite requirement in college..."

Me: "Well, its more like I teach English teachers how to be English teachers."

Person: "...oh."

I now just skip to the teach teachers part.
posted by oflinkey at 9:08 AM on April 28, 2008

From a former life: "You're a librarian?" and then select one or more of the following:
-I should be a librarian! I love to read!
-Blah blah Dewey Decimal System blah!
-I have a really overdue library book!
-Blah blah Shush! blah blah!
-Why do we need those, when everything's on Google?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:14 AM on April 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

Oops, meant to answer the second half: I never did figure out a good rejoinder. Everything sounded either rude or didactic or both.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:15 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to make the mistake of trying to explain to people what my company does. 99% have no idea (it's a small, specialized corner of an industry a lot of people don't understand to begin with), and a lot of people don't even pretend to care enough to listen and learn (even though they were the ones that asked- so annoying). I have now modified my approach by explaining what *I* do- I manage our internal operations, I oversee this, that and the other thing, I train new staff members, etc. This allows people to smile and nod and understand enough so the topic can pass.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:15 AM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

me: "i'm a programmer"
whomever: "oh, i have an old computer that needs..."
me: "no"
posted by klanawa at 9:19 AM on April 28, 2008 [25 favorites]

also, my girlfriend is working on a masters in fine arts which involves a manuscript of poems on a certain set social/natural issues.

she just says, "i'm a student."
posted by klanawa at 9:21 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I work in drug discovery."

"Can I have some?"

- or -

"I develop software."

"Do you work for Microsoft?"

- or -

"I help scientists analyze their data, and manage it. We screen thousands of chemical compounds against different proteins to see which ones have an effect on the functioning of those proteins."

(either) "Oh." (or) "You must be smart/that sounds hard" (or) "Oh really? I'm in (this field) and we do (this), which sounds similar."

I think people mainly try to relate what they hear from you to something that they have prior knowledge of. Depending on their field, their prior knowledge may be what they read about or see on tv, the top company or person in your field, or they may have some deeper way to connect to what you do.

This seems to be just the way our brains think about the world, nothing more. If you've never seen an airplane, you're likely to think that it's a big bird, not wonder about whether it's jet or piston-engine powered. All you have to go on is your past experience.

If there's genuine interest in learning more about my field, then we have a discussion. If there's not, we usually move to a different topic of conversation. I don't have a burning desire to talk shop most of the time, so it's not usually an issue.
posted by rhys at 9:22 AM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

Me: "I'm a software developer.".
People: "Oh, you know computers? My computer is really slow... can you fix it?"
Me: [inward sigh...] "I probably could, but that's not really my job."

At this point, they either ask me what my job is then (which is fine), or try to convince me to take a crack at fixing their spyware-infested, bogged down Windows box for free anyway, in this one conversation if at all possible. I really need a collection of good ways to get of these situations more gracefully that "oh hey, there's so-and-so, excuse me...".
posted by cgg at 9:22 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: ME: I'm the Director of Communications (of a large health & fitness related company).

THEM: Oh, really - what do you do in that job role?

(It's a complicated job, filled with many responsibilities and projects ranging from marketing & advertising, to our website, to internal & PR communications, to written materials, to presentations and proposals, to company-wide IT issues...)

ME: Well, I'm sort of the Swiss Army Knife of the company - I do many things for many people, especially when those things are most needed.
posted by Detuned Radio at 9:26 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Mostly when people ask me what I do, I answer "I just try to stay out of trouble." Giving a straight answer to the question derails any conversation for 5 minutes.
posted by adamrice at 9:27 AM on April 28, 2008 [9 favorites]

I'm a writer/editor, and I specialize in trivia (trivial facts books, calendars, board games, etc). About 85% of the time when I answer "I'm a writer" to the question "What do you do?" the response is "Oh, I've always wanted to write! How do you get into it? Can you help me?" If I'm in a patient mood, I'll explain that they have to start out like everyone else, writing samples and spending out query letters. (When they admit they don't know what a query letter is, they I recommend they get a copy of The Writer's Market.) I'll close the conversation by explaining writing, like everything else, takes work and practice. They wouldn't meet a dentist at a party and say "Oh, I've always wanted to drill a tooth, can you help me out?", would they?)
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

What cgg said with a smattering of
"Oh, I don't really understand computers. You must be really smart."
posted by seanyboy at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2008

When I was a chemistry tutor, I used to get "Really? I hated chemistry." quite alot.
posted by cabingirl at 9:31 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

As far as the second part of the question goes...

I think deflecting, self-effacing, anecdotal kind of responses are best. It they are asking because they are sincerely interested, the right kind of questions will be asked (sincere, probing questions instead of ones based on stereotypes or ignorance) and you won't find yourself in that awkward situation.
But if you do find yourself faced with that situation, it's more than likely because the person is just looking to make small-talk, conversation, or is feigning interest. In such cases, I think something humorous that sort of parries the question is best. After all, do they really want the long answer?
posted by Detuned Radio at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2008

I'm a Project Manager for the website of a major retailer.

I get "Oh, you're a project manager? So what exactly do you do?"

I then explain some popular feature on our website, and how it's people like me that hold all of the internal resources' hands to guide them through the process of completing it.
posted by xotis at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2008

Mostly when people ask me what I do, I answer "I just try to stay out of trouble."

My boyfriend's answer is "Whatever they tell me to do." Similar effect.
posted by cabingirl at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I used to answer, "I'm an aeronautical engineer" but then I got depressed by how many people don't know what "aeronautical" means or refers to. So, now I'm a mechanical engineer. This is invariably followed by, "What do you work on?"

My current and previous jobs are both difficult to explain, so I try to keep it short - I work on avionics or I work on satellite systems. Again, though, not many people understand what "avionics" means (or satellite systems, apparently...), so this drives them to ask more questions. At this point I give a huge sigh, explain what avionics are and how I fit in to that role, in addition to the definition of a systems engineer (my actual title) and the inner workings of engineering firms.

At the end of this, they usually look pretty glassy-eyed. They generally don't ask about my job ever again.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think a face-saving response is a small smile and short laugh as if the person is surely kidding, then go on to say what you really do as if the person must already know it. I'm a teacher, so my parallel situation is usually something like this:

"Oh, you teach! Must be nice having the summer off."
---does smile and laughing thing--
"Well, have to make up for the 12 hour days and take our extra accreditation sometime!"
posted by lacedback at 9:37 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm an archaeologist, among other things. I once worked for the Forest Service and we all had to take turns doing public service stuff, donning the 'Smokey the Bear' outfit and giving talks to kids about what we do at campfires etc. I got the same question every single time; "Cool! How many dinosaurs have you found?"

One time the question came up and I was just about ready to correct the wee tyke when one of his 10 year old comrades piped up, "That's paleontology, you jerk. Archaeology is people." I could have hugged him.

So other than responding to the inevitable Indiana Jones quips (no I dont carry a whip and being chased by relentless Nazis is kinda rare these days, but I do have a fedora) that's the most common misconception I address.
posted by elendil71 at 9:37 AM on April 28, 2008 [11 favorites]

In a former life..

"I'm a professional nanny."
"Do you and the Dad flirt/have sex/have an affair?"

??? Happened constantly.
posted by Ugh at 9:39 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work as a consultant within the construction industry, which always raises questions because I'm a woman. How many women I work with, do I go on site, blah blah. A lot of people don't understand professional, large project construction and think of men in hard hats. Sometimes I get asked about home maintenance too (!). Like cabingirl and adamrice, I try to deflect it as much as possible. I don't particularly want to talk about my job when I'm not there, and most people aren't overly interested anyway.
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:41 AM on April 28, 2008

I'm a post-doc working in the field of reproductive neuroendocrinology. I tend to try and evaluate the person's level of interest and/or knowledge before I even tell them what I do, and try and pitch my answer appropriately. For some people saying "I'm a scientist" will answer the question and not engender any follow ups. For others, that's an invitation to a load of questions about the discipline and my research topic etc. etc., so I try and answer more specifically straight off the bat.

I can't wait until I (hopefully) get a position somewhere and can just answer "I'm a biology professor". People seem to understand that more.

Oh, and when the inevitable comment about basic research happens, I just shrug and say "yep, I really like torturing rats, it's the whole reason I got into this field."
posted by gaspode at 9:45 AM on April 28, 2008

I'm an account/project manager in technology, and people usually think account manager =accountant. So they go on and on about how they're not good with numbers, or taxes this year really kicked their ass. wtf?
posted by sweetkid at 9:47 AM on April 28, 2008

"I'm an anesthesiologist"

"Oh, so you put people to sleep for a living"

"Actually, I wake them up for a living."

Other common misconceptions are that I am not a physician, that I am an employee of whatever surgeon I am working with, and how much training (4 years of college, 4 of medical school, and 4 of residency, plus maybe a fellowship thrown in there) it takes to become an anesthesiologist. I enjoy explaining what I do to people though, so am happy to clear things up.
posted by TedW at 9:47 AM on April 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

"I teach political science."

"Oh. What office do you run for?"
"What do you think about this political race for an obscure local office nine towns away? Isn't this person that no one who wasn't born within 5 miles of the town would ever have heard of just a shoo-in?"
"Let me explain my unified field theory of politics to you. It all starts with the masons..."

I don't tactfully correct them. If I get the sense that someone is likely to ask with such a question, I first answer "I work at the university" and follow up, if asked, with "I build and test mathematical models of internal legislative rule systems." This dissuades such questions, but does sometimes lead to "Why does anyone care about that?"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:50 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

them: "what do you do?"
me: "I'm a graduate student."
them: "oh, what are you writing about?"
me: "my dissertation is a comparative study of the roles of death, desire and the body in Tibetan Buddhism, Surrealism, and Georges Bataille."
them: "..."
me: *sigh*
posted by crazylegs at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

I used to tell people I study H5N1 (avian influenza) - the Asian strain that has mutated from being only found in mammals (birds, etc.) to human hosts and subsequently causing problems worldwide. The most common responses I get are followed by glassy eyed stares: "Are we going to die soon?", "That only is a problem in birds right?" (sigh), "I thought vaccines took care of that?" (also sigh).

Now I just say I'm a grad student. I don't even try to tell them about how my research is based in Environmental Health and/or Infectious Disease.
posted by carabiner at 9:53 AM on April 28, 2008

People: so what do you do?
me: mostly whatever the fuck i want
[people go talk to someone else]
posted by cmyr at 9:53 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Retail/grocery management: "I was a bag boy as a teenager"/"I could never work in retail; how do you stand it?"/"I thought you went to graduate school, what happened to that?" If I feel like it, I explain that I think it's interesting and enjoyable to work with wide segments of the public, and that most of my job is behind-the-scenes stuff anyway. I've had a couple of harangues on the rising costs of food as well, which I didn't really reply to; I'm not really interested in giving people a lecture on why food prices are rising when they're not concerned enough to inform themselves.
posted by frobozz at 9:54 AM on April 28, 2008

Chesty nailed what I would've answered for being a librarian.
posted by 100watts at 9:55 AM on April 28, 2008

My boyfriend does improv. It usually goes like this:

"I do improv comedy."
"Ooooh, a comedian! Say something funny!"
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:56 AM on April 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

I guess I have it easy. I do online marketing.

"Oh, like banner ads?"

"Yup!" It's a little more complex than that but if people have humorous misconceptions, they keep them to themselves.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 9:57 AM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: "You edit children's books? That must be easy... what do they have, like, ten words?"


"You're an editor? So you... correct the spelling?"


"Children's books, huh? So what do you think of the Harry Potter books?"

To the first, I usually say, "Actually, we publish a wide range of books, anything from tiny baby books up to long novels for teenagers." or else I say, "The shortest books are the most difficult -- choosing exactly the right words is harder than it seems."

To the second, I usually say, "I'm not a copyeditor -- they're the ones who do grammar and spelling. I work on the bigger-picture stuff with the author." I'm always happy to go on and explain in more detail, if the questioner is interested.

To the third, I usually laugh and say, "I liked them."

I used to study linguistics, and I got "How many languages do you speak?" ALL THE TIME. I usually said, "Well, three... but actually, linguistics isn't the study of many languages, it's the study of language in general -- how structures and sounds are similar and how they're different across languages." Usually people got the idea, I think.
posted by cider at 10:00 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a computer science major. "Oh, so do you build computers or program them?" No, it's more about math. "Like calculus?" And philosophy and psychology. "What, like in Terminator?" Actually, more philosophy - what is truth and how do we represent it? "[blank stare] So ... you write software, then."
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:10 AM on April 28, 2008

"Oh, so you're a philosopher?"

"Yes...I think very deeply"
posted by neilkod at 10:11 AM on April 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

"I'm a bartender."
"Oh, do you know how to make [Incredibly Obscure Cocktail]?"
"Sure. It's rum, pineapple juice and grenadine."
"No it isn't."
"It is if you order it from me."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:14 AM on April 28, 2008 [50 favorites]

I usually go with a metaphor:

Me: "I program computers."

Them: "Oh, really? My computer is all fucked up?"

M: "I doubt I'll be able to help you."

T: "Why not?"

M: "It's like a racecar driver. He can drive the fuck out of that car, but he hired a mechanic. I'm the same way. I can program the fuck out of a computer, but I still have to get the company IT guy when my internet isn't working."

This is, of course, a lie.
posted by Netzapper at 10:17 AM on April 28, 2008 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a fiction writer, and in addition to what Oriole Adams mentioned above, I tend to get the following:

"Oh! You're a fiction writer? So is it really made up, or do you base it all on your own life?"

"Oh! You're a writer? I've always wanted to write a novel, but I've never had the time." (Because of course, TIME is all that it takes to write good fiction...)

"Oh! You're a writer? I have a great idea for a story you could write."

"Oh! You're a writer? Me too!"--followed by a description of the romance novel/memoir/self-help book they're working on. (Don't get me wrong; there's nothing wrong with any of those genres, but they're pretty different from what I do, and it's hard to find common ground. So the conversation usually dies a slow, painful death.)

My favorite response was from a woman on a bus: "Oh! You're a writer? Well, I used to read a lot of those... whaddya call'em... fiction books, but now I mostly just read romance." And a good friend got this variation: "Oh! So whch do you write, children's books, or romance?"

These responses seem to arise from the sterotypes of fiction writers: all fiction is real life, with the names changed; anyone can (and should) write a book; etc. I'm not witty enough to respond in realtime--that's why I write stuff down!--so I usually just answer completely straight. Actually, I think almost everyone I've met is really impressed by the concept of Being A Writer (except maybe that woman on the bus), and they're honestly trying to show their interest. Reminding myself of that makes these conversations go a lot smoother.
posted by Ms. Informed at 10:18 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a playwright.

The normal response is "can you actually make money doing that?"

However, my favorite response was when I was getting a new driver's license at the DMV. I was finishing my degree at the time, and the DMV employee asked me what I was studying. I told him I was getting my BFA in playwriting.

He proceeded to call me a "playwrong."

I was pretty indignant at the time. "You work at the DMV and you're insulting my life choices?"

Now I find it pretty funny.

Also, I've noticed that if you aren't an actor or director in the theatre, people tend to not understand what you do. I've known lighting and costume designers to say "I design ___" to people, and the response is, "Someone gets paid to do that?"
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 10:19 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I also always get the Dewey Decimal Classification question when folks find out that I'm a librarian, and until recently I had no other response than a bored smirk-- which I always hoped to serve as the visual analog to the wah-wah-waaaah trombone blast.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was at a comedy show, and a well-known comic struggling to fill time ventured out into the audience and asked me my name and what I did.

him: A librarian? Really? Do you guys still use that Dewey Decimal System?
me: (with a complete lack of enthusiasm) Dewey ever.
all but him: riotous laughter.

I was instantly mortified (not really knowing where that had come from), and he seemed a little shaken that I got the punch line, but I think that's my answer from now on. Of course, since I'm in an academic library, it's basically a lie, but I guarantee you that no one asking that question actually wants learn anything about your work.
posted by activitystory at 10:21 AM on April 28, 2008 [21 favorites]

I'm a visual artist with my own studio practice and career, and also a part time studio manager for a well known artist in NYC. It is fun and always interesting, but it is also a tough business. When I meet people outside of the creative world, I think their assumptions/delusions about artists and creative people often get the best of them. (I think this is a part of the reason creative people tend to stick together.) But recently I was at a wedding related to my SO's job, where I got the full range of responses to, "I am an artist."

1) "No way/cool/wow"

2) "You earn a living at that?" (Yes, I do.)

3) "Do you get to draw naked women?" ( Not since art school, and trust me, it is not all that exciting.)

4) "I paint too!" ( Often, very nice people say this, then blush.)

5) extended silence.......(I once had this happen on a plane - he was the Bishop from Cincinnati, if I remember correctly.)

6) An extended, unprovoked, completely uninformed monologue on why all "modern" art is bullshit. (I am usually torn between egging this on, and just ignoring it. Simply asking when he was last in a museum usually disarms the diatribe.)

I think the problem is that many people have no idea that working artists exist outside of New Yorker cartoons.

The only question that has ever bothered me is the "you earn a living at that?" one. (It seems to be consistently asked by the guy who turns out to be an investment banker. ) I've always wanted to say, "yes, I do.... and how much do you make a year?", but I never have.
posted by R. Mutt at 10:27 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

--"I'm an ecologist" usually gets:
"So, you're an environmentalist?"


"So, you study pollution?"

My answers:
--"No, I'm a biologist. I study the functioning of stream ecosystems."

--"No, water pollution of the kind you're thinking of hasn't been much of a problem since we started enforcing the Clean Water Act twenty-five years ago."

If I go on to explain that I study the production and consumption of carbon in streams, they ask what use that is and how that's going to help me fix pollution. etc.

I don't have a clever handy rejoinder. If people seem genuinely sincere in appreciating that I do something pleasant, I just politely let them think whatever they want to think. If they ask me what they can do to stop pollution, I tell them to stop fertilizing their lawns. If they ask me about solar panels, hybrid cars, or genetically modified crops, I give them my best informed opinion while explaining those are not my areas of expertise. If they seem actually curious what I really do, I try to explain.

The confusion obviously comes from the colloquial use of the word "ecology" to describe everything from biofuels to compact fluorescent light bulbs to organic farming, rather than the area of biology focusing on the study of organisms and their relationship to their environment. At this point, I'm wondering if it would just be easier for us to change the name of our science.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:27 AM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

Me: I'm a theatre administrator.

Them: Oh, how many shows have you been in? / Are you one of the performers, too?

Me: No, actually, I do everything for my theatre company except make the art. (Or, I don't make the art, I just make the art happen.)

Sometimes that will provoke further questions, so I get to go on to explain that my job involves marketing, customer service, grantwriting, etc. It's never occurred to many people that theatre involves anything other than what they see on stage.

Mr. Fascinated is a clinical psychologist - mostly he gets asked for drugs (that's psychiatrist, not psychologist!) or for stories about the "crazy people" he works with, which he of course cannot provide.
posted by hyperfascinated at 10:31 AM on April 28, 2008

"I'm an airline pilot."

"How do you remember what all those buttons and switches do?"

"It's not too hard as long as my medication makes the voices stop."
posted by dinger at 10:32 AM on April 28, 2008 [7 favorites]

I have my master's in urban planning. It's such a multidisciplinary field that it's difficult to sum up in a sentence or two. People conflate it with civil engineering or architecture and think I'm going to build bridges or design houses. Depending on the type of neighborhood someone lives in, I get comments about the evils of urban sprawl, the woeful traffic situation, or rants about building codes/design regulations.

I also have a concentration in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), which is really beyond most people, so I just say "I make interactive maps."
posted by desjardins at 10:35 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Them: "Geographer? Don't you just memorize state capitals and...?"
Me: "No, actually, it's pretty much the opposite: we recognize patterns, processes, and trends in urban and social development and human-environmental relations. It's not about trivia."


Them: "Urban planning, eh?" So you design buildings?"
Me: "That's an architect."
Them: "So you design neighborhoods?"
Me: "Sort of."
Them: "So you promote development?"
Me: "That's the chamber of commerce."
Them: "So what do you do?"
Me: "We hold workshops, we advise the city government, and we get ignored."
posted by kittyprecious at 10:36 AM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

People think that the Hustler offices are filled with hot chicks and that we all get blowjobs at 11:00am.

No, it's a cube farm and I mostly screw around and manage paperwork while trying to find freelance gigs without them knowing.
posted by klangklangston at 10:44 AM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am a UNIX guy, but I generally just tell people I'm a computer guy (because no one has heard of UNIX). Like the other IT folks in this thread, people either:

1) instantly ask for advice on a Microsoft Windows problem they're having. Advised that I haven't owned a Windows computer in years, they look at me like I'm full of shit, since there is no other type of computer.

2) assume I'm a dipshit who somehow gets paid to play with Microsoft Windows PCs all day, which must be a trivial task because even grandma can set up a PC. I assume that they picture me helping folks attach scanners or webcams to PCs all day or something, who knows.
posted by popechunk at 10:45 AM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: I'm a(nother) librarian.

I often bring up how I'm experienced working with rare books. That's when you get the question...

"So - do you wear the white gloves?"

I refrain from going ARGGGGGGGGHHHHHH (though I have done). My usual response now is - "If I had a pound for everyone that mentioned the gloves... " and then go on to explain why white cotton gloves are not ideal for handling books etc etc...

Cool thread!
posted by LyzzyBee at 10:46 AM on April 28, 2008

I study plant biology, and everyone assumes I make genetically modified crops. My research is really more about genetics, and I just happen to work with plants. I started telling people I'm a geneticist, but then everyone thought I worked with stem cells. Now I just say biologist and let them ask more questions if they are interested.

Basically, people just assume I work on whatever science topic is being covered by the media at that moment.
posted by jenne at 10:46 AM on April 28, 2008

I'm a small-town reporter. I get some of the following responses:

"Wow, that's cool. What do you write about?"

"I have this great idea for a story!!" (and then I have to explain that I am a small-town reporter and my beat is the town, not just whatever I feel like writing about).

"Gee, writing is so hard! How do you do it? I can barely write a sentence by myself!"

My least-favorite is the diatribe on how all the media is liberal/conservative/ruining the country/etc. Just the thing I like to hear at parties and when I've just met someone.
posted by sutel at 10:46 AM on April 28, 2008

I'm a stay-at-home-mom.
"Yes, but what do you do?"
"Really? When are you going to go back to work?"
"Oh, how I wish I could do that, but, you know, some of us have mortgages to pay"
or a myriad of other responses that are not about me but about the asker.

I now usually say that I build websites (which is also true) and then they ask "Do you make money with that?"
posted by davar at 10:50 AM on April 28, 2008

I’m a lawyer.

I actually don’t get many questions and not many lawyer jokes. Sometimes I get half-hearted comments like “oh, I better be careful you don’t sue me” kind of things. I guess people are pretty sure they know what lawyers do. I get asked for legal advice, but usually from people who already know what I do.

An ex of mine is a linguist, and in addition to the most common “how many languages do you speak,” he got “oh, I better be careful what I say” a lot.
posted by Pax at 10:56 AM on April 28, 2008

"I'm a psychotherapist"

"Oh - can you read minds?"


This works a treat...
posted by you're only jung once at 10:57 AM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a marketing consultant.
Oh, what kind of job are you looking for?
No, really -- I'm a consultant. I run my own business.
Oh. But what do you want to do?

They'd ask where I worked. I'd spend a lot of time trying to explain that I wasn't a contract employee.

Now I say one of these things, depending on my audience:
I run a marketing consulting company.
I run a marketing consulting company and an information products business.
I run a marketing consulting company and an information products business and I also teach at the university level.
I run a marketing consulting company and an information products business and I fit that around taking care of my children.

When I said I was a marketing consultant, people seemed to think that meant I was unemployed or, in more recent years, "covering up" for being at home with my kids full-time. (Not that anyone should ever have to justify being at home. @davar)

If I'm in networking mode, I explain myself a little differently -- more around what I do for businesses. But, in social situations, I try to keep it simple.
posted by acoutu at 11:03 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I tell people I draw viruses.

Technically I'm a jack-of-all-trades at a laboratory that specializes in imaging. I place orders, I proof-read papers, I design webpages and create the accompanying graphics. I also make diagrams of virus life cycles, the actual viral capsid and envelope, viral proteins and their configurations. Sometimes I make diagrams about the process that we use to figure out how the viruses work, make powerpoint presentations about the math and logic that drives the programs we use, and things like that. I basically do what scientists are really bad at - make things look good.

But that's extremely long-winded, so I just say, "I draw viruses." It doesn't communicate the idea, but nothing short and simple does, so I may as well keep things interesting and give my interlocutor something possibly mentionable later - something to the effect of, "Hey, I met this girl who draws viruses. Weird, huh?"
posted by reebear at 11:09 AM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

"A city planner? So that's like playing SimCity for a living, huh?"

"Yes. But I am only permitted to unleash one tornado on my city per year."
posted by gordie at 11:23 AM on April 28, 2008 [15 favorites]

"I make websites and databases"

"Oh, you make websites? Can you make me a website (for free)?"
posted by geeky at 11:31 AM on April 28, 2008

them: What do you do for a living?
me: I'm a bookseller.
them: Wow, that must be great being able to read books all day long.
me: Yeah, but my chaise lounge is really getting worn out & the bon-bons aren't always as fresh as I'd prefer.


them: What do you do?
me: I'm part of a workers' collective.
them: A what?
me: I don't have a boss.
them: No way!

posted by jammy at 11:32 AM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When I mention that I work for an insurance company, I don't necessarily get a key recurring question, but I do often get dirty looks and generally have to explain that I don't actually do anything at all with insurance and that, specifically, I am not an insurance salesman.

Also, factual and scientific background information about why these generalizations occur and some good face-saving techniques (for everybody) would be useful.

I don't have anything scientific handy, but the simplest likely explanation I think is that folks making conversation on a subject with which they're not particularly familiar will bring to the table whatever is out there in pop culture as a touchstone. So linguists are people who show up in newspaper stories about languages—they're People Who Speak Languages, to the Joe Public. Computer Scientists are guys who (a) hack computers, or (b) know about email and disk drives and can figure out why my Windows keeps crashing. Accountants are people who are Really Good At Math. It's a game of vague semantics, trying to ask a question about something you know you don't really know about.

There's nothing to do for the generalizations themselves except to give a good, pithy explanation of what your field is actually about when someone blunders down the How Many Lanugages path; a polite and cheerful (even the umpteenth time, yes) explanation of what your job/field/whatever actually entails means there's no need to worry about face-saving at all.

Smalltalk is just smalltalk, and no one should be too upset by either misunderstanding an occupation or having their occupation misunderstood; if asking or being asked leads to social drama or horror, that's largely aside from the question of who does what, I figure.
posted by cortex at 11:40 AM on April 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

My favorite is

Me: I'm a copyeditor.
Them: So you're a frustrated writer, huh?
Me: Icy stare, "No", and walk away.
posted by doubtful_guest at 11:49 AM on April 28, 2008

ME: "I'm a cartoonist."

THEM: "Here's a really funny joke for your cartoon. My cat was lying really funny on her back yesterday. You could do something with that. I don't know what the caption is but you could do something. Send it to me when you're done."

... or ...

"You could get a lot of material from people like us, heh, heh, heh."

... or ...

"Do you really have to do one every day?"
posted by lpsguy at 12:04 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Q: So what do you do?
A: I'm a consultant.
Q: ummmm... so what do you do then?
A: I consult.
Q: Yeah, but what do you do?
A: I work with computers.
Q: Oh, really? Mine is running really slow, do you know what's wrong?
A: I don't know about that kind of thing.

For people that know me, and won't bug me to fix things, I'm more accurate. I'm a computer programmer, and occasionally build my own machines. I only do "help desk" for my retired parents and my girlfriend. Everyone else gets an vague description of my job.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:06 PM on April 28, 2008

Them: So, what do you do?
Me: I'm a student.
Them: Oh! What do you study?
Me: Music.
Them: Oh right, what kind of music?
Me: Erm, well we study performance, history, analysis, theory.. all sorts really.
Them: What instrument do you play? (this sometimes comes straight after 'Music'.)
Me: Violin and trumpet.
Them: What an unusual combination! Which is your favourite?
Me: I like them both evenly.
Them: I used to play [insert instrument here] but I gave up when I was [insert age here].
Me: Oh, right.

This then frequently moves on to 'So what are you studying at the moment?' and then 'What's your dissertation on?' to which my stock answer is 'it's a long story'. People then quite often want to hear the long story.

Hmmm. It would seem I'm not very good at getting rid of these people.
posted by Lotto at 12:31 PM on April 28, 2008

I'm a graphic designer for print who hates web design and rarely uses Photoshop in his daily workflow; usually the first thing people say when they hear "graphic design" are "oh, I'm pretty good at Photoshop" and "can you make me a website?" It used to irritate the hell out of me but then I realized it was goofy/sort of dick to get bent out of shape about small talk. After all, if I met an ornithologist at a party I would probably make a dumb joke about ornithology ("it's for the birds" (god help me)) and I would hope that he or she'd understand I wasn't belittling his/her field, merely that I don't know jack shit about ornithology.

With respect to the can-you-make-me-a-website stuff I just say "I'd hire a web designer if I needed a website; it's an investment."
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:47 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I work for a small online company that sells grower-direct flowers. I do not work in a florist's shop, or on a farm, but in an office, with many computers and a few people. I always try to make this very clear when I describe my job, and it usually works for the initial conversation, but somehow that part always gets lost in people's memory, so the second time they meet me, they often ask if I'm still working at "that flower shop."

I usually just say yes, though.
posted by dizziest at 12:50 PM on April 28, 2008

I'm a university professor.
question is ALWAYS "what do you teach?"
But, I mostly do research. sometimes I don't teach at all. But if you tell them that, they think you do nothing for a living.
posted by cogneuro at 12:50 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

*Another* librarian here:

"But, you don't LOOK like a librarian!" (Not a question, but THE most frequent response.)
"I was a librarian for a while when I was in high school..." (Uhm, no, you were NOT a librarian, then.)
"Oh, so do you read a lot?" (Yes, I do, but that has nothing to do with my being a librarian -- I work in tech services at a medical library.)
And, yeah, really dumb comments about the Dewey Decimal System.

I don't have any really good tactful responses. Actually, I think I kind of use people's reaction to what I do as a quality filter. If they make jokes about the uselessness of libraries or librarians, then I don't really *want* to be tactful with them. Why encourage them to talk to me further?

I'm such an academic/intellectual snob!
posted by INTPLibrarian at 12:56 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm in school for theater, so I still have "student" to fall back on, but every actor I know who gets this immediately gets "Ooo, have you been in any movies or TV shows I might have seen?"
The issue here is either you just say "No." and sound not only rude, but like a rude failure, or you are forced to go into a long explanation that you are a stage actor, and then have to explain yourself to someone who has without a doubt never been in a theater in their lives, and to whom "stage actor" only means "can't get a film job."
posted by raygan at 1:20 PM on April 28, 2008

Oh god, another librarian here. When I tell people I'm in library school, at least two have asked if I've learned how to alphabetize yet. It is very sad. I really have no response to it.
posted by unknowncommand at 1:22 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a university lecturer. After getting many baffled looks over the years, I realized that no one outside of academia knows what the hell a lecturer is. So now I just say that I'm a professor.

Some people stop there. Others ask what I teach, at which point the conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: I teach writing.
Them: Oh! So you teach people how to write novels.
Me: No, I teach them how to write essays.
Them: blank look
Me: You know, the kind of thing you had to write in freshman comp.
Them: Oh, okay.

Then they usually say something like, "I always hated writing/grammar/English" or "Are you going to correct my grammar?" I once spent a cross-country flight sitting next to someone who made these comments approximately once per hour for the duration of the flight.

For a while, I tried saying that I taught critical thinking and argumentation. That didn't go over too well on first dates. I got a lot of, "Wow, I'd never win an argument with you!"

Now, when I sense that someone is about to ask me what I do, I try to change the subject.
posted by chicainthecity at 1:27 PM on April 28, 2008

Soon-to-be patent attorney.

Most common first reaction, from other attorneys: "Oh. Do you have a science degree?" Having a science background, such as a science degree, is a requirement. (It's not a stupid question, just a common one.) Then: What area?

Other reaction: "Oh. That sounds boring." Conversations with these people seldom last long, but I usually try to spin it as working on high-tech stuff before anyone else sees it. If I'm feeling saucy--and especially if this is coming from another attorney--I'll highlight the bright job prospects for patent people and make an unflattering comparison to whatever Rich People's Paperwork legal job they have.
posted by Brian James at 1:39 PM on April 28, 2008

As a Computer Science major, I'm also sick of the "oh cool, then fix my Windows computer". Sometimes I just make up random jobs, or say exotic dancer or gay porn star or something similarly conversation-ending.
posted by mezamashii at 1:47 PM on April 28, 2008

I have a new job, which is generating some very interesting responses:
#1 - Can you get me good drugs?
#2 - Let me tell you about this drug experience I once had...
#3 - Marijuana should be legalized! (This most recently from a grey-haired lady from Pasadena I met on the plane)
posted by gingerbeer at 1:54 PM on April 28, 2008

Q: So, what do you do?
A: I'm a chef.
Q1: So, do you cook at home?
Q2: Does your wife cook?
Happens almost without fail...yawn.
By the way the answer is 1:yes and 2:poorly.
posted by Mr.Me at 2:05 PM on April 28, 2008

"Oh, you teach philosophy? ...
- so does a tree make a sound if it falls in the forest, or wait, how does that go? har har har"
- I hated philosophy class in college"
- I loved philosophy class in college - it was so easy because just you could just BS your way through"
- wooo, you must be really deeeep"
- hey, here's a philosophical question for ya [insert sexist or racist joke, or joke about lawyers meeting god, etc]"

or what's worse in a way:
- oh that's great, what's your work on?"

Which is tough because my research is in a totally inaccessible area. So I often just lie and say I do ethics. And then they ask me applied ethics questions, and the whole table can chime in.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:08 PM on April 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

In my case:

"So, you are a musician. How nice!
But what do you do for real?"
posted by mi at 2:10 PM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: I majored in linguistics, and usually got, as above"So what languages do you speak/are you studying?" or occasionally people flat-out admitted that they had no idea what I was talking about. I settled on describing linguistics as "the science of language -- how we process it in the brain, how it differs across cultures, how it changes over time. It has a lot of tie-ins with other fields."
This always lead to questions about what I was going to do with my degree, and unfortunately that question is still unsolved.

These days, I respond very inelegantly when someone asks about my present job, because I have mixed feelings about it, and it involves "qualitative data" (a difficult concept to explain to most people). Since I am compulsively explanatory, I find it hard to gloss over the details, even though I really should. Usually it boils down to: "I'm a research assistant at [university], and I work with transcription and/or buy my boss's kids lunch for the afternoon."

Generally I'm not pressed beyond this point. I like to make a lot of my wacky boss and his antics, because it's far more entertaining than transcription.
posted by dorothy humbird at 2:11 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: And for a linguist, there are two basic approaches, I think. This is assuming a dinner table conversation where you've got a bit of time on your hands:
1. keep a few fun facts in mind - this is a nice thing about linguistics, there are a lot of relatively simple examples (even if you can't get the full explanation out, people like little examples). For example, we all know that a sentence should go "I have a big red balloon" not "I have a red big balloon" -- so you study the rules of language like that, the ones that you would never learn in school but which we all know anyway. Or some other fun little thing like that. Talk about the Piraha, and about whether a naive version of Sapir-Whorf is true. Everyone will be entertained and you can have a little discussion about that.
2. lie and basically talk about languages, what languages they know, travel, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Another safe approach for any academic who teaches is to turn the conversation to general teaching related topics, students these days, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:17 PM on April 28, 2008

I'm the webmaster for our local natural gas utility. People always ask me if I can hack into the computers and get them a discount on their gas bills.
posted by Joleta at 2:27 PM on April 28, 2008

Totally yes to all the librarian questions/comments above. I also get a lot of "oooh, Party Girl!" remarks. Thank god for Parker Posey.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 2:30 PM on April 28, 2008

I'm a lawyer. The most common question people ask is, "How can you represent someone you know is guilty?"

My stock response is, "I don't know whether the client is guilty. That's something the jury decides."
posted by jayder at 2:42 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I totally agree with all the computer people about the "will you fix my computer" bit. Gets old for sure.

The one that gets more under my skin is "You don't see very many girl programmers".

Really? Don't you think I know that?

I have yet to come up with anything witty in reply.
posted by theRussian at 2:49 PM on April 28, 2008

Yup, another librarian. I split my time between reference and cataloging. I can agree with all of the above, and I often also get:

"So do you use the Dewey Decimal System to organize your books at home? I've always wanted to do that!!"

Yeah, right.
posted by initapplette at 2:52 PM on April 28, 2008

My company actually issued an official 'elevator pitch' that we are supposed to say when someone asks what we do. It's dreadful. It's made of marketing speak and I can't imagine anyone saying it with a straight face. Best of all, it still gives absolutely no idea what the employees do on a day to day basis.

What I actually say is "You know the office in Dilbert? I work in a place like that. Only it's worse at my place because we don't even get cubicles."
posted by happyturtle at 2:58 PM on April 28, 2008

I usually say "I work in Human Resources" and leave it at that, and get very few follow-ups. People seem to have some frame of reference for what an HR person does, although it can vary greatly.
posted by donajo at 2:59 PM on April 28, 2008

I teach High School Digital Art.
No I will not: teach you how to draw, teach you Photoshop, or fix your computer.
In 10 years I still haven't had any witty responses.
posted by nimsey lou at 3:16 PM on April 28, 2008

I'm studying Creative Industries. Bugger of a thing to explain, but it's essentially your general arts/performance/media subjects mixed with a little bit of business and social theory.

Whenever I mention it to anyone, they either give me a blank look or assume that I'm doing graphic design or journalism. When I explain that I'm specializing in CI Management (which I now term "arts management" to keep things simple) and Creative Writing, people think I'm either hoping to be a superstar or a novelist.

Sometimes I try to explain, but other times I just don't bother.
posted by divabat at 3:36 PM on April 28, 2008

Response by poster: These answers are fantastic! I had no idea so many professions are misunderstood. I love many of the ways you all have chosen to deal with the ignorant and/or genuinely-curious-but-clueless questions and responses. Hearing your stories has definitely given me a lot of objective perspective (since I'm not attached to the subjects and whatnot). Very insightful!

For linguistics, it is tricky–because I love the subject and I am eager to clear up misconceptions, switching topics or shutting people down is just not my style. There are also no analogies that I can think of to help make it easier for others to understand. I don't want to sound insulting when the subtext of my response is saying "FAIL! It's about this, not that!"

I recognize that when these situations come up, 9 out of 10 that we're dealing in small talk, so there's no point in getting bent about it either (yet, it is wholly depressing to hear certain language myths propagate themselves through casual conversation; I find it hard to resist defending the good name of this thing I love). LobsterMitten's ideas about having a few facts on hand is great though.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:39 PM on April 28, 2008

Lots of librarians in on this one. As a former librarian/library director of a small public library, everything previously said about librarians has been my experience as well. Other responses I used to get were:

- You must love reading/read all the time.
Yes, I love reading but read less as a librarian than I ever have in my life. You know sometimes the last thing you want to do is go home and touch another book.
- I'd love to have a job sitting around reading all day!
Me too! Let me know when you find one.
- I bet you've read all the books in the library!
Why yes, all twenty thousand plus volumes.
- You must be smart!
Glad you noticed.
- oh..shhhh....I guess I need to be quiet around you....
I ususally just shushed them on the spot jokingly and then went on to explain that our library was not a "quiet" library.
- oh, wow, you know i once read a book 10 years ago with a red cover on it, do you know the title of it?
When I said I usually had to have a little more info than that to identify a book, they always looks so confused. I realized early on that patrons think we know everything.
There were, also, apparently a lot of people who didn't think we got paid to be librarians and were shocked to find out that yes we did indeed get paid to sit around and read books and shush people all day....sigh.
posted by sapphirebbw at 3:41 PM on April 28, 2008

"Oh, so you're a philosopher?"
"Yes...I think very deeply"

before i forget: well played neilkod! well played, indeed.

posted by jammy at 3:48 PM on April 28, 2008

I love this chart.

Them: So what do you do?
Me: I'm a chemistry graduate student
Them: UGHHH (Giant frown, stick out tongue) I hated chemistry in high school/never took it/what's a molecule/science is hard, etc.
Me: Heh, yeah well I guess it is something that always interested me.
Them: So how are classes?
Me: This is the point where I have to explain that as a 4th year PhD student my schedule is more like a "real job" where I just do research all day and don't get summers/spring breaks/naps and frisbee on the campus green/any vacation ever, etc.
Them: So what do you want to do when you finish?
Me: Uh...find a job that pays me real money? :-D

If we do venture any further than that, I say my research has to do with giant magnets, like MRI magnets, except we don't do imaging. And then trying to explain to my uncle how we can't actually see the atoms is somewhat difficult.
posted by sararah at 3:50 PM on April 28, 2008

When I get asked what I do, I say, "I work in theatre." I then get asked -

Q: Wow. What do you really do? I mean, during the day?
(I work in theatre, I repeat. They are usually stumped after that.)

Q: How do you make a living?
(In theatre. I may or may not go on to say that Toronto is the third largest English-speaking theatre city after NY and London and Canada is the leader in all languages of published plays. I might refrain depending on whether I like them or not.)

Q: So do you act or direct or write or teach or what?
(All of those things, which confuses them even more.)

Q: Did you go to school for that?

It's difficult because obviously theatre has a very public component, so naturally a lot of work is unseen. But these kinds of responses to me and to others who work in the arts speaks to a culture that doesn't value art. That art could not possibly be someone's profession. That someone would *choose* to do it for a living. (Some might say compelled.)

Here is a little anecdote that Margaret Atwood (Canadian fiction writer) tells all the time:

Stranger: And what do you do?
Margaret: I'm a writer.
Stranger: Oh, yes, I like to write too. I have a novel to write when I get the time!
Margaret: What do you do?
Stranger: I'm a doctor/laywer/accountant/dentist.
Margaret: Oh great. I have time on Tuesday, should I come by and do a root canal?
posted by typewriter at 3:51 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Me: "I'm a microbiologist."

Other person: "Oh."
posted by emd3737 at 4:19 PM on April 28, 2008

Me: I study Chinese history.
Them: [outraged and disappointed] Oh God, how can you? What with how they're treating Tibet?
Me: I don't know anything about Tibet, I study Shanghai at the turn of the last century.
Them: And all the pollution! It's like breathing poison!


Me: I study Chinese history.
Them: That sounds different! What are you going to do with that degree?
Me: Go back to school?

But maybe seven times out of ten, it's the first response that I get. People *love* thinking that they not only know everything they need to know about China, but that they're also, in every way possible, morally superior to that communist (read: non-democratic), cancer-causing, falun-gong torturing, Buddhist-hating, MSG-loving den of misplaced patriotism and wanton exploitation. I used to fight with them a bit more about it, but now I just give up. It's like trying to tell a believer that there is no God - there's just no argument about China's absolute and utter depravity.

At some point I realized that if I get that first response, I don't need to think of any come back or defense - these people are not ones that I want to deal with on a regular basis.
posted by Herman Hermanson at 4:25 PM on April 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

Reminds me. I had a microbiology professor in college. She told us how when she takes an airline flight, if she doesn't want to talk, when she is asked what she does, she'll just say, "I have a PhD in Molecular Genetics." If she's in a better mood, she's a college professor.
posted by Brian James at 4:33 PM on April 28, 2008

New York actor.

Stranger at bar: So, what do you do?
Me: I'm an actor.
Stranger: Are you on Broadway? I just saw Wicked and it was awesome.
Me: No.
Stranger: Have I seen you on Law & Order? I heard every actor in New York who's any good has been on one of th...
Me: No.
Stranger: Oh, but you probably work as a dayplayer on Days of Our Lives, right?
Me: No.
Stranger: Did you just get back from tour?
Me: No.
Stranger: So ...
me: I work in experimental and avant-garde theater, generally at small downtown and Brooklyn theaters like PS 122, HERE, Chocolate Factory, etc.
Stranger: ... So you're a performance artist?

posted by minervous at 4:46 PM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: Oh man. I get that question all the time. The whole "You're a linguist? How many languages do you speak?"

My response: "Funny you should ask that. To complete my degree I had to have proficiency in at least two languages other than English, but linguists really just learn about the science of language, what makes up a language. It's sort of doing math with words (don't try to drop phoneme, morpheme in here.....they look at you cross-eyed). So really, I could translate any language if I had to."

At this point people generally go "whoa." And then you get to drop funny language anecdotes the rest of the night.

In less forgiving situations, however, this suffices:

Layperson: "You're a linguist? How many languages do you speak?"
Linguist: "One at a time."
posted by whimsicalnymph at 4:47 PM on April 28, 2008

I used to be an archaeologist, and like elendil71, I also got the dinosaur question a lot.

I did a lot of urban archaeology throughout the southeast, though, and that almost always entailed having people stop by the site. The most annoying and common question then was always "So what you digging for? GOLD?!!?". Man, people thought it was the funniest question, and we heard it over and over every day...

If I say where I work and with what these days, I only have problems with people not knowing the difference between Taiwan and Thailand.
posted by gemmy at 4:52 PM on April 28, 2008

Me: I'm a bum.
Them: What do you do all day?
Me: MetaFilter.
posted by homunculus at 5:24 PM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm a speech pathologist, and when people hear this they often say, "Oh, speech pathologist huh?" with this weird lisp. Oh, the hilarity.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:39 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I work for the National Weather Service, but when I tell people I'm a meteorologist, all I get is, "Really? What TV station do you work for?" I don't really have a really humorous response, just explain we put out the warnings that show up as crawls on TV during severe weather.

I did get asked once by a guy I was tutoring in college if my major had anything to do with meteors. *sigh* I really couldn't think of any comeback to that one, just a blank stare and then explaining.

I always get asked "What's the weather going to do tomorrow?" from new people and old friends alike. Whether I give them a straight answer or not depends on my mood.
posted by weathergal at 5:41 PM on April 28, 2008

"I'm a free and open source software advocate. I run conferences in my spare time. And write software for a living."
"Can you fix my computer?/Help me buy a computer?/Teach me how to use (Word|Excel|Outlook)?"
"Probably not. And you really won't like my rates."

It was worse when I was a researcher in grid computing and geophysics. I eventually got the *blank look* "So that's computers, right?" question.
posted by ysabet at 5:58 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I'm an IT professional"

"Oh, so you write websites?" or "Oh, computer programming? What languages?"

Few people outside of IT seem to have the slightest grasp that there's anything more to IT than programming. Slightly more cluey people are aware of database administrators & sysadmins, but for most it's all about either writing systems or supporting them.

Almost nobody has any conception of account or portfolio mgt, business analysis, systems analysis, architecture, strategy, project mgt or program mgt offices, consultancy, security or any of the ITIL processes outside of managing operations.

I normally can't be bothered explaining my role unless it's to somebody else within (or close to) IT; otherwise it always ends up with them latching onto the one thing they first understood: "So, it's about programming new systems, right?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:35 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

heh: "No, I am NOT a programmer. I've never written a single line of code in my life!"

"But you must have studied programming, at least?"

"No, I did a law degree"

(then sit back and watch the cogs turn in their heads until their brains either freeze up or melt down)
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:38 PM on April 28, 2008

I read an anecdote online that went something like this:

"So what do you do for a living?"
"I'm a philosopher."
"Oh really ... what are some of your sayings?"
posted by jayder at 6:47 PM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I actually do tech support. For Windows. Or Mac.

You think you get asked to fix someone's computer a lot? There's some line about doctors at parties, except I'm not a doctor with a 5 or 6 figure salary.

Please, please stop asking me to fix your computer unless you want to pay me. My rate for "friends" right now starts at 50 an hour, 2 hours minimum - and that's really cheap. You think that's expensive? Call Geek Squad and be prepared for a $300+ dollar bill to have 'em come and screw your stuff up even worse, or maybe even troll your drive for photos.

People have no freaking idea how arcane and frustrating it is to decruft and fix a Windows box without archiving and reinstalling everything. And even when taking the "easy way" of just reinstalling everything, it usually takes hours and hours to get all of the the OS, old drivers and all the previous software reinstalled. With Windows, there's never an easy fix.

When I don't get the "Fix my computer?" question, I get "So, how long did you go to school for? Where did you go? DeVry?"

The answer is "I didn't go to school. I've been using computers since I was a kid. It has taken me all my life to learn these skills and memorize all of this useless, arcane bullshit about Windows/PC computers. Thousands and tens of thousands of hours of troubleshooting and trial and error. Look, bitch at Microsoft. I've been warning people for years that this was going to suck."

Seriously, please stop asking me to fix your computer. I'm totally going to go nuts. Stop downloading random crapware! Don't open emails with attachments without an antivirus! Install Firefox with an adblocker! Install a firewall! Did you try rebooting? Is it on? AAARGHHHH.
posted by loquacious at 6:48 PM on April 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm a bartender and sometimes people ask me "so, when are you going to get a real job?" I always fire back with "and all this time I didn't realize I was working a fake job making fake money."
posted by MaryDellamorte at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Since I don't think of myself as having a career, I steal Red's line from That 70s Show--he's been laid off and they're at a party.

Someone says, "So, what do you do?"

Red says, "About what?"

(which usually gets me a blank stare because I've drifted from The Script)
posted by hulahulagirl at 7:17 PM on April 28, 2008 [11 favorites]

I can't even say how many times I saw this conversation happen with my friend:
"So, what do you do?"
"I'm a volunteer coordinator with Such & Such organization."
The questioner then usually has a moment where they look just the tetch bit quizzical, but wants to be polite, at which point I say...
"She coordinates the volunteers. They pay her."
posted by redsparkler at 7:52 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I say "I'm a composer," because I'm in LA, a lot of people assume I'm in film. Saying "I'm a grad student in composition" fares slightly better.

I usually also get asked "What kind of music do you write?" Most of the misconceptions follow this, because I don't have a succinct non-technical answer to this question. Most of the available pre-existing terms ("art music," "classical music," "contemporary classical music," "modern music," "new music," "experimental music," "avant-garde music," etc.) are problematic and pretentious and often mean different things to different people. Lately I've been saying "concert music" or "chamber music" because those have the least icky connotations, but I still get a lot of blank looks. Of course, that's a really generic answer that doesn't say much about what I do. Answering that question meaningfully is very difficult without already knowing the musical background of the person asking the question.
posted by speicus at 8:42 PM on April 28, 2008

If I'm with my girlfriend, I say "boy-toy" and give her a significant look.
posted by ambulatorybird at 8:51 PM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

ME: "I'm a mathematician."
THEM: (Any combination of the following)
"You must be really smart!"
"I'm really bad at math."
"Haven't all math problems been solved already???"
"So, um... what do you DO?"
"OK, then you should figure out the tip."

When I hear the second, I always want to reply: "And you're not ashamed to admit that?" But, I never quite summon the courage to do so. So the first and second usually just get a smile from me.

The third and fourth sometimes result in an explanation from me about how mathematicians come up with and describe abstract objects, which are often generalizations of the sorts of mathematical concepts one learns in school, and how the only limit to this process is a lack of imagination. Such an explanation usually gets me a blank stare. My standby response is: "if people knew what mathematicians really do, we wouldn't get paid."

In response to the last, I usually try to convey, unsuccessfully, that I don't actually deal with numbers any more frequently than they do. Failing that, I calculate the tip really quickly, using very rough estimation, and then marvel at the fact that so many people get impressed by someone being able to do basic arithmetic.
posted by epimorph at 9:19 PM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I say epidemiology, you tend to:
a. give me a blank look until I volunteer what it means
b. ask me if I study skin

Given how many epidemiogic studies make it into the news daily, we really should be better at publicizing our existence.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:23 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh god, there's our problem, I can't even spell the word epidemiologic.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:24 PM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, you're in the Marines...

How's that treating you?
Have you been to Iraq?
Have you been to Afghanistan?
Do they make you do, like, a lot of push ups in a row?
Do you get yelled at a lot?
So you yell at people and tell them what to do?
posted by crunch buttsteak at 9:54 PM on April 28, 2008

OK, yet another librarian, but seriously the most common response I get is:
"Really?? That's AWESOME." or variations thereof.
And on the internet, it's like you just said you were a NINJA or something. Librarians are rock stars online, apparently.

The next most common:
"Oh, that must be so nice--working somewhere quiet!"
(inside: HAHAHAHAHAHA) "Oh, we gave up on that a while ago."
posted by exceptinsects at 9:56 PM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: I used to work for the air traffic control.

If I told people they would, without fail, ask me if I was waving signs around on the runways or if I was in the tower.
I would tell them no, I'm a technical writer.
They would go "aha".

One time I'd had a wild night and got up way too late, dragged my sleepy body to the train to the airport, got on it and then when the train stopped much too soon started to look around a bit, quite confused. It turned out I'd been too befuddled to see that the train wasn't going to the airport at all but instead was bound for the train depot for maintenance or cleaning or whatever.

I went to look for an exit and met some tourists who'd gone on the train by mistake as well. We were joking around a bit while waiting for a railway guy to take us back, I told them I had a hangover and that that was why I hadn't been paying attention, yeah, a party, man this is going to be a great working day, etc.

I asked them if they weren't going to miss their flight, they said no, they had plenty of time. They asked me if I was going to be late for work. I said I already was. They asked "what do you do, anyway?". I told them "I work for the air traffic control".

That frightened stare was priceless.
posted by Skyanth at 1:09 AM on April 29, 2008 [26 favorites]

YAL here (Yet Another Librarian).

I seriously get two extremes, either

"wow that's so awesome"
"wow, shelving all day must be tiring"

posted by wingless_angel at 1:15 AM on April 29, 2008

"What do you do?"
"Well, I work at night and I make a lot of money . . . "

Always gets me a good laugh, that description. If I don't want to offend, the response is more like:
"I'm an equine stylist."

Which usually results in a blank stare, meaning I have to elaborate with:
"I braid horses' manes and tails at hunter-jumper shows on the A circuit."

Which gets me:
" . . . " (That's okay, I don't understand it either.)
"They pay you for that?" (More than you'd want to believe.)
"Seriously?" (No, I'm really a Zapatista/Al Qaeda operative/Marxist revolutionary/government spy/etc, but people don't like me saying so.)
"That's a job?" (Hey, if bloggers can get paid, then so can I.)
posted by po at 3:06 AM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm an RN in oncology.

People often comment: that must be really depressing. Which it surprisingly is not. It's one of the more life affirming things I've ever come across.
posted by dog food sugar at 5:54 AM on April 29, 2008

Most strange reaction:
"I do moral philosophy/ethics." - "Huh. Surprising. I always thought ethics is totally out of date nowadays. I mean people don't have any morals anymore, right?"

Most common reaction:
"So, what you gonna do when you finish your PhD - drive a cab?")
posted by The Toad at 7:02 AM on April 29, 2008

Best answer: Librarian who did linguistics in undergrad and it's a little weird because I don't technically work in a library.

Q. "What languages do you speak?"
A. "One, badly" "Does pig latin count?" "None."

Q. "[insert shushing joke here]"
A. "Actually I have a one-finger gesture I use a lot, but it's not that one"

Q. "Do you organize your books at home by...?"
A. "Actually my books are arranged by color." (true)

Or if I go for serious and say "I help run MetaFilter" that either turns into an "OMG I love that place" (which is amazing when you're just randomly talking to someone at a bar) or "MetaWhat?" and then when I explain that it's a web community of somewhere between 5000 and 20000 active users and pretty much everyone doesn't know how to talk about that. So, if you're in a jam and don't want to tell people what you do, feel free to tell them that you run MetaFilter.
posted by jessamyn at 7:06 AM on April 29, 2008 [7 favorites]

Former linguistics student, those issues have been covered already (I used to love giving brief crash courses in linguistics to those who showed enough interest) now translator [sigh].

Them: So how many languages do you speak?
Me: Three, but I only work from [primary foreign language] into English.
Them: Oh really? I know this woman who speaks seven languages.
Me: either [silence] or [spiel about specialisation in which I try not to insult their friend]

Them: oh, I hated languages at school...
Me: ...

Them: [blah blah that Nicole Kidman film]
Me: no, she was an interpreter, I'm a translator and I work with written documents, no-one wants to make a film of my life.

Them: oh, I know this woman who does that at the UN, in the booths all day, she gets to meet some really important people
Me: interpreter, translator, not same thing, blah blah

Them: what kind of thing do you translate?
Me: usually gets over-excited describing various medical documents, interlocuter's eyes glaze over.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:36 AM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

oh, and:

Them: so can you translate this for me into [primary foreign language]?
Me: I can find someone to do it for you but most translators only work into their first language, and I only translate into English. My PFL is good but you need someone who's been speaking it forever and who is an excellent translator. Plus it'll cost you £XXX.
Them: that's expensive! [some rude people also look at me as though my [PFL] must be crap - it isn't].
posted by altolinguistic at 9:39 AM on April 29, 2008

Me: "I'm a singer."
Other Person: "Have you been on TV?"
or (since I live in New York): "Do you sing at the Met?"

Since I actually do something unusual, I find it useful to give more information:
Me: "I'm a classical singer, and right now I'm preparing a recital of little known Brahms songs."
OP: dead silence (usually)
or (since I live in New York): "Really? What will you be singing? Where's the concert?"
posted by sandyvoice at 9:51 AM on April 29, 2008

Me: I'm in a band.
Them: What kind of music do you play?/Who do you sound like?
Me: (having answered the question approximately 72,650 times, and never having been sure what the right answer was to this, and being tired of the silly game of trying to gauge their level musical knowledge to find an appropriate comparison that they might actually understand): It's kind of like, Black Sabbath meets Cher, with a dash of Motown passed through the prism of Krautrock, but still heavily influenced by east coast hip-hop, you know?
Them: Oh. Wow.
posted by rooftop secrets at 10:43 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

After many years, I've settled on "I'm an information scientist. It's kind of a twenty-first century librarian," which seems to work pretty well. "Information scientist" alone makes people think I'm in IT. "Librarian" alone provokes all the usual librarian responses above. But the "twenty-first century librarian" actually seems to convey pretty well that I spend most of my time in front of a computer and rarely look at physical books.

If I mention where I work, I sometimes get, "Oh, I didn't know [company] even had a library." (Yep, most large corporations do, especially in R&D-heavy industries.) But that doesn't bother me. And working in a corporate library actually gives me a good response to the "everything's on Google" comment: "actually, we spend millions of dollars a year for information that isn't on Google."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:55 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Me: "I'm a materials scientist."

Them: "Oh, is that like textiles? Do you sew a lot?"

Me: "It's more like some physics, some chemistry and some engineering."

Them: "You must be really clever," or sometimes, "So are you going to cure cancer then?" (Yes, really.)

I don't really have a witty response. I either try to explain a bit more about what I really do, or change the subject to what they do.
posted by daisyk at 12:31 PM on April 29, 2008

The best response I've ever received:

You research cancer genomics?
. . .
Well, when you cure cancer, the first round is on me.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:21 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I say I'm a grad student studying philosophy. I get three questions all the time:

(1) "So, what's your philosophy?"


(2) "What are you going to do then, teach?"

Answer: "I'm more interested in the research, but yeah, I'll be a teacher."

(3) "Oh, so you're going to be a philosopher?"

This is said with a wry smile, as if someone calling himself a philosopher is hilariously anachronistic. It's meant as a (maybe lightly derisive) joke. I don't always catch it. Academics in the discipline call themselves philosophers all the time, and don't think of the title as being any more weird-sounding than, say, "geologist" or "historian". But most people think that philosophy died when the toga went out of style, and calling yourself a philosopher is like calling yourself a sorcerer or a prophet.

My friend and I were talking to some guy at a bar the other week, and it somehow came out that we would be teaching philosophy over the summer. I guess we unthinkingly used the word "philosopher." The guy we were speaking with said, in a sarcastic lah-di-dah voice, "Ooo-ooh! Well, this summer, I'm going to be... a butler."
posted by painquale at 6:47 PM on April 29, 2008 [18 favorites]

Oh, so you're in security...

This is tough, because I can't actually give real answers to a lot of questions, since, well, it's security. Fortunately, I have answers for the FAQs :

-do you have a gun?
Would I tell you if I did?
- do you catch any theives ever, like all coming down from the ceiling on ropes setting off laser beams and shit?
Oh, yeah. Every night.
- do you, like, see a lot of ghosts and stuff? 'Cause I hear that place is totally haunted.
Well, I am in a building with tombs, reliquaries, the embodiments of living gods, and uprooted ancestral artifacts. We all have to watch a training video on what to do when they start marauding and seeking revenge. It includes a section on "Handling Cursed Artifacts" so we don't have our faces melted off or send giant dog monsters bounding around the place (that sort of thing tends to alienate the trustees.)
- OH! So what did you think of Night at the Museum?
If a tiny Robin Williams started parading around the place I have official orders to step on him.
- What if there were kids hiding in there like The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or that one Simpson's episode where Lisa ran away from home?
I would probably sell them.

But most of the time, people just tell me stories about this one time they were in a museum in France and they touched all the art. Then they give me shit for being a rent-a-cop.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:31 PM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

- "I work in event production and management."
[blank look]
- "I'm a roadie."
"Oh! Who for?"
- "Whoever is in town that I get told to work on, really."
"Can you get me a ticket/press pass/autograph?"
- "Not without sacrificing my professional reputation, no."
posted by heeeraldo at 12:17 AM on April 30, 2008

When I worked in IT (doing programming; network administration; server, system, and db support) I would tell people what I did and immediately follow it up with: "...but I usually tell people I hang drywall so they wont ask for free tech support". I actually dont mind answering quick questions, but I like people to think about whether or not they should ask me first.

I'm in tax prep now, and actually it's been pretty refreshing. People don't ask about it much. Maybe they are scared.

For a while fifteen years ago I was underemployed (odd jobs and really crappy security jobs), and I just said I was a bum. People are surprisingly nice about that.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:31 AM on April 30, 2008

The problem I run into is that it's far easier to use a general term for what I do ("I work in the audio-visual industry") rather than bore people to tears (who were probably only asking to be polite in the first place) describing the narrow, specific niche within the industry where my company focuses (selling a few specific types of product to the education market).

So I tend to get a lot of, "Can you get me a deal on a plasma TV?" or "You must have a killer home theater system" or assumptions that I have some sort of insight or expertise in the format wars, HDTV systems or surround sound, when those are actually totally outside the scope of what I do at my job. In particular, my wife's uncle, who is himself a huge audiophile, constantly corners me at various family get-togethers asking for my opinion on the latest trends in home audio. He's such a nice guy that I've never had the heart to tell him I have no idea what he's talking about, since he's about 1000x more knowledgeable on the subject than I am, so I find myself just kind of nodding a lot and agreeing with whatever he says.
posted by The Gooch at 8:42 AM on April 30, 2008

"I'm a psychologist."

"Oh, I better watch what I say then!"

"Yes, you better." or "It's too late, I already know everything there is to know about you."
posted by jasper411 at 12:52 PM on April 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

"I'm a sound engineer," (and if pressed) "I record voices for commercials."

Technically not true, I record voiceover auditions for a talent agency, but never, EVER say you work at a talent agency, especially in a showbiz town (unless you're one of those creeps that gets off on bedding wannabe actors... and even if I was such behavior could get me fired).

It's worse because I work in voiceover, and everyone assumes that:

1. It's easy (no, if you book a job, it is easy, but GETTING a job is extremely tough)

2. It's lucrative (no, unless you are already a celebrity or very very lucky).

3. I am some sort of magic gatekeeper who holds the keys to a secret world of relaxation and money and am just waiting to hand them over to a pushy stranger who thinks I don't work for a living (no and no, and I'm actually not that bitter about it, but I don't like the line of questioning).
posted by ®@ at 8:22 PM on April 30, 2008

Oh, and one of my coworkers (who is a commercial talent agent) tells people she paints nails for a living in a salon.
posted by ®@ at 8:23 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

At times, I miss my old job.

"So, what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a polysomnographnic technologist."

It can even drag hospital employees to a complete, shuddering halt.

Follow that with a completely bland smile and no offer of a description, and hilarity does indeed ensue.
posted by Samizdata at 9:16 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Me: I'm a lighting designer.

You (take your pick): 1. I hate the lighting in my bedroom. 2. Could you make the bat signal?

Generally, I try to give helpful advice on your bedroom lighting because I'm a sucker and a pushover (and maybe because I genuinely want people to like their lighting). I'll tell you to buy more lamps instead of turning on overhead lights and put things on dimmers. If you give me more specifics I might even tell you something more interesting and give you some double-secret tricks. As for the bat signal, I usually go with, "No, because then Batman would show up and nobody likes a false alarm." but if you really press me about it we can nerd out about the right kind of cloud cover and if any current fixtures have the right optics to get the pattern clear.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 9:24 PM on April 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

polysomnographic technologist

like, squiggly charts of brainwaves during various phases of sleep?

(if that's what it is, it's hardly the most difficult one to work out: poly.somno.graphic)
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:17 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Made sense to me, but I doubt many people take time to think it out.

BTW, often one of the world's most, ahem, non-exciting careers.
posted by Samizdata at 10:00 AM on May 1, 2008

I say, "I work at a hospital coordinating clinical trials."

The response given by the other person's facial expression often falls into one of two categories: (a) bugged-out eyes, mouth dropped a little, surprised expression, or (b) wrinkled nose, furrowed brow, pursed lips, confused expression.

But the spoken response is always the same, "What kind of clinical trials?"

So, because I want to be honest, I tell them. "Bone Marrow Transplant."

Their face just gets more confused, or more surprised. I give them a few seconds to search their mind for any useful information they may have in relation to the field. A lot of people know nothing about about clinical trials, let alone bone marrow transplant, so after a short time they realize this, their face relaxes, but they want to continue the conversation. So, God bless them, they ask the only question that they can come up with:

"What's that like?"
posted by sarahnade at 11:42 AM on May 1, 2008

Oh, face-saving techniques: If you'd let me, I could talk about my studies for hours, I'm that kind of nerd. But I try not to be so self-centered, so I usually answer the "What's that like" question with a short-ish answer that reveals a little more about me, like "It's interesting. It can be really difficult when patients don't do well, and with transplant a lot of patients don't do well, but that's why we're doing the research. Clinical trials fit in well with my own personal moral values, though: respecting people, teaching them so they can make informed decisions, and justice for those who are wronged. I really enjoy my job."
posted by sarahnade at 12:00 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a librarian

1 So you must sit around reading books all day?
No that's old school, these days I waste time at work by surfing for porn.

2 So you eat a lot of cakes in the back room right?

3 Oh I have a lot of fines, I've been really *naughty*
Oh really? Well for this conversation to continue I will need your credit card details.

4 Oh, so how many cats do you have?

In the end I've learned not to tell people what I do because now my job description is even more crushingly dull than librarian. I tell them the full name of the place I work (let's just call it "big scary fuck-you-up agency") and they almost always can't help taking a full pace back. It's great, it's like telling people I am a full time leper.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 8:35 PM on May 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

When I say "I'm a project accountant", or "I work in Operations Accounting", people invariably ask: "Oh.....do you LIKE what you are doing?"

I say: "Yes, I do."

Shuts them up every time.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 9:01 PM on May 11, 2008

I'm a professional blogger.

Them: "Oh cool! What do you blog about?"
Me: "[Rundown of my current projects.]"


Them: "People get paid to blog?" / "You can make a living that way?"
Me: I do.


Them: "What's a blog?"
Me: *sigh* "It's a website where people write..."
posted by me3dia at 3:31 PM on May 13, 2008

I used to tell people that I facilitate meetings and get, "Oh so you run training sessions?" So I switched to, "I facilitate problem-solving sessions for businesses."

I once responded to an acquaintance who was looking for work as a microbiologist, "Oh sorry, we wanted a full-sized biologist."
posted by winston at 12:48 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

- What do you do?
- I'm an economist.
- Oh, that's great. I always try to work for economical companies.
- ?!?

In all fairness, she was German and a bit drunk by this point.
posted by ruelle at 11:41 AM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Me: "I'm a dancer."
Them: "Oh, I'm sorry."
Me: "No I am a professional dancer!"
Them: "OHH! I'm sorry."
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 12:09 PM on September 4, 2008

Them: So what do ya study?

Me: Well, I'm double majoring in Environmental Studies and Politics and Government. Oh and I'll be getting a minor in Communication and Civic Advocacy.

Them: Good! We need people like you 'in there'!
posted by andythebean at 9:52 AM on December 17, 2008

Bit late to the party, but I'm a postgraduate student in Security Studies.

Them: "So what do you study?"
Me: "International security/Security Studies"
(responses vary)
1. "Aha, so you're going to be a spy!"
2. "If you told us more you'd have to kill us, right? HAHAHA"
3. "...huh?"

My responses to those tend to be (following a polite smile) either:

A. (If person seems remotely interested) "Well, it's more to do with studying the concept/theory of security. What *is* security? *Whose* security? Is security a useful concept? etc. etc."
B. (If I want to go easier on them) "Well, I study things ranging from climate change to nuclear war, via financial crises and terrorism"

Using A may lead to B if I get blank looks. B tends to always go the same way, I say it and then they respond "Aha, great timing"/"Aha, you'll not be stuck for a job!"
posted by knapah at 6:15 AM on December 24, 2008

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