What don’t you do?

November 11, 2009 at 8:56 am | Posted in read this | 3 Comments

Two friends whose blogs I read regularly recently wondered what would happen if the oft-asked, “What do you do?” were turned on its head. (See here and here; they were musing on a question initially posted here.)  Instead of the cliche, what if your cocktail party introductions started with “What don’t you do?”

The universal premise, I suppose, is that asking someone “What do you do?” is an inadequate way to start a conversation. Certainly, it can make the person being asked feel inadequate when responding (indeed, I’ve been there  — see below).  Putting myself in the position of the asker, however, I actually don’t find the “What do you do?” question particularly loaded. If I ask people this, I do it with a journalist’s hard-wired and genuine curiosity. Oh, you’re a landscape architect? Commercial or residential? Oh, you’re a physician? What’s your specialty? My sister is in medical school and is loving her E.R. rotation. You’re a personal trainer? Who are your typical clients? How did you get into that field? Are you, like, super athletic? Oh, you stay at home with your kids? You know what? I’m kind of jealous. Let’s talk some more about our children and our choices and what your favorite part of the day is.

I see the question as a way to connect with people. Whatever we “do,” we do for 80% of our waking hours, and I’m truly interested in that which fills most of your days. If what you “do” is not representative of who you are or think you are or would like to be, I’m also interested that. Let’s talk about it. What are your avocations and the books you read and your dreams? Maybe I need to be more imaginative about how to get to that deeper level, but asking, “What do you do?” seems a direct and logical place to begin. I promise I will maintain a journalist’s objectivity and will not rush to judgment without asking a foll0w-up or two.

On the other hand, for most of my life, if you had invited me to your cocktail party and asked me “What do you do?” I likely would have (a) hightailed it to the bar; (b) started to cry; (c) left; or (d) all of the above, in that order.  Today, I’d take a hard-won delight in telling you that: I’m a lawyer and married and a mother (and I admit that at a cocktail party I’d probably answer in that order). And I’m a writer (or, used to be. Or, am still? Depends on the day). I might even get around to telling you that I’m a daughter and friend and niece (and oenophile and yogi and pop culture junkie).  Though my answer to your question may be cocktail-party minimalist, it is — however surface-skimming — true and clear, and this is a relief.  There’s more to me, to be sure (much more than you probably want to know) but having fought to the surface, I’m just happy to rest there for awhile.

Still, I’m surprisingly intrigued — to the extent I’ve spent the past few days actively thinking about it — by the “What don’t you do?” question because I find it more difficult to answer. Not because I’m particularly self-confident, but, rather, as a (hopefully reforming?) perfectionist, it’s disturbingly easy for me to turn this question around into “What should you be doing that you don’t do?”, and, thus, an opportunity for even more self-improvement. (Because if you don’t do something, that’s a character flaw that must be corrected, right?) For example, here is what immediately sprang to mind: I don’t lift weights; I don’t volunteer enough; I don’t thank people or actively connect with them as much as I’d like on the phone or email; I don’t think before I speak sometimes; etc; etc. The “enoughs” and the “as I’d likes” and the “sometimes” slip in much too quickly. It is difficult to own up to not doing something without trying to right it.

So I’ll try again: As an inherent part of my personality — attaching no judgments or negative connotations or resolutions to change — what are things I just don’t do, period?

I don’t:

  • Go to the movies
  • Deal with the car (oil changes, car wash)
  • Open my mail until there is a significantly unavoidable pile on the hall table
  • Put the toilet paper on the roll
  • Count calories
  • Throw out the plastic tab on the milk or orange juice cartons after I open a new one
  • Assemble things
  • Close the cabinet doors or dresser drawers
  • Take constructive criticism very well
  • Make photo albums or baby books
  • Confront people
  • Eat chicken in restaurants, or pork, duck, or game anywhere
  • Buy my child toys (not out of principle; I just don’t have time/think to do it)
  • Drink hard alcohol
  • Do crafts

I actually don’t care about “righting” any of these things, to the extent they are things to be righted (e.g., closing the dresser drawers or opening my mail). As it turns out, this admission is liberating. For a time, my mother read a lot of self-help books. I remember one was called something like, I’m OK, You’re OK. What do you do? What don’t you do? I’m OK, you’re OK.


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  1. First, thanks for your lovely, lovely comment; I have no idea what your name is, or how to write back, so I am here.

    But second, I was thinking about your post. In France, “What Do You Do” is a question you’re not supposed to ask — almost as though you are trying to place someone in terms of class (which Americans do without even knowing we do it, all the time.) So I get around this by saying, “you know, I’m not supposed to ask, but what do you do?” Because I can’t quite get around wanting to know.

  2. • I don’t talk on the phone.
    • I don’t say thank you enough either – I think it, a lot – but I’d have to pick up the phone to actually say it.

  3. HA! I dont ever open my mail either. What’s with that? I think it’s somehow of psychological etiology.

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