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Why It's Inappropriate to Ask People What They Do for Work

September 9, 2021 Mahevash Shaikh

Picture this: you are at a social event and having a reasonably good time. Then, someone you don't know walks up to you, and after some small talk, asks you, "So what do you do for a living?" If you like your job or don't care much about it, this question can be mildly irritating. But since you are used to it, you answer and move on to another topic. However, no matter how common this question is, nothing changes the fact that it is inappropriate to ask people what they do. Let's see why.

Why Asking People What They Do Is Rude

Work Influences Identity -- Even When You Are Out of It

As many of us spend most of our lives at work, we develop a work identity. From observation, I have noticed that work has such a massive influence on identity that we associate it with our self-worth. I guess this is why we become more impressed by job titles and big-name companies than the actual work involved. 

Work has a significant impact on how we see ourselves. Now imagine how someone unemployed feels when a stranger asks what they do for a living. As someone who has experienced unemployment, I know how awkward and upsetting it is to answer this question. Worse, the person asking it typically becomes judgmental and offers unsolicited advice. All of this is enough to ruin the entire event for the out-of-work individual. And it's only a matter of time before they will face this question again. 

Not Everyone Can Work

It is ableist to assume that everyone is fit to work. For example, disabilities like low-functioning depression prevent the most intelligent and hardworking person from holding down a job. As someone who has recently been through low-functioning depression, I cannot tell you how disturbing it is to deal with this intrusive question. Since telling the truth invites disapproval, I reply that I am a freelance writer. But as I haven't written for a few days, I feel like an imposter. And until I can write again, I continue to feel like a fraud. Worse, the person who asked this question never knows of my mental agony. 

The Question Is Rude and Lazy 

There are so many things you can ask a perfect stranger. Why would you ask them what they do for a living? Just because it's a common icebreaker doesn't mean it's alright. Please get creative and ask something interesting instead. It will make you memorable and ensure that no one gets hurt.

What is your take on this issue? Do you think it is rude to ask what someone does for work? Please let me know in the comments section below. 

APA Reference
Shaikh, M. (2021, September 9). Why It's Inappropriate to Ask People What They Do for Work, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, March 3 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/workandbipolarordepression/2021/9/why-its-inappropriate-to-ask-people-what-they-do-for-work



Author: Mahevash Shaikh

Mahevash Shaikh is a millennial blogger, author, and poet who writes about mental health, culture, and society. She lives to question convention and redefine normal. You can find her at her blog and on Instagram and Facebook.

anthony
July, 1 2023 at 10:49 am

its very rude! in my opinion!!
asking this question on the first time, second time, even at the 3third time is extremely rude.
you are fishing if the other person is worth your time. (i call that gold digging)
these kind of people are the worst and should be avoided at all cost!!!
let them talk about it themselves (example they start talking about their work, then you can ask)
how a real genuine person does it: (and yes i'am one)
1. get to meet the other person
2. be creative in what questions you are asking, keep it interesting (don't talk anything money related)
3. be yourself
you are in a fase to know what the other person is all about here (so don't frigging ask questions like: what are you doing for a living) -.-"
this is why most guys that are genuine avoid all girls/woman that pose this question (its a gold digger alert)

Amanda
May, 8 2023 at 3:00 pm

Late to the discussion, but it was nice to come across this article. I've been saying for years it's a rude thing to randomly ask a stranger. Usually people respond as if I'm the rude one or like I have something to hide, as if the question isn't an invitation to be judged.
Unless a person has an actual career or is doing something they love, it's often an awkward question to answer. Not even teenagers enjoy admitting they work in fast food, yet there are plenty of adults with college degrees working minimum wage jobs because many jobs that require said degree also want someone with minimum 2-5 years experience. How are they supposed to get these 2-5 years of experience if all the jobs in their chosen field want someone with experience? Now they're in debt with a useless degree and bills to pay.
There are also plenty of seniors working minimum wage jobs because their pensions aren't enough in this economy, ageism is real and medication is expensive.
There are also many who are between jobs, or on disability, or on "welfare" (the name varies regionally) for reasons and there's a stigma about it. There should be no stigma about any of it, yet even people on disability feel the burn...even some in wheelchairs harp on others in wheelchairs "The chair shouldn't slow you down! Ever hear of sledge hockey?!? I coach a team and run my own business and I'm in a chair!!"
There's all this awareness about mental and emotional health issues and advocating for working on ones-self and practicing self-care. Some people with mental/emotional health issues find their hard self-work comes undone rapidly trying to hold down a job in this noisy, fast-paced, multi-tasking, narcissistic world of employment. Sometimes just going to the grocery store is enough to undo a struggling person for a few days. Then they're made to feel belittled for being so "weak" especially when comparing themselves to those who successfully juggle jobs, families, and busy lives without falling apart. They wonder "How tf do they do it and why am I such a failure?" Being asked "What do you do for a living?" when you look healthy and try to front as functional in a judgemental society, saying "I'm on disability" is often not an acceptable answer. Some might think they're being kind and helpful "Oh, that doesn't give near enough to get by! Have you thought about a part-time job cleaning?"
Society pins the problem on the individual (further exacerbating feelings of inferiority, which further shreds mental/emotional health) rather than saying "Seniors should be able to enjoy retirement. People on disability are on it for a reason. Even people who are employed are scraping by. We should try to find solutions, like demanding lowered costs of living instead of demanding higher minimum wage. Raising minimum wage always results in everything else becoming more expensive, anyways."
What's even more frustrating about this question in 2023 is how many lost their jobs due to Covid. You'd think people would get it by now.

Marlene
January, 30 2023 at 2:25 am

A woman was invuted to a party at my house. We were all talking abou what we do and I noticed she wasnt ansewring. I thought she was being ignored, so I asked her, thinking she would be happy to have a lead in to the conversation. She acted insulted. I shrugged it off. Upon meeting her again eventually, I figured it was a fluks that she didn't answer. I got the feeling she thought she was too good to answer. On a third occasion, the same thing happened, but this time, she brought a magizine and gave it to me, opened to the back. I turned out she was the editor. I showed interest, and explained I married into a family with a simmilar background. I though that wouldspark her interest. Instead she totally shut me down. Was I suppose to gush some more? I didn't over react. She then made up some lie about me being from a religion that was different from .y own. Then said something to my friend, and now neither is speaking to me. I dont get what the issue was. Any insites?

Susan
February, 11 2024 at 2:37 pm

Talk about how people earn their money is totally out of place in a social setting. It is a bald attempt to find out approximately how much money the person has and whether they earn enough to make them worth talking to. And ... it show a total lack of interest in who that person really is -- what they may be reading, what they do in their spare time, or a little bit about their philosophy or life. The question shows a complete lack of tact, of imagination, or of true concern for the other person as a multi-faceted human being.

Lizanne Corbit
September, 14 2021 at 3:11 pm

Fabulous read. This is something that has become so common most people don't even think about all the things that could go into responding to this. It's used as a classic small talk starter or filler. What does that say about our society though? Instead, why can't we make the norm be to connect with people on a real level, instead of one of "what they do".

September, 16 2021 at 2:47 am

Couldn't agree more. It seems as if we are governed by capitalism. That's why this question pops up inevitably in even the coolest circles (that I know of, anyway). As you said, it's used as a classic small talk starter. Little thought is put in either asking or answering it.

Dave
September, 13 2021 at 8:19 pm

As someone who is on disability due to mental illness I agree it is very irritating and I just say I am retired. Then the must be nice you are so young comments come along. Grrrrr.

Em
September, 10 2021 at 4:13 am

Yes exactly. It's an instant turn off for me. Just as bad as asking someone how much money they make.

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