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What to Say When People Ask What You Do for a Living

Max Freedman
Max Freedman

You don't always have to give a literal answer. Instead, give them a more interesting answer that leads to a longer, more memorable conversation.

Have you fallen into the trap of actually answering this question when people ask it? You've probably dug yourself a pretty deep hole. Either that or you were too vague, leaving too much open to interpretation.

Most of us love talking about ourselves, but it's kind of tough to turn our own enthusiasm for what we do into a meaningful connection with the person who asked the question – unless, of course, you've got a formula in place to answer the question effectively.

What's the formula, you ask? Simple.

What is the meaning behind "what do you do for a living"?

As a way to get to know someone, people often ask “what do you do for a living?" What someone does professionally often reflects their biggest passions and interests. What someone does professionally often plays a big role in their life, so it is a rather common conversation starter.

If you've asked someone this question before, you've probably also noticed that it quickly gets people talking about their goals and ambitions. That’s because someone’s current work may be a stepping stone to what really lights their fire. By asking about what they do now, you often remind them of their true spark and get them talking about it.

What else lies under this question

Superficially, there’s nothing wrong with being asked about your work. Realistically, though, you’ve probably encountered “what do you do for a living?” as a loaded question. People may use it to suss out whether you're working, how much money you make, how smart you are and whether you’ve truly carved your own lane. In this way, the question can often precede quite a bit of judgment. The good news is that avoiding this judgment is entirely possible if you answer the question the right way.

Did you know?Did you know? Mastering your people skills and presenting yourself as confident allows you to respond to the question in a memorable manner.

How to answer "what do you do for a living?”

You can easily answer this challenging question with the following tips:

Step 1: Answer the question with another question.

When someone asks you about your line of work, a great response is to try to relate what you do to their situation. The best way to do that is to ask another question in response. The question should take the form of some general area of need that you fulfill when you work with your clients or sell something to your customers.

Here's an example: An upscale pet supply store owner might say something like, "You know how some people are so in love with their pets that they want to pamper them in every way possible? Well, I help them do that!"

Pretty powerful, right? Far more interesting than saying, "I own a pet supply store."

But the answer doesn't end there. Let's move on to Step 2.

TipTip: Providing an unexpected response gets more attention than simply providing your title and waiting for their response.

Step 2: Stop talking and wait for a response.

We don't give silence nearly enough credit. It can be one of the most effective ways to keep a conversation moving forward.

When you give your simple response to the other person's initial question, they will naturally want to know more. They'll want to, at the very least, get a clarification of what your answer meant. If you are silent and give them a chance to process what you've said, the chances of the conversation moving forward are much higher.

Step 3: Avoid the temptation to have the full conversation.

If there's potential for something to come out of this initial conversation, then it's probably wise not to try to make that happen right on the spot. Sadly, that's what happens all too often.

The key to moving from an innocent question like "what do you do?" to a potential referral or sale is listening to the other person's response, and offering an opportunity to continue the conversation at another time ... if, and only if, they are really interested.

This approach saves time and energy and avoids disappointment on both sides. Ultimately, it's far more efficient in moving you in the right direction.

Step 4: Share your passions.

The next time someone asks what you do for a living, instead of giving them your job title, tell them what you are passionate about, and then follow up by asking what they are passionate about. For instance, when the person behind you in the checkout line asks what you do, you could say, "I'm highly passionate about boating, hiking and knitting. What are you passionate about?"

Step 5: Give them a descriptive title.

It's not particularly important to give an exact description of your job during a conversation, especially with a stranger. So, instead of giving your exact job title, use a broad term that reflects the nature of your job as opposed to the specific position. For instance, if you are a cashier at a local gas station, you could say, "I'm in the gas and oil business."

Step 6: Provide a memorable response.

For instance, if you are a life coach, respond with a memorable title, such as "breakthrough catalyst." Whatever replacement words you use to describe your title, make sure they stand out and that it's a title the other person will remember.

Step 7: Keep the conversation going.

Once you have stated your job title, don't stop. Instead, continue the conversation by going into an exciting explanation of the position. For instance, if you're a math teacher, give a detailed description of what this entails, like, "I'm an educator who provides an audience detailed information about how to break down, decipher and reevaluate a mathematical illustration."

Bottom LineBottom Line: Don't be afraid to ask a question in response to the question you have been given. You also should share your passions, give a descriptive title and try and provide a memorable response.

It's marketing, after all.

So why go to all this effort? It's all about marketing. The more you think about how others perceive your personal brand and how you approach answers to questions about you and your business in a meaningful way, the more successful you'll be at getting others to work with and refer you.

That goes double for online marketing. Because online marketing isn't quite the same as answering questions at a cocktail party, you need to be sure you are addressing the right questions and helping people you encounter online to make the right decisions for themselves.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Max Freedman
Max Freedman
business.com Contributing Writer
Max Freedman is a content writer who has written hundreds of articles about small business strategy and operations, with a focus on finance and HR topics. He's also published articles on payroll, small business funding, and content marketing. In addition to covering these business fundamentals, Max also writes about improving company culture, optimizing business social media pages, and choosing appropriate organizational structures for small businesses.