“So what do you do?” — How Idle Conversation Escalates Tensions in Class Inequality

When introduced to someone for the first time, I stay away from asking the cliché question “so what do you do?”

This seemingly benign question is steeped in the cultural heritage of the New England colonial Puritan/Protestant work-ethic. Hard work, frugality, perseverance in the face of hardship (without complaint) is the mark of Grace and this will allow you to achieve salvation. You are your work, and your value and place in the social hierarchy is defined by your job. There is a built-in assumption that ones job defines ones personal identity1.

This ideology sustains the basis for capitalistic inequality. The work-ethic creates two groups of people: those who work hard and are deserving salvation and those who do not. In defining the qualities of a ‘Good’ person, its’ negation reveals those who are unmentionable; the ‘Bad’ person: the sinner, the lazy, the thief. There is a third group outside of the unmentionable, the unmentioned: those too young, too old or unable to take part in work, those prevented from work, those who don’t work, and those who don’t believe in the work-ethic.

In asking the question, two assumptions are made:

  1. The other person has a job
  2. Their job describes their identity to some extent. (For many people, this doesn't apply.)

During conversation, this question can be interpreted as a strategic move by the interrogator. In asking first, the interrogator is positioned to answer the counter-question with a more strategic response. This response can establish the upper hand in the contextual social hierarchy. Much like claiming higher ground prior to battle. It can come off as setting a stage to brag about ones job. Those conversations tend to unfold something like this:

Roy: “So what do you do?”

Steve: “I work at a red-sauce joint in Brookline” (see note)

Roy: [Puffs his chest] “I’m the Director of Technology at EvilCorp”

When asked “what do you do?” I try to be very generic and skirt the expected response: “I read and ride bikes every day”. For one, most people don’t care about the answer, they ask out of cultural habit. If pressed about my job, I usually say “I make internet stuff” and explicitly leave any job title or hierarchy out of the response.

A better question to ask people in a social setting:

Who do you know that I know?

This question has a goal, namely to create a real connection between people that exists beyond bullshit corporate jargon and hierarchy.

If we want to move beyond a society structured by hierarchy and class, we need to think outside our own ideology before we speak.


  1. Its also a uniquely American question to ask. In Europe you don't hear this question asked at parties, because work doesn't define their lives outside of work. A broad generalization, but a correct one.

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