By Rachel Feintzeig
April 10, 2023
At the dinner party and the church group, on the sidelines of the soccer game, it is always the second question, if not the first.
What do you do?
“It’s like talking about the weather,” says Zac Boller, a 45-year-old Seattleite.
In countless moments far from the office, many of us are still our jobs first. A marketing professional in Texas told me she was asked what she did while high above the trees on a ziplining course, strapped into a harness.
Some of us grasp onto our titles like a life raft, convinced they’re the thing that makes us worth talking to. Others blurt out the query because it’s easy, acceptable small talk—or because we have let our jobs eat up so much of our time we have no room for anything else.
What would happen if we didn’t lead with our professional selves?
At first, “it’s cringey,” says Jon Levy, who hosts a dinner series where guests aren’t allowed to reveal what they do for 90 minutes. Upon arrival, some jittery diners avoid the wine and lapse into banal conversations about, say, the spelling of their names.
But by the end, the group is like a gang of old camp friends, he says, bonded by the shared vulnerability of completing a task together—they prepare dinner—and the fact that they can’t devolve into the rote what-do-you-do scripts they have been honing for years.
In so many interactions, there is a status competition humming just below the surface. Freed from job descriptions, “You don’t have to play that game. Everybody can be wonderfully themselves,” Mr. Levy says.
‘There was no more of my life’
Out in the wild, Mr. Levy likes to answer the inevitable “What do you do?” question with a self-deprecating line or a joke, say, answering that his vocation is making little umbrellas in tropical drinks. The moment breaks the routine of conventional chatter, disarming people and opening them up, he says.
Ashley J. Hobbs once had a guy at a party walk away from her after she told him her job. Working in education technology in Maryland was hardly inappropriate or offensive, but it didn’t seem to be what he, a staffer on Capitol Hill, deemed valuable, she says.
She vowed never to be like that, linking someone’s worth to their title.
And yet, in the past few years, she noticed her activity on social media had been overtaken by talk of her work, now as a podcast producer. She was constantly touting the latest episode of her show or posting a video of herself unboxing awards. Gone were the funny videos of her grandma.
“There was no more of my life,” says the 37-year-old, who lives in Rahway, N.J.
She deleted her main Twitter account, where she had amassed some 5,000 followers, and removed mentions of her career from all her profile bios, except LinkedIn. It feels freeing to not have to be Ashley the Podcast Producer at every moment, online and in real life, she says.
Still, she worries about opportunities she is giving up by not trumpeting her accomplishments, not treating her social media and her life as “one big billboard of, ‘Hey, hire me,’ ” she says.
Ask me, please
For years, Kate Bernyk would immediately launch into the “What do you do?” question upon meeting people—because she wanted them to ask her. Ms. Bernyk’s job, working in communications for activist groups and government, felt like her personality, as well as the thing that impressed others.
“I felt really anxious to get it out there so nobody was questioning, ‘Who’s this idiot?’ ” she says. When it was finally her turn to answer, she felt relieved.
It took landing—and then quitting—a job that gave her panic attacks to break the cycle. She took a lower-ranking, lower-paying job and suddenly found herself with free time. She took up embroidery, embarked on solo travel and started writing personal essays.
These days, she asks people she meets, “What fills your time?” or “What brings you joy?”
“I had to actually start living a life outside of work to have something to talk about,” she says.
The danger of being too attached
It isn’t inherently bad to have your job form the backbone of your identity. Uttering our titles can remind us of our own impact and instill pride and confidence. Alicia Smyth, who works in the aerospace industry and lives in Port Orange, Fla., is happy to talk about her work.
“It’s evidence that I made something of myself,” says Ms. Smyth, the first in her immediate family to go to college.
But jobs are rarely forever, especially in this economy. Many of the same tech workers who wielded their company names—Facebook, Google—as a shorthand for success, their parents name-dropping the firms to their own friends too, are now facing layoffs.
They feel betrayed by their former employers, says Jen Dary, who coaches engineering leaders and product managers. After being told to bring their whole selves to work, and assured that their company was like a family, many workers have been pushed aside casually, often laid off with a generic email.
They crave new gigs where the work relationship is less intimate, she says. Even those left standing can feel adrift when the shine is off their companies.
When making introductions, Ms. Dary recommends people lead with hobbies and family, adding work as a last, passing thought. You can say, “In my day job, I…” or “The way I pay my bills is…”
“You always have the choice,” she adds, “to say, ‘I am more than my job.’ ”
Since being fired suddenly a decade ago, Ed Baldwin has shifted to introducing himself by his field, human resources, and leaving out his title and firm name.
Don’t get tied to that stuff, says Mr. Baldwin, of Nashua, Iowa. Everything from the prestige of being in senior management to the ease of having a close-knit circle of work friends can easily disappear.
“That’s the danger,” he adds, “in that entanglement.”
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at Rachel.Feintzeig@wsj.com
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