Wednesday, 11 June 2014

On doing a job

A correspondent says he has been told that it is not correct to ask someone 'What's your job?' Rather, he should ask 'What do you do?' Is this so?

Usage has changed somewhat over the years. The OED has a nice example to show that there was once nothing wrong at all with the former question. Under sense 4b at job - defined as 'A paid position of regular employment, a post, a situation; an occupation, a profession' - we see from 1919 a quotation from the Times: ' ‘What is your job?’ You are a Judge—or a Painter—or a Solicitor—or a Doctor.'

But over the years, job has come to be used more in relation to subordinate roles - employees rather than employers - and especially to people in lower-paid work. It doesn't easily apply to people who don't get routinely paid, such as self-employed artists. I can readily answer the question 'What do you do?' But, as a freelance writer, I feel uncomfortable if someone asks me 'What's your job?' I've often heard people say, in response to this question, 'I don't have a job' or 'I don't have a job as such', or the like. And I've also encountered senior professionals who turn their noses up at the question, or who only use the word in a jocular way when referrring to themselves. I remember an occasion when a senior academic, who also happened to be a competent pianist, was playing a piece at a party. Someone asked him whether he was a professional pianist. No, he said, he worked at the university. 'That's my day job', he added, in a self-demeaning tone. Very British.

'What do you do?' is the safer option, therefore, because it covers all possibilities. But, as with all personal questions, it needs to be used sensitively, as some people could find it intrusive.

7 comments:

David Crosbie said...

It can also be more tactful not to refer to a job. The person you're asking may be a housewife — or indeed a house husband — a student, or someone who's disabled, unemployed, retired etc. He or she may be happy with that status, but there again they may not take kindly to a reminder that they don't have a job like 'normal people'.

Paul Wingrove said...

At a reception at a prestigious think tank in London a few years ago I was asked by one of the guests 'What is your function?' I replied 'do you mean what do I do?" 'Same thing' said the man.

John Cowan said...

I like to ask people "What do you pursue?"

In the 19C, job had the additional meaning of a position obtained by corrupt means. Gilbert and Sullivan fans will remember the Judge in Trial By Jury who sang that his "being made a nob / was managed by a job / and a good job too!" I also remember from some novel the line "You know there are no jobs in the civil service."

Alex Case said...

I always teach this to my students learning English, but they have rarely heard it before and misinterpret it as "What are you doing?" - so you can expect misunderstandings if you use it with even high level non-native speakers. Perhaps for that reason, some EFL language exams use the bizarre variation "Are you working or are you a student?"

Stephen said...

If the context permits, I'd ideally prefer 'Tell me about yourself' since it's open ended and doesn't sound as though I've made any assumptions. But if in a given context this sounds like the probings of a counsellor or psychotherapist, I'd always prefer 'What do you do?'

David Crosbie said...

In answer to Alex Case...

In my teaching career, I came round to the view that What do you do? was one of the very first thing to teach — to adults, that is.

I would teach this long before What are you doing?. This is how we used to start fifty years ago. OK it's very easy to teach, supported by suitable actions. But it's not nearly as socially useful.

It has been likened to an insurance policy. If you give up learning English when you've reached only What are you doing?, your study has a low surrender value. A course that equips you to identify yourself by name, nationality occupation etc even if you can say little else has a high surrender value.

Alexander Bochkov said...

On the other hand, Debrett's mentions that "‘Where are you from?’, which is standard in America, or ‘What do you do?’ were traditionally seen as too direct in Britain, so it is best to be more circumspect."