‘What Do You Do?’

No matter what subjects we teach, we make a point of teaching students how to engage in meaningful conversation.  And no matter what area of study or work a student chooses to pursue as they enter adulthood, the hope is that the conversation remains dynamic and inspired by the different paths that comprised their educational journey thus far.  A student is never “an honors student” or “a history major” or even an upper or lower classman.  They may affiliate with those tracks, but they are essentially themselves.  They have a selfhood that continually evolves socially and emotionally as they draw on a range of growing knowledge, skill, and life experience.  In this spirit, I would like to address a common social introductory question that I think often inadvertently undermines this goal; the question of “what do you do?”

When did “what do you do?” become a conversation starter and the anticipated response become so vocationally based?  From teaching students to embrace collective intelligence, passions, and interests, it seems incongruous that as adults, we so frequently find ourselves on the question or answer side of this comment.  I wonder why an attempt at knowing each other so often begins with solicitation of a verbal business card, and I wonder what that tells our children.  If we wish to set an example as unique individuals amidst whatever educational, professional, or personal trajectories we choose, perhaps we can start by reformulating our most basic opening questions.  What we choose to ask and how we respond are not only conversation shapers, but cultural and educational ones as well.

How often do we ask ourselves when asking “what do you do” what it is we really want to know, or ponder in the reverse, what someone is trying to know about us?  What will a response reveal about who either of us are?  Often floated as a rote ice breaker, there may be a sense that an answer can yield access to information that can classify another person quickly, albeit superficially.  In other instances, it may simply be an expression of general curiosity.  In either case, the social dialogue extends beyond exchanging information.  It projects our self-portrayals and sets a reverberating tone in motion that may mean something to our children and their own self-perceptions.  As we are not our job titles, but rather personalities with varied experiences that inspire and challenge us, consider drawing on that dynamism when presenting yourself in social conversation.

I attended a formal party last year and was seated at a table with mostly people I did not know.  During the meal, I overheard one new table acquaintance ask another, “what do you do?” to which they responded describing a new genre of music they recently began listening to and liked.  The unexpectedness of that response struck me.  I am not sure what motivated that reply, or if it was even a conscious effort to redirect the conversation, but I liked it.  It felt sincere, genuine, and revelatory.  Rather than answer with a statement of employment, they shared a recent experience and what it meant to them.  And it led to a lively conversation that got other people at the table, irrespective of their professions or whether they were employed at all, interested in joining in.  No matter what kind of work you do, how much pride you take in it, or personally identify, imagine the potential connectedness with others when regarding that work as less of a statement of who you are, and more of a supporting detail.

How can we teach kids to ask more thoughtful getting-to-know-you questions and to offer more personalized responses?  One way is through our direct prompts to them and another is by the example we set in our discussions with each other.  When asking children about their day, for example, ask about the crossovers, whether they detected relationships between different areas of study.  Ask if something made them laugh or if they learned something new about a friend.  Ask if they got to spend time outdoors and how it felt to get fresh air during their school day.  Ask them questions that make them wonder, contemplate, and motivate them to find personal relevance in their learning.  As far as the examples we set with our own adult conversations, consider asking questions about personal interests, like favorite hiking trails, podcasts, or silver linings.  Sensitizing ourselves to asking more reflective questions is a necessary means toward modeling more mindful conversation.

Here is why this is so important for children.  If we would like them to identify with more than a single major, class ranking, or team, then we want to teach them how to handle a “what do you do” type question with integrity.  We also want to teach them to ask the questions they themselves would want to be asked.  That means honoring in themselves and others an array of interests and curiosities and recognizing that they are multifaceted.  This is a key educational principle.  We do not want children to feel like they will be defined by their academic choices or performances or that there is anything static about either process.  As they grow and learn and become increasingly self-directed toward achieving their goals, so too should the nature of conversation reflect that.  As parents and educators, how important for each of us to set an example of valuing nuance and differentiation and imparting this lesson not only in pedagogy but in examples we set through our own social conversations.

While keeping social distance and reimagining modes of communication, it is an opportune time to rethink social introductory questions and answers.  It may take a little more thought and careful planning at first, but over time it will become more routine.  Considering what it is we really want to know about a person as well as what we ourselves would like to share, is an important step toward creating more sincere and genuine conversation.  It is also an important example to set for our children, inspiring them to consider more thoughtfully who they are, what feels right to share, and how to formulate connection.

About the Author
Aviva Edelstein is an educational consultant living in Teaneck, NJ. She has experience in both formal and informal education as well as homeschool curriculum design and instruction.
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