“What Do You Do?”

Why is “what do you do” one of the first questions we ask someone?

My “what do you do?” story

I’ve been thinking about this question this week as for the first time in 10 years I haven’t been clambering onto tables, blu-tacking endless displays high up on the walls, deciding seating plans, brandishing a staple gun to each and every wall surface. For the first time in 10 years I haven’t been anticipating the new school year anxious as to whether I’d remember how to teach. 

This is because since falling ill with M.E., I’ve been off sick as a teacher for more months than I’d care to admit. Being off for so long only meant one thing to our family, me giving up teaching for a while. Or at least classroom teaching in a primary school. After 10 years in the job, it made me sad to let that go. 


I loved the job, I really did. I loved getting to know a class of pupils, all 30 of them, getting to know the things that made them tick, the things they enjoyed and really didn’t.  

But the symptoms of M.E, no matter how many reasonable adjustments your employer could put into place, just wasn’t going to be conducive with teaching. With my range of symptoms now, there’s no way I can speak for a full day, let alone stay on my feet and do everything that teaching involves. I have to rest lying down at least twice a day. I force myself not to sleep during this time to ensure I sleep at night. I’m not lazy, that’s just what I have to do to get through a day with enough energy to bathe my daughter and put her to bed in the evening. 


With this realisation that I effectively had a very uncertain future career wise, I started thinking about that question we ask people when we meet: what do you do? 

Why is “what do you do?” one of the first questions asked?

Why is it that that question is one of the first asked when you meet someone new? Once you’ve got through establishing each other’s names, how you know the host and all that, and probably a bit about the weather if you’re British, conversation then tends to go to “what do you do?” 

You can see why people do it, I’m certainly guilty of it myself, but isn’t it interesting to think about how much our identity is intertwined with the job we do, or the career we have? 


We spend the majority of our waking hours as an adult at work. It’s therefore understandable that our job becomes part of our identity but why does what we “do” become so important? Why, as a society, are we so obsessed with what we are always “doing” instead of who we are as people?

 Mental Health

I’ve struggled with this concept for many years personally. That concept of “doing” rather than “being”. Ambition, people-pleasing and drive were three ways I approached life. I always felt that achieving was important to my value as a person.

Unfortunately, this did not do well for my mental health. There was always that new target to have to achieve, a new target to have to reach. 


Life now…

I now know full well this doesn’t have to be the case. One’s value as a person does not have to be based on how much you achieve in your job or in your personal life. Using the phrase “I’m just a…” is one that I’ve had to learn to stop using. There’s no “just” in anything.

I’m a mum. A wife. A sister. A daughter. A daughter-in-law. A friend. I like to now think those things comes far before anything I may do to earn money, or “achieve” as such. 

I hope by sharing this writing that others may be able to challenge their thoughts on who they are rather than what they do. 

Until next time, 

Soph x 

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8 thoughts on ““What Do You Do?”

  1. What do you do? Is the line I hate most. Speaking as someone who has never been able to because of my disability, I always dreaded being asked that. Do I lie? Or tell the truth, knowing what I tell them will probably not interest them or they wouldn’t understand anyway. Not to mention the stigma that there is with being disabled in the U.K right now.
    It is weird how we define people by there job.
    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it

  2. This was such a good post! I’ve always hated that question: what do you do? As someone who has anxiety and has suffered from other things, I’ve been in and out of jobs for a while and one time when I was finding it hard to leave the house, I finally went to a party and someone asked me that. I told them I was helping my parents, but they asked me still: “but what do you DO?” I finally stammered something out about taking time out for my health, and the guy finally shut up, looking confused and weirded out. It made me feel so ashamed, even though I shouldn’t have. It’s my health, my business, and in hindsight, I would have stood up for myself. My identity isn’t my job or even my mental health. I shouldn’t be defined or judged by a job! We’re all so much more than that!

    Wonderful post! Thank you for writing it!

    Emily | https://www.thatweirdgirllife.com

  3. So true, such a good post, I get so many looks and comments when I answer I am a stay at home mum and get the dismissive don’t you wish you were doing something, I am cherishing every day of these early years as they go too quickly and am so happy to be a mum first

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