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The dreaded question, "what do you do?"


RoF Bear

By Sarah Phelps

Recently, I was having dinner at a friend’s house with a large group of people, many of whom I didn’t know.  Halfway through the meal, one of the new people turned to me and asked the dreaded question. “So, what do you do?”

I call it the dreaded question because, in our society, people use the answer to judge your intelligence, abilities, and character. But when you have no profession because of illness…where does that2017Q2_what.jpg.fd2dde554b7262fbf67ab640323cafeb.jpg leave you?

The dinner guests around me give answers like: ‘I’m a dentist,’ or ‘I’m a builder,’ or ‘I teach kindergarten kids,’ and maybe ‘I work for a local landscaping company.’  They identify themselves by their profession.  Then it’s my turn. My first instinct is to panic: I feel my stomach clench, and my smile stiffen. But I remind myself to stay calm. It’s a perfectly normal question. They don’t know that I’m sick. And even though I am sick, I have no reason to be ashamed – we don’t get to choose our bodies!

But still…how do I explain my lack of a career without bringing up my medical issues?

My outward appearance is that of a bright, happy young woman, so people are always startled when I reveal the brokenness I carry inside. When I tell someone I’ve just met that I’m unwell, it’s an uncomfortable experience for both of us. They are embarrassed that they hadn’t realised, and start drowning me in apologies; all while I repeatedly assure them that it’s fine, they haven’t done anything wrong, they couldn’t have known…

The rest of the new people in the room look away hurriedly, as though I have just made a general announcement that I like to burn down houses for fun. I’m instantly labeled ‘the sick one' and people subtly avoid me for the rest of the evening.  I think it’s because they assume I’ll have nothing to talk about except awkward illness-related topics (and who wants to talk about those?!).

So usually, instead of opening with that, I do my best to keep my smile on and gaily tell them about the two afternoons each week that I teach piano at home. I tell them about the afternoon I volunteer to help with kids’ club, and the youth group talks and games that I write and organize each week. And then, when their smile starts to fade into a confused look, I lamely finish with something like, ‘and that’s about as much as I can handle, with my illness.' Sometimes I’ll get the chance to explain. Often, I won’t. But either way, I never enjoy answering this question.  Why should what I’m able to do be the thing that defines me?

I want to tell them about the real me. The me that draws on trees with charcoal when I’m camping, because creativity just bubbles out of me. The me that loves camping with my husband and family. The me that loves cooking for friends, and playing board games. The me that is full of random, useless facts that I don’t even remember learning (did you know jellyfish have no brains?). The me that cares deeply and genuinely. The me that plays piano. The me that loves to read.

All of us have unique qualities that define and distinguish us from the next person. Whether it’s a witty sense of humor, a great memory for birthdays, or a love of collecting antique couches: these are the qualities that shape and colour who we are. If a loved one was asked to describe you, those are the things they’d most likely share. And people miss out on discovering those traits if the only question is, “So, what do you do?”

I read an article recently about why we should never ask people when they’re going to have children (an important topic for another time!). In the article, the writer shared how heartbreaking it was when she and her husband suffered a miscarriage and just days later unknowing people were saying things like, “You and your husband are so cute together - when are you going to have children?” and “Why haven’t you guys had children yet – you’d be a great mother!”  She knew that if she explained about her miscarriage, the person asking would feel terribly guilty for asking, and she didn’t want that. So, she gave a cheery, vague answer, and changed the subject.

Yes, informing them might have educated them and maybe made them a little less thoughtless in the future. But she was grieving, and not ready to talk about it with someone she’d just met. It was a horrible position to be put in, a slap in the face to someone who was already struggling.

And sometimes that’s how I feel about “So, what do you do?”

Just as folks have no way of knowing if a couple is able to have children or not, they also have no way of knowing if the person in front of them is able to work or not. And if they are not able to work, they are in the awkward position of either having to explain why (often embarrassing themselves and those asking), or downplaying their illness in order to avoid opening that can of worms.

The dreaded question is not going to change. It’s an icebreaker question, designed to start the conversation in a safe, easy-to-answer place (and for most people, ‘what do you do’ is easy to answer). But what can change is the way that we respond to the question.  We can choose to reveal our illness and be honest about our inability to work in the traditional sense.  But we can also avoid the awkwardness that follows by giving alternative discussion points.  Instead of talking about a job, we can talk about the things we enjoy doing.  Most people, whether healthy or chronically ill, have interests that extend far beyond their jobs. In fact, people are often much more passionate about the things they do away from work!

So I might reply something like this: “I’m not able to work because of my medical condition. But I do as much volunteer work as I can, and I have a ton of hobbies. I’ve recently discovered stamping and card making, and I’m really excited about being able to send encouraging mail to my friends all around the world. What kind of things do you like to do in your spare time?”

We can change the conversation.  There are many ways you can answer to let people know that you are unable to work in a traditional way. But you can also show them there is much more to you.  By bringing the conversation back to them, you open up the opportunity to connect and explore each other’s hobbies and interests. Now that’s real conversation!

My challenge is to remember to take my own advice, and not freeze like a deer in the headlights the next time someone asks me, ‘So what do you do?’.  With some deep breaths and alternative discussion points, I think the career query could one day lose its title of most dreaded question.

Hopefully the title won’t be reassigned to, ‘So how many kids do you have?’…




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Thanks so much for this article. I've recently been diagnosed with Dysautonomia but had to stop work in Nov 2019. Some of us from church got together for Christmas Eve and a lady (Bronwyn) that doesn't know me very well asked me how my work was going. I explained how I had to stop work because I wasn't able to do the job any more due to cognative impairment, chronic fatigue etc. Bronwyn responded well and showed empathy and concern, which was nice. Giving a vague answer and changing the discussion to my interests and hobbies etc as discussed in this article may be a good tactic in different circumstances. Thanks! 

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