Defining life by who you are, not what you do

Last year I spent a lot of time going to networking events in the city. While some people avoid these organized soirees at all cost, I flocked to them because they often provided me with two amazing opportunities: a chance to meet new, cool people, and a chance to get  free food and drinks(hey, I was unemployed at the time).

When I went to my first networking event on a frosty February night last year, I did not really know what to expect. I brought the business cards I had gotten done at Staples, and wore what I thought was a pretty professional outfit, but none of this prepared me for being bombarded with the question of the evening: “What do you do?”

Now, I know this was a networking event, so obviously people were there to talk about work in some form, or fashion, but I was not expecting that this would be the first thing people asked me. I also never expected that when I meet new people anywhere, that this would be the leading question.

I’m sure this happens in other places, but in New York City, asking someone what they do (as in what type of job do they have), is just as common as asking a new acquaintance their name. Everyone wants to know how you spend the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

When I was unemployed this question made me uneasy. I always knew it was coming, but I never knew quite how to answer it. Did I say I was looking for a job? Did I tell them what I had done in the past?  I didn’t want to use the “U” word. Last year, admitting you were unemployed (especially in NYC) was like telling someone you have bed bugs.  People were afraid that your misfortune would rub off on them.

Now, even though  I am working full-time, I still find this question (when mentioned very early in the conversation) unsettling.  It’s not that I have an aversion to talking about work-quite the opposite, actually I just have a problem with being defined by what I do, and losing the opportunity to share the things about me I know for sure.

Things like how much I love to read. Or that I believe dancing is the greatest form of energy. Maybe even sharing how much I still like to write, although I am interested in alternative storytelling forms.

These are the things I need to remember I know for sure at a time when my days are somewhat unstable, and I am questioning the career choices I’ve made thus-far.   For a second I might want to be reminded about who I am; not what I do.

Am I the only person who feels this way?

7 comments

  1. When I was unemployed I would just tell ppl that I freelance for now since I was laid off. But I haven’t been to many networking events, I was getting the “what do you do” question when I was just out chilling! I’ve been in NY for 7yrs and I’ve always said that this is the one place where that question is asked before they ask what your name is!

    Answering that question is a little hard for me since what I do now is not what I intend to do for a career…but you are what you say you are so I just tell them I am what I intend to be versus what job I’m actually doing to pay the rent for now!

    If I want to be funny I just tell’em I’m a stripper!! 🙂

  2. Mel says:

    I agree with everyone above. The default occupation question can be annoying at times. Instead of asking about honest interests, we tend to judge and categorize each other with work titles. There’s more to life than talking about something that may not represent who you really are!

    Answering the question when you’re the “big U” can be fun, though. Sometimes, I make up strange job titles to shake people up and eventually attempt to lead them into real conversation.

    Amber J., you’re doing an awesome job, by the way!

    • amberinnyc says:

      When I was the big “U,” I used to tell people I was working as a dolphin trainer at the Bronx Zoo.
      I loved seeing their shocked faces when I told them I was pulling their leg. They thought I was super cool! Then they thought they were super stupid for believing there are dolphins in the Bronx. It was my way of rebelling against the status quo networking question!

  3. This question definitely gave me tons of anxiety when I was the big “U.” I would tell people my job status and I’d either watch their eyes gloss over and they’d try to find someone else to talk to (because apparently my unemployed butt wasn’t a worthwhile contact) or they gave me the pathetic, it’s gonna be ok head tilt.

    Right now, I’m not a full time employee but I have steady freelance gigs so the question doesn’t make me feel so awkward.

    It would be nice if we started asking one another questions that really give us a deeper understanding of someone: what are your hobbies, passion, what do you WANT to do.

  4. gab says:

    i think people ask this question because it immediately allows you to have something to talk about. although some people ask because they want to know where you are on the hierarchy of life pursuits…im not sure i feel uncomfy answering or asking for that matter. but i do hate when you say whatever job and thats all the person wants to talk about.

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