General Question

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

How do I answer the question, “What do you do for living”?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (31285points) June 27th, 2010

I’m disabled. I have a mental illness severe enough that I qualify for Social Security Disability Income. For non-Americans or others who don’t know, it’s the system we have here in the US to help people who can’t work due to a handicap.

However, I used to work before I got sick. I have been a teacher and a salesman in big business in the US and internationally, and most recently, I was a book editor. I still do that last one on the rare occasion that someone sends me a manuscript to review and I feel that I’m in the right frame of mind to handle the responsibility.

I lived overseas many years and got used to the idea of not asking questions about personal matters when meeting for the first, second, or even third times. Americans don’t do that. We often ask personal questions the first time we meet, even if we never expect to see that person again. So, I’m often asked what I do for a living.

I invariably tell people that I’m a book editor, which is in many ways both true and false. Yes, I have a small web site, but the last time I was paid to edit anything was more than a year ago. It also sounds interesting and generates lots more questions.

My handicap is not visible from the outside, and mental illness is still misunderstood by most people I meet. I don’t readily share that I have bipolar disorder among other things. I don’t wish to lie to people, but I don’t want to give up something that I consider to be an intimate detail to random people I meet at parties.

Am I lying? Should I start blurting out my psychological diagnoses to all and sundry who ask? Should I just continue on with the way I’m answering?

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38 Answers

CaptainHarley's avatar

If the symptoms of your illness don’t cause disruption to the lives of others I see absolutely NO reason for them to know about it.

chyna's avatar

At this time, I’m on disability. If they ask what your disability is, I would respond with “I don’t wish to discuss that now.” This is only if you are wanting to be totally honest with the person. If you don’t, you can always say you are between jobs.

Cruiser's avatar

I would just tell that after a wonderful career doing many interesting jobs I am now retired and leave it at that.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I am permanently disabled as well, also with an invisible handicap, chronic pain.
I typically use an answer like @Cruiser gave.

JLeslie's avatar

You don’t owe anyone an explanation, especially someone you just met. I have had people who are not from America say how odd and intrusive they think it is that Americans ask what they consider to be very personal question within 5 minutes of meeting someone.

You can say, “I am not working now, but previously I worked in international sales, and for a while I taught (whatever you taught).” Hopefully, they will focus on what you did previously and not on the fact that you are not working now. If you immediately follow the sentence with asking them what they do, you can turn the conversation towards their career.

By the way Americans are not trying to be intrusive, they are trying to make conversation. It is typically thought that asking someone about themselves, and allowing them to talk about themselves is polite, showing interest in the other person rather than monopolozong the conversation.

talljasperman's avatar

I just stay away from people and sleep until I have to go out… but their is always some jerk telling me to get a job…or what is my job… ect.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I refuse to allow others to control my behavior without my permission. I go where I want to go. I say what I want to say. And I have very little tolerance for idiots. I have one leg shorter than the other with about 3 lbs of metal holding it together. I also have incurable cancer and diabetes from exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange while I was in Vietnam for two years. I suppose all of that makes me disabled, but that’s no one’s business but mine.

How do you see yourself in your mind? THAT is what you are, not “retired” or “former” or whatEVER!

Brian1946's avatar

How about telling them that you’re a semi-retired book editor?

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

For anyone who may be wondering, yes, I realize that I left out the very little word “a” in my opening question.

BoBo1946's avatar

think you have some great answers already! @Cruiser got it right. Would never give it one thought.

Take care my friend @hawaii_jake !

PandoraBoxx's avatar

I would just say “I’m semi-retired. For __ years, I worked as a book editor and taught.” Let them wonder if your parents left you a packet of money, you won the lottery, or robbed a bank. If anyone inquires about your source of funds, it’s well in your place to point out that’s a rather rude question, and not answer it.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

Kudos and lurve to @Cruiser. I would hope that people will be polite enough not to pry further to make you uncomfortable. As for myself, I tell it like it is, nothing to guard.

I once went on a date with a man who felt it necessary to tell me right off the bat he was in the midst of a divorce, had a bi polar wife who was harassing him, he was on depression meds, filing for a bankruptcy and had been a homeless teen. Wow. When he was done he asked me if I still wanted to have lunch with him. I have since wondered from that instance if this is what most people go through and it makes me kind of sad. People deserve to hold some of their cards close until a bond or trust is created before being turned inside out and scrutinized by near strangers.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I don’t think it’s lying to say you are a book editor. Honestly, I would probably just tell people that I was retired and leave it at that.

wundayatta's avatar

What do you think will happen if you don’t answer the question? Or, why do you answer the question at all?

Jewel's avatar

And @Cruiser aces it yet again! Perfect response.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@wundayatta If I don’t answer the question, there may be dead silence. God forbid that.

I suppose I answer the question, because in American society, it’s expected. To leave it unanswered would draw suspicion. I feel like I’m supposed to give some kind of response.

kenmc's avatar

I’m a bumperbuffer.

chyna's avatar

@hawaii_jake I’m the same way. If someone asks me a question, no matter how personal, I answer them because I’m supposed to.

Ron_C's avatar

Most unemployed professionals don the title of Cosultant. I think telling people that you’re an editor is close enough, especially for first meetings.

GingerMinx's avatar

When asked what I do for a living I generally say breath.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@GingerMinx Yes, breathing is something I, too, do for a living. I love that answer.

@Everybody Thank you. You’ve given me much to think about.

@Cruiser Very well put, indeed.

lillycoyote's avatar

You’re under no obligation to disclose anything about your personal life, particularly not details regarding your medical condition, your mental health status or the fact that your on disability. Finding ways to blow people off, politely, when they ask about things that are none of there business is not really lying, exactly. You can tell them that you are between jobs, that you used to work as a book editor but are retired or semi-retired, that you have taken time off of your career to pursue other interests, and if they persist just deflect. Or you can mess with nosy people’s heads, which can be fun sometimes. Then you can really lie. Tell them you were disabled in a freak threshing machine accident at a you-pick-em strawberry farm and that you really don’t like to talk about it if they don’t mind, or that you haven’t quite been the same since that rather rough winter at a science station in Antarctica and that despite the rumors of cannibalism nothing of the sort happened. Or, well, have fun, use your imagination. There is a point where friendly conversation crosses the line into intrusiveness and nosiness, then I have no sympathy for people

Andreas's avatar

@hawaii_jake I, too, am on a disability pension in Australia for depression. My answer to this question is to say I’m on a disability pension for depression. And, yes, conversations do stop pretty quickly at that answer. The reason I answer this way is to educate people with what a depressed person “looks” like. So much of our modern society is into appearances, the wrapper, if you will, rather than the contents, the person, that I want them to realise depression can affect anyone, and there is no rhyme nor reason to it.

Another point raised is “feelings”. This subject is hardly ever even considered, and yet, is very much part of ALL our internal makeups, whether depressed or not. Modern society is so sickening with only seeing the wrapper and not the contents. Sayings like, “That doesn’t sound/look right” really peeve me. I wish people would stop and think and stop being so mindless.

MissA's avatar

“I’m still thinking about what I want to be when I grow up.”

Coloma's avatar

Yes, you owe no explanations and I would just say I was retired…or..semi-reitired. You can share past work themes if you so desire.

I was in a posistion to take about a 5 year sabbatical and just do my thing….when people asked what I did I said I was on sabbatical from LIFE! lolol

In western cultures enjoying your ‘being’ is considered in huge violation of the insane work ethic most adhere to.

Screw ‘em….and remember…we are human BEINGS, not human DOINGS!

MissA's avatar

@Coloma Are you sure that’s not “Doinks”? <>

Coloma's avatar


I must be too tired to get your joke…? Is it a joke? lol

What do you mean ‘doinks’? :-/

MissA's avatar

@Coloma I must be “tireder” than you! I was trying to be funny. You know the ‘doink’ thing from Law & Order? Guess you had to be there. ‘Night.

Coloma's avatar


Aaaah…got’cha! haha

Yeah..I’m flatlining right about now too! lol

Pandora's avatar

Tell them you are retired and suffer from an aliment that doesn’t allow you to work and really rather not talk about because its really personal. They will guess a million things but never be sure of anything.

reverie's avatar

I absolutely respect your decision to not disclose information about your mental health, and I don’t even think you should consider what you are doing “lying”, because that makes it sound like you are doing something wrong. Sometimes people ask these questions without thinking how personal the answer may potentially be.

Having said that, I think if more people said “actually, I am not working because I have a mental health problem”, instead of avoiding the topic altogether, it might open up some constructive discussion on the topic, and the common misunderstandings that you refer to may, in time, reduce somewhat. In general, when huge numbers of people avoid talking about mental health (for whatever reason), I think it has the unfortunate effect of contributing to the stigma that exists around it, and it inadvertently supports the idea that it should be something incredibly private or isolating, that perhaps people should feel embarrassed or ashamed of.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the stigmatisation of mental health problems on people who choose not to talk about their personal experiences and diagnoses. Whilst I totally respect that as an individual, the misunderstanding of society isn’t your problem or your fault at all, I think if you can get past feeling uncomfortable talking about it, it could actually be a really great thing to talk openly about.

Of course, some people’s responses may be less than helpful, but if you can feel confident and allow that to be their issue and not yours, just by having an honest, frank and matter-of-fact discussion with one or two people, that opens their eyes about mental health, well… I think that’s really worth it.

GingerMinx's avatar

@hawaii_jake , It can totally throw people if you say it with a smile and then ask them what they do. They don’t know if you are joking or serious. It also lets them know in a subtle way that it is none of their business.

trailsillustrated's avatar

you say ‘where do you think you are, hollywood?’

partyparty's avatar

Just answer people in the way you feel most comfortable. If it makes you feel good to tell an out and out lie then do it!
If people are rude enough to ask you personal questions when you don’t known them, then they deserve to be told a little white lie!!
I am in the UK and if anyone asked me personal questions on first meeting them then I would think them extremely rude.
BTW Just because you have a mental illness doesn’t mean you have to disclose it. You are as you are through circumstances you cannot control.
Would you feel it necessary to tell a stranger you had pins in your legs, had had bypass surgery or a kidney removed? It isn’t necessary to tell them you have a mental illness. :-)

Buttonstc's avatar

Since you do understand the cultural differences between Europe and America in this regard, you’re ahead of the game in a sense.

And as previously pointed out, Americans aren’t doing this to be purposely nosy. They just have a different point of view on things.

In our current society, it is such a common fallacy to define people by what they do rather than who they are.

What you say in response to “social lubricant” questions like this would depend upon your goal. If you don’t mind dealing with the awkwardness following conversation stopping answer, then go for it. Either come out with the unvarnished truth or outright refuse to answer the question. You don’t “owe” anyone anything.

But if you’d be more comfortable with speaking about your editing or teaching work, then focus on that.

And, even tho your editing gigs are rather sparse right now, you never know when a brief conversation may lead to a possible editing job.

How you answer is totally up to you. It depends upon what you wish to accomplish in any given situation. Or you may not feel like accomplishing much at all and just go with the flow and make polite conversation and focus more on them and what they do.

In any case, you are not obligated to disclose anything about yourself that you don’t choose to no matter who is doing the asking. It’s all up to you and whatever you feel comfortable doing.

Spider's avatar

I agree with most of the sentiments posted (no need to disclose what you don’t want to, etc.). What I would probably try to do is answer in the spirit of the question. Chances are, someone is either simply making small talk or looking for a connection, so answer with something you want to talk about, or how you spend your time. Although I personally avoid asking the question because I don’t like being nosey, a friend of mine is a teacher and she struggles with people not understanding how she survives the summer. (!) Anyway, she tries to ask, “what are you passionate about”, so maybe if you answer as if the question was phrased that way, it would be easier. For example, I think I’ve actually said something like, “well, my work isn’t that interesting, but it allows me to focus on the things I enjoy like…”

One thing’s for sure is that people like talking about themselves in general, so if you don’t feel like putting much effort into something you think isn’t meaningful, steering it toward the other person usually puts you in the clear. “Tell me about your… whatever”

chyna's avatar

Just to clarify, I’m not on disability, I was answering as if I were asked the question.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I’m unsure if you would want to do this, but I use my permanent disability as a sort of psychological test for others. If they seem uncomfortable when they learn I am disabled, then chances are I don’t want to know them.

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