Benjamin Coy


So, what do you do?

May 27, 2014 at 8:56 pm

When meeting new people, one of the first questions that always comes up is, “so, what do you do?” For some of us, that’s a little bit of a complicated question.

The reason the question is asked, of course, is to try and classify the new acquaintance: “I am a lawyer” or “I am a cook.” But a simple sentence like this doesn’t always answer the question. To be truly honest, we would have to say something like, “I am a freelance musician, and I play in three regular ensembles plus weddings and other community events. This covers less than half my rent, so I also teach lessons, and twenty hours per week, I work for an office downtown.” That statement, while accurate, does not really answer the question. It does not help somebody from outside the industry classify you, as they have no context in which to place all that.

Because this seemingly innocuous question, which is intended to facilitate social grace and small talk, can often lead to awkwardness, I used to dodge the question. I’d reply with whatever was giving me the most regular schedule at the moment: “I’m a web developer,” for instance. That would lead to the predictable conversation about the other person’s web site and how they should really think about updating it, and of course it’s just not a high enough priority right now, etc. Boring, socially acceptable small talk. Completely avoids the awkwardness.

But, this is completely the wrong approach. Every conversation is a marketing opportunity: maybe not always for a particular performance, but for your personal brand. Every time you bow to convenience and describe yourself by your day job or something else not central to your main area of professional interest, you’re losing an opportunity to build that brand. You’re losing a potential audience member, patron, donor, or colleague.

I am not suggesting providing the lengthy, over-complicated resume of your lucrative activities. As I already said, that doesn’t help your new acquaintance anyway. My suggestion is that you find a simple answer that helps people classify you, and identifies you the way you’d like to be identified. “I am a musician” or “I am a trombonist.” This will always lead to a follow-up question and you can direct the conversation where you’d like it to go.

For instance, I just met a neighbor at the park, and when he asked what I did, I told him I was a classical trombonist. He asked if I played with the (local) Columbus Symphony, and mentioned he loved classical music. From there I was able to offer the details that while I sub with the Columbus Symphony, my main orchestra is about an hour away. The next logical question for my neighbor was whether I had any upcoming events in town. Two minutes into the conversation and I’m already advertising specific concerts.

At no point did I bother mentioning my day job or my teaching schedule. My neighbor has no interest in websites, and he doesn’t have kids so he’s unlikely to need a trombone teacher. Simply omitting these elements from the conversation gave the simple response he needed, allowed me to have the conversation I wanted to have about my career, and left the door wide open for further discussion if at some point in the future the other elements of my life become worth talking about.

In short: when somebody asks what you do, have an answer ready, and make sure it’s a simple, easily digestible sound bite. The ensuing small talk will give you the opportunity to fill in any details you want, but avoiding the question is a wasted opportunity and trying to actually explain your professional life up front is wasted effort. Your answer to such a question is a like business card: only the most basic, vital information, with an avenue for people to learn more if they wish.

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