It’s the question all unemployed people with an invisible illness dread, “And what do you do?”
It’s the verbal equivalent to ‘The Big Boss’ coming through your workplace and even though you’re working bloody hard, the concentration brow deepens, your moves become more exaggerated as you panic to ‘Look Busy!’ and indisposable.
The stomach flips, the heart sinks, I’m about to be judged for not paying taxes, my social status is about to drop to somewhere between Jeremy Kyle contestant and pasty thieving seagull, plus I’m at risk of revealing some very personal details about the contents of my health records. Do I lie? Exaggerate the truth? Avoid the question? Whip out a mood chart and give a full history of my health?
So how do you answer such a personal, loaded question without making yourself feel too vulnerable?
Really it depends on the scenario. If someone is genuinely trying to get to know you, a potential love interest for example, then you might want be honest from the start, your health and finances are inevitably going to affect things. But if it’s at a distant cousin’s wedding it’s all in the name of polite chitchat so you don’t need to give much away at all.
The single best answer to that question that I’ve ever been encouraged to use:
I do wonders.
It deflects the question, shows wit and confidence, retains an air of mystery and let’s people know that you’re not ready to give that information away or not playing into that game. It throws the other person off and makes it harder for them to persist with that type of questioning. If they do persist then they’re possibly a bit rude and judgemental and you probably don’t really need that kind of person in your life, it tells you a lot about them and their values. But fear not, there’s other ways to dodge the question.
Humour: “Not much in the kitchen but I’m great in bed” (best not to use that for the future in laws)
Vagueness: “I wouldn’t want to bore you with it.” Partial Honesty: ‘I’m in between jobs at the moment’ (omitting the fact that it’s been 2 years since your last job and you’re not currently looking).
In the past I’ve replied ‘I don’t work full time at the moment due to my health but I used to work in retail management’ this gives people a (false) sense of your social class, education, ambition and also gives them enough that they’ll choose not to pry further. You’ve been quite honest with them and they’ll be pushing their luck and common decency if they require more than that.
The downside is that some people will then inevitably ask ‘So what do you do with your time?‘. Again vagueness can be useful ‘I use it sparingly/wisely’ might suffice.
The number one golden rule is: You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.
In fact I have one friend who flat out refuses to answer that kind of question, they simply say ‘Do you mean what do I do for money? I don’t talk about that.’
People often ask questions that they want to be asked so be quick to ask them lots of questions in return. It’s sidestepping the question but in some cases people aren’t really that interested in your answer anyway.
You can start out by saying ‘Well in my spare time I..’ and insert your really interesting hobby, people are much more likely to latch into that and ask more about it and they’re still getting to know more about the real you and moving the conversation along to safer territory.
You can refer to your most recent job, or tell them about any volunteering you do, I’ve been known to pad out my ‘verbal cv’ by telling them lots at once- they don’t need to know my work is sporadic and non paid, and I’ve listed literally every volunteering event I’ve done in the last 5 years.
If you’re a parent ‘I’m a full time mother to two children‘ is a good response, and you can then talk about the children instead of yourself. Even after they grow up this can be used as a ‘get out clause’ although why ‘women’s work’ isn’t valued as much as paid work I will never know (duh patriarchy). But that’s a whole other blog post.
I have another friend who retired some years ago, who has since become a ‘semi retired poet’. This seems to please enough people as it gives them an idea of their stage in life and also a tasty titbit about one of their hobbies/passions, one that they’re happy to talk about and something that people find interesting.
Most people don’t care what you actually do they are just trying to get to know you and find common ground.
I have friends who are chefs, tradesmen, solicitors, work in I.T, childcare, none of these are the reasons why they’re interesting and good company. None of these jobs make me feel like I’m in respectable company, or like they’re better people because of what they do, although I do admire anyone with a good work ethic who finds a good work/life balance because I’ve found that balance hard to find. The truth is I love and respect them as people because they’re funny, they’re good djs, they’re good conversationalists, they’re good dads, they’re kindhearted and generous and complex, imperfect, beautiful human beings.
The deep, loving connections we are all searching for are cultivated and nurtured over time, until then we bond over music, dancing, food, pop culture (or hatred of), books, movies, all of the superficial components of daily life that we can all relate to. These are the icebreakers which can warm us up to a person, or give us a sense of where people’s true passions lie. The common ground is a playing field after all!
Above all remember that just as you are more than your illness, you are so much more than what you do for a living or how much money you make (or don’t). For every one flaw or failing you can find in yourself, even with a C.V littered with potholes of sick days and a long history of dropping out, your true friends can find 5 reasons why they love and value you in an instant. This applies to everyone so please allow others the same kindness when you find out what they do for a living (even if they work in advertising).
This blog is dedicated to Andy who passed away recently. He did wonders.