Why It's Inappropriate to Ask People What They Do for Work

September 9, 2021 Mahevash Shaikh

Picture this: you are at a social event and having a reasonably good time. Then, someone you don't know walks up to you, and after some small talk, asks you, "So what do you do for a living?" If you like your job or don't care much about it, this question can be mildly irritating. But since you are used to it, you answer and move on to another topic. However, no matter how common this question is, nothing changes the fact that it is inappropriate to ask people what they do. Let's see why.

Why Asking People What They Do Is Rude

Work Influences Identity -- Even When You Are Out of It

As many of us spend most of our lives at work, we develop a work identity. From observation, I have noticed that work has such a massive influence on identity that we associate it with our self-worth. I guess this is why we become more impressed by job titles and big-name companies than the actual work involved. 

Work has a significant impact on how we see ourselves. Now imagine how someone unemployed feels when a stranger asks what they do for a living. As someone who has experienced unemployment, I know how awkward and upsetting it is to answer this question. Worse, the person asking it typically becomes judgmental and offers unsolicited advice. All of this is enough to ruin the entire event for the out-of-work individual. And it's only a matter of time before they will face this question again. 

Not Everyone Can Work

It is ableist to assume that everyone is fit to work. For example, disabilities like low-functioning depression prevent the most intelligent and hardworking person from holding down a job. As someone who has recently been through low-functioning depression, I cannot tell you how disturbing it is to deal with this intrusive question. Since telling the truth invites disapproval, I reply that I am a freelance writer. But as I haven't written for a few days, I feel like an imposter. And until I can write again, I continue to feel like a fraud. Worse, the person who asked this question never knows of my mental agony. 

The Question Is Rude and Lazy 

There are so many things you can ask a perfect stranger. Why would you ask them what they do for a living? Just because it's a common icebreaker doesn't mean it's alright. Please get creative and ask something interesting instead. It will make you memorable and ensure that no one gets hurt.

What is your take on this issue? Do you think it is rude to ask what someone does for work? Please let me know in the comments section below. 

APA Reference
Shaikh, M. (2021, September 9). Why It's Inappropriate to Ask People What They Do for Work, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 21 from

Author: Mahevash Shaikh

Mahevash Shaikh is a millennial blogger, author, and poet who writes about mental health, culture, and society. She lives to question convention and redefine normal. You can find her at her blog and on Instagram and Facebook.

September, 10 2021 at 4:13 am

Yes exactly. It's an instant turn off for me. Just as bad as asking someone how much money they make.

September, 13 2021 at 8:19 pm

As someone who is on disability due to mental illness I agree it is very irritating and I just say I am retired. Then the must be nice you are so young comments come along. Grrrrr.

Lizanne Corbit
September, 14 2021 at 3:11 pm

Fabulous read. This is something that has become so common most people don't even think about all the things that could go into responding to this. It's used as a classic small talk starter or filler. What does that say about our society though? Instead, why can't we make the norm be to connect with people on a real level, instead of one of "what they do".

September, 16 2021 at 2:47 am

Couldn't agree more. It seems as if we are governed by capitalism. That's why this question pops up inevitably in even the coolest circles (that I know of, anyway). As you said, it's used as a classic small talk starter. Little thought is put in either asking or answering it.

Leave a reply