What Do You Do?
Good question, I think to myself. Although it must be the billionth time I've been asked, I still haven't figured out the correct answer... if there is one.
You see, what people really mean when they ask this question is "How do you make money?", or more specifically, "How much money do you make?". That's an easy question to answer but a sensitive one to ask, so we revert to the more ambiguous "What do you do?".
I make money from my software products, from consulting and from my investments.
But this isn't "What I do".
What I do is: sport, surfing, art, music, writing, traveling, reading, studying, thinking, solving problems, writing software, teaching, dreaming, planning and searching for new experiences.
Try packaging that sentiment and you'll see why, when taken literally, the question confuses me.
"What do you do?"
Fortunately, I've discovered it's not a question you have to really answer. In fact, if you want to have an interesting conversation it is best NOT to answer it. No matter how you frame your reality, people will always be more intrigued by their own imagination.
So here are some canned responses that I've been using with fairly positive results.
My current favourite. Especially because its so obviously not true. I carry musical instruments, people see me working and writing and I'm not always necessarily speaking English. One of the best things about this response is if people have asked out of curiosity it will fuel the conversation, but if they asked out of routine it will lead the conversation to an early death.
"This and that."
My friend, Sam Dada, recommended this when we were discussing the whole problem one day on the beach. It has a similar effect to "not much", but lets you direct the conversation to something that interests you more. Just pick one of your hobbies to talk about.
"I steal phones."
This is great because it not only invites people to ask more imaginative questions, it also makes them a bit edgy. Does he really steal phones? Occassionally you'll get someone who takes you seriously and you've just saved yourself from a conversation with a drone.
"My friends give me money. You're my friend right?"
The whole question just got turned on its head. Here you were asking me how I make money and I just came back and asked you to give me some. I think the only reason you get away with this is the reference to 'friends' embedded in the response.
"I'm a neologist"
A neologist is someone who invents words. I haven't used this in a while, but it was fun to add something unexpected to the conversation and teach people a new word (neology). If you like, you can drop some funny words like pointful (the opposite of pointless), giraffiti (vandalism sprayed very high) and coffee (a person upon whom one coughs). It's also a good way to screen people for intelligence.
Following the rule of twos, I'll only use two nonsense answers. If the conversation hasn't already diverted, or later I am asked a third time I'll offer an answer that fits with people's view of how the world should be. Usually, that is
"I write software."
Unfortunately that always leads to a boring and predictable conversation, but at least you can't be held responsible for that outcome, having already offered the conversation an alternative life. Besides, conversation should not always be off the planet.
Sometimes, if you have something in common, it is better just to go with a direct, specific answer straight up. I'll do this if its obvious that the person I'm talking to is passionate about their field.
"I'm a traveler."
"I'm an artist."
"I study psychology."
For the record, the following responses will often be met with a sort of silent disgust. Stereotypes ahoy.
"I'm a programmer."
"I'm a web designer."
"I'm a backpacker."
Framing is a powerful tool.
If you have some good canned responses of your own, drop them in the comments below.What Do You Do?
Roger Keays is an artist, an engineer, and a student of life. Since he left Australia in 2009, he has been living as a digital nomad in over 40 different countries around the world. Roger is addicted to surfing. His other interests are music, psychology, languages, and finding good food. Click here to subscribe to his weekly blog, or stalk him on Facebook and Twitter.