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Photo: Getty Images

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Is this the worst question you can ask someone?

Asking author Lisa Owens “What do you do?” can bring on an identity crisis and a total evaluation of self-worth. Perhaps let’s just not, she says

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By Lisa Owens on

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“What do you do?” is, I think, the question I most dread in the world. Whenever I’m faced with someone new, I will expend considerable energy trying to avoid these four words cropping up.

It wasn’t always this way. After graduating from university, I temped for a month at a plastics company, and relished the novelty of having a job. “You know in greasy spoon cafes?” I’d say, thrilled to be asked. “On the tables they have standalone Perspex menu holders? Well, I input data and file invoices for the UK’s leading manufacturer of those.”

It was the mid-noughties, a few years after The Office first aired, and I felt like I worked in a The Office theme park, complete with chugging photocopier, jaded accounts team and adjacent warehouse full of forklift trucks. I loved it all. I inputted data and filed my way through the week, ate an M&S salad for lunch every day, and spent my Friday pay-check in the local O’Neill’s. My tenure was so successful that the CEO – impressed by my work (filing) on a major confidential merger – wanted to extend my contract. I was truly flattered, and genuinely tempted, but ultimately couldn’t resist the lure of London, my friends, and a publishing job. 

The publishing job was difficult to explain to anyone who didn’t work in publishing. “I’m an assistant at a literary agency,” I said, hoping that would be the end of it. “But what do you do?” people would persist. To say I read all day would have been dishonest. To say I answered phones, franked mail and heaved recycling bags down several flights of stairs would have been too honest. I had a degree! In literature! I wasn’t a receptionist! (I was.)

Then I was hired as an editorial assistant at a publishing house and things became, on the face of it, simpler. People have seen The Proposal. They know the job involves complicated coffee orders, and getting engaged to your boss to save them from deportation. When I was promoted to editor, things got easier still. “I read all day” I’d say, which was true, even if it was mostly emails. 

When someone asks “What do you do?” they are often really asking a different question: “Who are you?’” And that’s the one most people tend to answer. “I’m a doctor”, a doctor will say, rather than, “I diagnose health issues and administer medicine”. We attribute characteristics to people based on their jobs. Doctors are compassionate and good under pressure. Accountants are level-headed and organised. PR officers are sociable and enthusiastic. Hotel night managers are discreet, ice-cool and prepared to kill in the name of justice.

When someone asks 'What do you do?' they are often really asking a different question: 'Who are you?'

But what if your job isn’t one of the easy ones to define? What conclusions (albeit lazy and inaccurate ones) will people draw if you work in, say, front-end development? Or what if you don’t really like your job – what if telling people what you do feels like wearing a pair of expensive impulse-bought shoes, which are slightly too tight and don’t go with any of your clothes?

When you’re starting out, there are lots of helpful words to distance you from your job: assistant, intern, junior, trainee. Yes, you’re on a path, but it’s early days – there’s still time to become someone else if you want. As you get older, promoted, more experienced, these tentative terms drop away, and what you do, and who you are become increasingly blurred.

Even if you’re lucky enough to love what you do, it still may not be how you’d choose to define yourself: this was – and remains – my predicament. It feels at once so bold and exposing, limiting and grand to say "I’m an editor" (which I used to be) or "I’m a novelist" (which I am now). "But I love TV and trivia," I want to add, lest they mistake me for someone terribly well-read or a stickler for grammar, "I watch Pointless on iPlayer every day in my lunch break. In a pub quiz, my specialist subject is Coronation Street circa 1994-2001.”

The more a job has corresponded to what I love doing, the more troubling my external relationship with that job has become. Because when you get paid to do something you love, you are rightly evaluated based on how well you do it, and if it turns out you’re no good, or not always good, or even just having an off-day now and again, it can wreak complete havoc with your sense of self-worth.

The reason I liked telling people about my plastics temping job was because the bones of it didn’t matter to me. My role didn’t even really properly exist; it was the stuff no one else wanted to do, but with all the fun trappings of being gainfully employed – money, colleagues, an actual water cooler. For a short while it was the perfect means to an end, and, because I was a temp I didn’t have to worry that someone might think Perspex was where my heart lay.

In a brilliant article by Paul Ford on politeness, he advises waiting as long as possible before you ask someone what they do, and this is a rule I try to live by. As a writer it’s a pretty tall order: I’m incredibly nosy and honestly fascinated by the myriad ways people spend the vast majority of their waking time – but I can live with not knowing if it means that the same thing won’t automatically be asked of me. So I’d like to propose a mini-revolution in the world of small-talk: ask not, "What do you do?" but instead, for my sake just about anything else.

Not Working by Lisa Owens is published by Picador on April 21 in hardback, priced £12.99

@lamowens

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