Social Question

JLeslie's avatar

Do you think it is rude to ask someone what they do for a living?

Asked by JLeslie (47253 points ) November 7th, 2012

That it puts them on the spot?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

34 Answers

Bellatrix's avatar

If it’s one of the first things you ask someone you just met I think some people can find it off-putting. It can give the impression you judge others based on what they do, rather than who they are. As long as it’s asked in a general way I don’t think it’s offensive.

Sunny2's avatar

I don’t think it’s rude. If they hem and haw or look anxious, it may be they’d rather not say, In which case, change the subject.
It’s probably easier if you first explain what you do. Then you can ask, “And how about you?”

augustlan's avatar

I don’t, but wouldn’t ask it right off the bat. To me, it’s just a small talk way of getting to know someone. Then again, I don’t think lots of things are rude that other people think are, so maybe take that with a grain of salt.

zenvelo's avatar

It’s not rude if it comes up in conversation, like someone complaining about getting up early, or working conditions or business travel. But it’s a bit forward/tending to rude if you ask for no reason except to be nosy, especially if you have no idea what they do.

Symbeline's avatar

Nah. I don’t see the problem at all. I mean, as already mentioned, if I was standing at the bus stop for seven hours with someone and we exchanged absolutely no words for that whole time, I wouldn’t just all of a sudden go; so dude, da fuck you do for a livin bro? But casual conversations and stuff, it means you’re interested in the person, or, if you just want to get general conversation going a little deeper, it’s more than acceptable. I can’t even think of any way this would be rude. Maybe odd at certain specific times, but rude? It would only be rude if it you sarcastically asked that to a blood soaked Viking, and then started laughing at him before he could even answer anything.

jrpowell's avatar

So I went to Europe in 1999 for a month. The difference between the United States and the countries I visited (11) was stark. At the time I was going to a lot of house parties around the UofO and met hundreds of random people a month. It was safe to say that when I met a new person it only took a few minutes to talk about how we got money and how much we had.

In Europe I would be asked about my family first. The money talk usually came after I had to declare my preference for tea or coffee. It was refreshing and one of the things I miss the most about Europe.

Jeruba's avatar

Not at all in a social setting. I think it’s rude to persist in any sort of questioning that a person appears reluctant to answer, but the initial question is generally considered innocuous enough and is a very standard conversational overture.

Anyone who has an occupation they’d rather not discuss has undoubtedly faced the question before and most likely has a smoothly evasive answer ready.

However, I think different rules apply in a casual or completely random encounter, where no common social ground is assumed. I might discuss my occupation with a stranger I meet at a party at a friend’s house, but if someone in a doctor’s waiting room or a grocery checkout line started asking me the same personal questions, I’d say it’s none of their business.

@Bellatrix, I don’t understand this: “It can give the impression you judge others based on what they do, rather than who they are.” What do you know about who they are if you just met? Asking what they do—presumably a livelihood they chose, and a reflection of their interests and education and personal abilities—is the beginning of finding out.

ucme's avatar

Only in the over sensitive, closed, paranoid & frankly scary world of the conceited & bewildered.

Bellatrix's avatar

I have had people (usually men) say they find it off-putting when people, particularly women, want to know straight up how they earn a living. Rather than spending some time finding out ‘who they are’ they want to know what their earning potential is. This would be especially disturbing if the woman then loses interest because they aren’t in a high earning job or alternatively if they become more interested once they discover the man has a high earning profession. Obviously, as with most of these types of questions, it depends on the setting. I have never personally found it offensive but I have had men suggest they do in certain circumstances.

Response moderated (Writing Standards)
Paradox25's avatar

Like others have said, I think the timing when asking such a question matters a bit. Personally I don’t mind people asking me this, and most others I’ve come across didn’t seem to mind being asked either what they do for a living.

bkcunningham's avatar

No, I don’t think it is rude to ask someone what kind of work they do. Living in a retirement area, I ask people where they are from and what kind of work they did. Notice the past tense. The kind of work you did; very often, reflects on your life, where you are from and says a great deal about you. Nine out of ten times, when getting to know someone, I’ll ask what their parents did for a living for the same reasons. It show who they were and where they are from. That is part of getting to know someone.

glacial's avatar

@Bellatrix If a man hears the question “What do you do?” on a first date, and assumes it is because she wants to know his earning potential… then I don’t think it is the woman who is being rude. As others have said above, this is one of the first questions one person can ask another to begin to know a little about them.

wonderingwhy's avatar

Nope, that’s fine, and usually an innocuous way to start the conversation with someone you don’t know. It’s certainly considered more acceptable than – so how ‘bout that [great/horrible/extreme adjective] gay marriage bill! – though I find that’s a lot more fun.

What bugs me is how so many people (in all spectra of relation) either ask “how’s work” (and expect a long winded answer) right off the bat or start talking about it themselves. In the latter, it would be fine if they were talking about how much they love doing whatever it is they’re doing but 9/10 it’s nothing but ranting. In the former, I just don’t understand that – it’s just work – in my circles it seems it’s just a chance for people to brag – very, very few seem to suggest they love what they do. When the mood strikes, I’ve actually taken to purposely creating awkward silences by saying I’m mostly retired – it’s amazing how many of those silences are followed with “I’m sorry” (for what I’ve no idea) or “so what job are you looking for now?” (nothing. why would I be?) or “hey, you should work for so-and-so” (why?!). Sigh. At least there’s always “Work’s fine. Did you read that article about legalizing pot yesterday?”

Oh, I should add, I’ve seen that question used to put people on the spot as the OP suggested, which in my book (and I imagine to most) is certainly rude.

bookish1's avatar

I think it can be a little off-putting if it’s one of the very first questions you ask someone upon meeting them. Especially because you never know who’s been unemployed for months or who is working 3 shit jobs to make ends meet. I don’t want people to feel like I’m sizing them up or judging them. Around here, it’s a mix of service jobs, blue collar, and academic jobs. I tend to ask people “So what do you do around here?” which gives them the option of telling me about their hobbies or artistic interests if they would rather not talk about their job. And I appreciate the same from others, as “I am a history student” can be quite the conversation killer unless my interlocutor is actually interested in history.

cookieman's avatar

Not particularly, but I dislike how what we do for a living is often taken as shorthand for our overall value as a human.

In other words, ask about other things before you get to that…
• How about this weather?
• Do you like the Autumn?
• Where did you grow up?
• Do you enjoy sports?
• Have you gone away recently?
• Do you enjoy your job?
• What do you do for work?
• Will you sleep with me?

Leanne1986's avatar

I don’t think it is rude at all although it wouldn’t be the first thing I would ask. It never occured to me that others may fnd it rude or off putting.

bkcunningham's avatar

@JLeslie, I’m wondering it this is just a random question that you thought up or if it was sparked by some event in your life?

JLeslie's avatar

Not just a random question.

Over ten years ago my SIL once said something along the lines of how she found it off putting that Americans always ask where someone is from, their national background, what line of work they are in, and the most extreme where they went to school. She found it to be nosey, as someone said above, and assumed people are making judgments based on the answers. She is Mexican to give you a full picture of where this is coming from. Her brother, who also lives in America, dislikes revealing he is Mexican and thinks Americans can be quite intrusive. I had sort of dismissed it as their own insecurities. Mexicans are spoken about negatively by a lot of loud mouthed people in the US, and neither of them have college degrees, although my SIL did go to finishing school in Switzerland. Back then both of them did not really have careers, but now they do. Thing is, where I grew up the majority of people were immigrants, or children of, or grandchildren of, immigrants. It was very normal to know what ethnicity or nationality people were, it was a question of interest, not of judgment. We would both share where our families are from, and talk about cultural difference, what it is like in the other country, etc.

A few times I have asked Europeans how they think about being asked where they are from, and some of them also found it a little annoying or odd that so many Americans would just boldly ask, “where are you from,” when they heard an accent. However, I must say when I am abroad I am often asked where I am from, or where in the states I am from, since they key into the accent rather readily usually. I was just on an Alsakan cruise and we all shared where we were from during an initial conversation. I didn’t really keep track of who was asking whom first though.

Not to mention so many women I have interacted with, even here on fluther, feel judged if they don’t work outside of the home. I would guess maybe they don’t want to be asked what they do. I can’t speak for others of course. I haven’t worked in over 3 years and I don’t care, I feel so lucky I don’t have to work, but I also had a career previously that I can talk about.

Fast forward to last week I watched the movie Eat Pray Love for the first time. There was a line in the movie, I wish I had the quote, where the main character is in Italy and an Italian man says something along the lines of Americans having their identity swallowed up by the work they do for a living and that Americans work all day and then go home and are happy to put on pajamas and lay around the house. He said something like your job is what you do, not who you are.

So, it has been a slow process for me, slow because I never have any mal intent when I ask someone their line of work, or where their family is from, or where their accent is from, I am so interested in different cultures, countries, professions, but that it is not always received very well. I think these things are often asked within the initial getting to know you stages, part of small talk, especially in America.

I think I will try asking what people’s interests are rather than what they do for a living. Not sure, I need to try some different things out I guess. Their interests might be wrapped in their work, but might not. They might work a factory job, but their true burning interest is strides being made in alternative energy. You just never know.

This morning I sent this Q to some jellies who are not American to hopefully get some answers from around the world, but I was also very interested in what Americans thought also.

newtscamander's avatar

No, I don’t think that that’s rude. It’s part of getting to know someone, many people define themselves by their jobs, it’s an important part of their lives, so it’s information needed to get to know one another. Nobody should feel threatened by such an enquiry….but if their job is a sore spot to them, I can see why they wouldn’t want to answer and might feel personally affronted.

harple's avatar

I lead a lot of workshops that have a mix of ages and genders on. As part of introducing ourselves and letting people realise that they are all in the same boat, I ask them to say their name and what they do to pass the time of day. It allows them to talk about work if they want, but places no specific value on work as an answer. Interestingly, once one or two have answered with their work rather than anything else, the retired or stay-at-home participants do seem less comfortable with their own answers. As adults we are very conscious of being judged I think.

Personally, I think a question about work isn’t particularly intrusive, but it would be shocking to me if someone wanted to ask how much I earn. People are inherently fascinated with money though, and I’m quite happy telling people how much my big harp cost if they ask (though I usually string it out, no pun intended). It depends where I am though. If I’m playing at a function then saying how much it cost is no bother to me. If I’m in a setting where I am trying to encourage people to take up the instrument, I focus on how affordable they can be and what great options there are out there to hire!

zensky's avatar

Nope.

LuckyGuy's avatar

In Japan one of the first things people ask is your age. It helps Japanese speakers decide what “Te form” (respect) form to use when not in a work setting.
They know that question is supposedly rude for Americans so they avoid it.

I don’t mind if anyone asks what I do. I will tell you whatever I feel comfortable saying.

If you’ve ever been to china you know how quickly some nice stranger will come up to you and ask all kinds of personal questions – presumably to practice English. I say I work for Goldman Sachs or whatever I feel like at the time. I’ll bet the bogus info I let leak out was responsible for many hours of investigation. My coworkers do the same.

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Coloma's avatar

Not an issue for me, but I am more interested in WHO a person is rather than what they do.

Bellatrix's avatar

@glacial what I said was if this was one of the ‘first’ things they are asked and especially if the answer to the question then changes the questioner’s reactions. Furthermore, my response to this question was that I personally do not find it rude. However, I have had feedback from other people that suggests in some cases it can be construed as, and may indeed be, rude if the question is directed in order to gauge a person’s earning potential. It’s a pity the post after mine was modded because it was from someone who has held a professional position and has experience exactly this situation. Consequently, based on the feedback I have received, I would not make the first question I asked someone ‘what do you do for a living’.

KNOWITALL's avatar

No, I like to talk about my work and most people I know do as well. It can tell you a lot about the person as well I’ve found.

Jeruba's avatar

I wonder if a lot of people who “feel judged” aren’t actually judging themselves and then projecting that judgment onto others. Blaming others for your own insecurities is common but nonsensical.

I can think of times when I’ve found out that someone thought I was judging them for some imagined inadequacy, when no such thought was anywhere in my mind. They were the ones who were self-conscious about something and went around feeling defensive, thinking that other people cared as much about it as they did. In at least one case I didn’t even know the thing they thought I was judging them for, much less give a damn.

JLeslie's avatar

@Jeruba I think that is often the case. It is either projecting their own self judgment and insecurities, or maybe they had a bad experience with people blantantly judging them. I think possibly it can be a simple cultural difference, like not talking poliyics or religion, but probably that is the case less often. My BIL worried about being judged about his nationality enough that he changed his first name so it sounded less Mexican and he often quickly changes the subject if someone asks where he is from.

Bellatrix's avatar

Of course the perception of judgement may not be accurate but that doesn’t stop some people feeling that way. So, going back to the question, yes some people do feel it is rude.

Also, I remember dating a lawyer and while he was a nice man, he wasn’t right for me. It just wasn’t working. When I broke it off I had a number of women say ‘but he is a lawyer Cha Ching!’ I was horrified that people felt I should date this man purely because of his earning potential. I should say they were not close friends. So unfortunately, it does happen and consequently I would not dismiss the feelings of those who suggest this possibility as them being paranoid or insecure.

I also asked my daughter if she knew people who judged potential boyfriend’s suitability in this way. She doesn’t (thankfully) but she said certainly she knew women who had a shopping list in terms of a prospective boyfriend’s financial success and they wouldn’t date people who didn’t fit into the right category.

I would expect that ‘what do you do for a living’ is a fairly early question for those who behave this way. I would like to believe they are a minority. Perhaps the number of people who say ‘no it isn’t rude’ on this thread is indicative of the likelihood that it isn’t a common behaviour.

JLeslie's avatar

Interesting that some people thought of it in terms of someone to possibly date or marry. That was not in my mind at all when I asked the original question. It is a valid point to raise though.

Shippy's avatar

There were too many responses, to read all, so hope I am not repeating But I always do. I do feel a persons occupation says a lot about them. I then ask if they enjoy it? So then, I can further certain how much of that role they play is actually them.

partyrock's avatar

In a way, Yes I do think it is rude. If you are just getting to know the person, I feel the question is too prying…. Why would I tell a complete stranger where I work or what company I work for? Doesn’t it seem odd to anyone else? Maybe it is just me, but anyone who asks me that right away makes me feel they are too nosy.

And asking what I do isn’t good judgement in getting to know a stranger.

I would much rather be asked my hobbies, where I was born, my nationality, if I drink, my astrology sign, if I speak other languages, If I come here often, etc…..

But that is just me. Everyone seemed to be fine with it.

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