Why we need to stop asking, ‘What do you do for work?’

By Téa Angelos

In the flurry of social introductions and networking events, one question always inevitably arises: “So, what do you do for work?”

While we often ask this question out of politeness or curiosity, it inadvertently places undue emphasis on a person’s job as the primary facet of their identity. The common practice of associating one’s identity with their profession goes beyond mere conversational habit. It’s a symptom of a deeper societal trend that equates professional success with self-worth.

What someone does for work inevitably arises at social events, but jobs don’t define who people are.
What someone does for work inevitably arises at social events, but jobs don’t define who people are.Credit: Shutterstock

People from all career stages, whether they are just starting out, running a small business or in high-level positions, can fall into the trap of setting high standards tied to their job performance and job title.

This situation often leads to a continuous quest for approval and validation through work. Not only this, but it can also lead to significant emotional turmoil, as people find their self-esteem fluctuating with their career’s ups and downs.

While dedication to your job is commendable, it can create a cycle where personal satisfaction and self-acceptance hinge on professional success. In this context, self-worth becomes a hostage to professional accolades and achievements, leading to a continuous sense of inadequacy, burnout and a failure to recognise one’s value beyond their job title.

A study discussed by the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests that self-reflective job titles can reduce emotional exhaustion. The research found that when employees at the Make-A-Wish Foundation were allowed to create their own job titles, they experienced less emotional exhaustion, mediated by increases in self-verification and psychological safety.

Instead of defaulting to a career question, start conversations by asking about a person’s interests, hobbies, recent adventures, or opinions.

While this solution isn’t practical across the board, it demonstrates the clear impact that job titles have on our self-identities and personal wellbeing.

Another problem with this question is that it elevates our professional endeavours as the most noteworthy aspect of our lives, overshadowing all the other dimensions of our identity. Your job is simply what you do, it is not who you are.


We are all unique individuals with a rich tapestry of experiences, interests and values. Our hobbies, passions, family lives, and personal stories are equally, if not more, defining than our careers.

So, what could be the alternative? Instead of defaulting to a career question, start conversations by asking about a person’s interests, recent adventures, opinions on current events or what book they’re currently engrossed in.

Not only does this shift the discussion away from being career-centric, but the responses are invariably more authentic, vibrant and telling. This approach not only fosters a deeper connection but also celebrates the diversity of experiences and perspectives. A conversation about a recent hiking trip or a newfound love for painting offers a glimpse into who they really are, not just what they do to pay the bills.

This shift can also be a step towards reducing the stress associated with professional status. In a society where career achievements often dictate social standing, detaching personal worth from job titles can alleviate the pressure to constantly ‘succeed’ in traditional terms.

Focusing on someone outside their career encourages a culture where people feel valued for who they are, not just what they do, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance.

So next time you meet someone, skip the “what do you do for work?” question. You’ll find that by doing so, your conversations will become more engaging, your connections deeper, and your understanding of others more profound. We are, after all, so much more than our 9-to-5s.

Téa Angelos is an entrepreneur, author, speaker and founder of Smart Women Society, an online education company providing innovative products and tools for women to grow their independence with money, career, wellbeing and love.

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