What Do You Do, Semantically Speaking?


What is the correct answer to this question:  “What do you do?”

Because the correct answer (apparently) is not “poop.”  Nor is it:  breathe, eat, sleep, wash my dishes after dinner, vacuum my house…poorly, shampoo the dog against his will, DVR new episodes of Big Bang Theory, or drive ten miles per hour above the speed limit.  It seems when you offer one of those answers people don’t ask, “Oh, how do you like it?”  They roll their eyes at you and flip you off as they walk away.

Any of the above answers are true and fitting when asked the simple question, “What do you do?”  People get pissed off because our cultural implication is they are actually asking “What do you do…for money?”  So the conversation usually goes something more like this:

  • “What do you do?”

   “I’m a trash man.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “I’m a police officer.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “I’m a hedge fund manager.”

Semantically, this is all wrong.  The latter doesn’t answer the former at all.  It would be like saying, “What do you eat?” and the answer being “I am Italian.”  In that scenario we would infer that the answerer probably eats a lot of pasta.  But what if he has Celiac’s disease and can’t eat pasta?  The inference has failed, and we still have no idea what this person eats.

On the other hand, if we actually answered the question “what do you do?” it is likely we would confuse the askers more than clarify our occupations for them:

  • “What do you do?”

   “I throw refuse into the back of a truck I ride on.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “In between going to people’s houses to attempt to reason with loud, drunk people, I sit in my car most of the day and read people’s license plates.”

  • “What do you do?”

   “I steal people’s money and make it look like I don’t.”

This does give us a clearer image of what the answerer does on any given day, but as far as a job title goes, who could begin to guess?  For example, lots of people throw stuff into the back of a truck.  That is what trucks are for – to just toss shit in the back of them and then transport said shit from one location to another.  What this man does depends on the asker’s definition of “refuse.”  Some people actually throw manure into trucks, yet we don’t call them “trash men.”  And, after all, isn’t one man’s trash another man’s treasure?

Sometimes people ask me, “What do you do?” and I am inclined to say, “I am a writer.”  This would be both true and a lie at the same time.  Do I write?  Yes.  I’m writing right now.  That’s how these clever words got on this page.  And “writer” is on the list of acceptable answers, so I wouldn’t be scoffed at as though I’d said “shower.”

However, I am still misleading the asker because the inference is that I do this for a living.  “Writer” is only a fair answer to “what do you do?” if it would be followed by a question like, “do you make any money at it?”  To which, of course, I would laugh out loud until my eyes became blurred with tears and my sides hurt.

If someone really wants to know what your job is, without having to navigate the confusion of semantics or having to follow up with uncomfortable financial questions, wouldn’t the best question just be, “What is your job?”

Or, even more specifically, “What is the job you do that someone else pays you to do?”  Cause, you know, some people might answer the “What is your job?” question with something like, “Mowing my lawn.  And my partner does the laundry.”