Cocktails at a Bar

You Get Asked This Question, Your Response Is…

You’re at a cocktail party full of people you don’t know.  This is not the most comfortable position for you to be in, but you are determined to make an effort.  This is a “make it work moment”.

You look around to see if there is anyone as miserable, I mean as squirmy as you are.   Across the room, you spot a couple of people chatting who are clearly not together.  Slowly, you inch your way over and nonchalantly, join their group.  Eye contact is made, success!   You introduce yourselves and give each other your first names.

The next question is:

What do you do?

Of course it is.  This is always the second question after “what is your name”.

The person in this story is me and probably a lot of other folks.  When I took my early retirement, I gave the following long-winded answer:

I took an early retirement because we lost a huge public sector contract that I was managing.  Of course, this would result in layoffs.  I put my hand up because I knew I was done with the rat race.  Plus, I was old enough to take an early retirement.  I was lucky, they let me go.

But I think I was really saying…

I left willingly. I was NOT laid off.  

Why do we ask?

Why do people ask what you do for a living anyway?  This happens all the time at any event or gathering where there are people who don’t know each other.  What are they really asking:

  • What is your socio-economic status?
  • Are you worth talking to?
  • What is your identity tribe?
  • Who are you?

Or, maybe they are just indulging in a lazy and harmless habit that helps us find common ground. In today’s society, especially in North America, so much of our time is spent at work that “what we do” goes beyond being just employment.  It starts to define who we are.

For many years, I’m sure that my role as a Sales Account Manager for a major corporation did impact my identity. But I always knew that it was just a role I played, it wasn’t who I was.  In fact, at the end, playing that the role had become exhausting and I didn’t like who I was.  So I was happy to go; I’ve not looked back since.

The Reaction

When I tell others that I have taken an early retirement, most people react positively and wish me well.  But I’ve also had some rather rude and negative reactions, as in “It must be nice!” in a “how dare you” voice.   I look younger than 56, so sometimes I see a narrowing of the eyes that means they disapprove of my choice.  Or sometimes it’s a look of sympathy that means they assume I’ve been laid off.

I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does.  And, it has happened enough times that I am now  reluctant to tell strangers.

A Better Response

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  I’ve done some searching on the Internet for input.

Clearly, a lot of other people don’t like this question either.  Doesn’t matter how old they are or what they do.  Well, my favourite piece of advice so far comes from   The writer suggests that you answer this question by telling people how you solve problems.

This example by a mens’ fashion stylist would break the ice with humour while providing fodder for small talk.

When people ask what I do, I usually flip the question and say, “You know how most guys don’t dress very well?” This usually gets the person nodding along. Then I talk about how I solve that problem. I might mention that I have a 9-year-old, and let’s say I go to take him to the doctor. Now imagine a guy comes in who is wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Am I going to give my kid to this person? Probably not. Now imagine a guy wearing a white lab coat walks in. Everyone can relate to how clothing can make a huge difference.”

If I were to use this method, I just might say:

I write about my personal experience of aging gracefully and try to provide practical tips and tools to help women in my demographic feel inspired and optimistic.  And, I enjoy sharing these stories on social media with a like-minded community.  A long time ago women over 50 were considered “old”.  Not any more, 50 has become the new 40.  Would you not agree?”

This response needs some more work but I think it’s more interesting than just saying that I have become a blogger and am doing some work in social media.

What do you say?  Any other alternative ideas?

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20 thoughts on “You Get Asked This Question, Your Response Is…

  1. Hi Leslie. Sorry for the delayed response. I was away last week. Thanks for your opinion. I am in total agreement!!

  2. I love asking powerful questions of people, that leave them feeling good about sharing. It leaves you memorable in their eyes and gives you an opportunity to make a difference and show you actually care about the conversation, giving respect to the interaction. If we practice this, it can inspire others to do the same.

    When I’m asked “What do you do?” I try to answer with a question, “You mean what rocks my world?” No one should feel they need to answer with an occupation as that does not define us. Share a passion of yours, a recent adventure, no need to outline your life’s story. Depending on how the person you are speaking with responds can give you a clue if they are worthy of sharing anything further. I usually shift the convo to about them pretty quickly to determine that.

  3. In the retirement world we often ask “What did you do in your former life?” But the ball is always in your court. Before someone asks about your job (a personal subject in a lot of cases) take up the subject of books or hobbies or even favorite TV shows. It is the vacuum left when no one guides the conversation that can be the problem.

    Good luck with that! 🙂



  4. We all ask this question. I’m trying to get “out of the habit” so am thinking of a different way of making small talk. 🙂

  5. Yes – it would possibly be seen as a rude, prying question in some parts of the world. My instinct when asked this is to lean forward all conspiratorially and whisper, with my hand up beside my mouth “Who needs to know?” – like I’m a spy and I’m really worried. But of course I don’t, I struggle, inside my head, to answer – because I do so many different things in my working day to make money and I don’t have a catch-all job title. I try, at all costs, to avoid gatherings where this question gets asked but when it happens, saying ‘I am self-employed what do you do?” gets the focus off me!

  6. I’m with you Deb. I know we often say that we don’t care what others thing, but we must since we act like we do… Maybe it lessens over time. I am learning so much from you all as well, thank you for taking the time to comment.

  7. I really enjoyed this post and the link yo included. It’s something I’ve been struggling with so early into my retirement. I tend to want to give all the gory details of how I was made redundant….it’s not necessary though and I’m learning so much from all of you, so thanks everyone 🙂

  8. Thanks Patricia for stopping by. It’s been great connecting with women who are living a similar life to my own. I’m getting inspiration from you all.

  9. Hi. I saw your link with Donna and Janis and came over to see what’s up! I too am early retiree – similar circumstances. It’s been a great thing for me as I’m finally figuring our the other side of the work-life balance. As a workaholic, I needed to get rid of the work to figure out life. I love your phrase “identity tribe”! I’m still finding my new tribe.

    Sometimes when I’m asked “what do you do”, I respond… “whatever I want to”. 🙂 I follow that quickly with whatever my current area of exploration/project work is – right now, we are actively working some family location reorganization. Being non-working is giving me the time to devote to it. But, I do like your way of talking about blogging in this space and might steal it.

  10. That’s great that you love what you do and want to continue. And of course, borrow all you want! Would love to know what happens!

  11. I’m smiling, because my problem is the opposite. I’m 64, heading towards 65, and I get asked “when are you going to retire?” (right now, the honest answer is, “I’m not ready to” because I enjoy what I do for a living. Then, the response is usually “why not?”. One thing I definitely do not plan to do, once I am retired, is to describe myself as retired. I like the idea of flipping the “what you do question into a short explanation of how I solve problems. May I borrow your response? (kidding, for now.) It’s perfect!

  12. Hi Donna. I will check Janis’ blog out, thank you. I am happy to be retired, don’t get me wrong. Not sure why I feel sheepish.

  13. Hi, Marian – I agree that your new response (to the age-old question) will likely generate good quality conversation.
    Janis, at RetirementallyChallenged, tried a similar experiment last year and I believe it produced very positive results. (You can check out her post at:
    For me, I still (gleefully) say that I am retired. Shameless, I know. Maybe I am still at the honeymoon stage after all — but it still sounds so good to me!
    I would be happy to read more of how your experiment goes for you.

  14. I agree it’s a conversation starter. But I’m trying to find another way of starting conversations and finding out about people and I hope they do the same with me. I’ve answered this question the same way for over 30 years. Time to change it up!

  15. I always ask people what they do because I want to know what they do, in order to indulge in a conversation with them. I want to be knowledgable of what they are knowledgable of, and continue that conversation finding how I can relate to that. What do you do, to me, is how do you spend your days? What are you experienced in?
    All of my answers are easily judged: I blog. I write. I’m a stay at home mom. I’m on an indefinite sabbatical from a retail gig. So I totally understand being judged, but to me the answer doesn’t have to be a career, I just want to know what you do. 😉

  16. I love your alternative Marian it says it all perfectly. I might even borrow it myself!! Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond.

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