Five strategies to avoid being labeled by what do you for a living

Last night I spent a few hours sanding drywall, washing walls and taping off baseboards and shelves so I could paint my storage closet. In order to do this effectively, everything had to come out and all the categorization began … keep, give away, garbage, goes somewhere else ….

Unfortunately our categorizations go past our storage closets and into our relationships. We like to know where to find people, what people do and how to ‘effectively use them’ in the future.

This is why I dislike networking events.

After the person in front of me gets past my name and I explain the origin, repeat the pronunciation about 3 times and refuse to let them call me something else, we get to the ‘So, what do you do?’ question.

Ahh, the question the helps them know what box to put me in. The question that helps them assign a level of value to me and what I am doing with my life.

If you are like me, when this question comes I freeze up for a split second. It isn’t because I don’t know what the answer it; I simply don’t want to be put in the box.

Value me?

Instead of feeling empowered and proud, I feels like I’m up on the auction block and being assessed for sale and the only information they have are two labels – name and title.

And if you have a weird name like I do, the name puts you at a deficit. The pressure to have a fabulous, culturally acceptable job title is paramount in these situations. Why? I am not completely sure; it just is.

Self doubt crowds in and questions like, “Am I good enough?” run through your brain.



I try not to ask this question of people, rather I try to let it come out in conversation or come up when it makes sense in a conversation. Unfortunately we are trained to ask people what they do for a living and then there is an assigned value for job titles. Why in our culture is being the VP of Finance more interesting than a stay at home dad? Or Creative Director better than Receptionist?

Over the years I have come up with some coping strategies for the label obsessed culture that we live in.

Five strategies to avoid being labeled by your job title.

1.  Respond with a clarifying question.

“For fun? When I am most fulfilled? To put food on the table?”

This lets them redefine their question and opens the conversation back up.

2.  Tell them the result, not the title.

“Oh loads of things, probably just like you. My favourite part of my work is <insert what I love best at the moment>” (e.g. Getting messy with people in their business and watching great changes happen.”)

Just tell them what you love about the work you do and then ask them what their favorite thing about the work they get to do is. It adds humanity and passion to the label that is eventually going to get put on you.

3.  Admit you hate the question and that it is a horrible question.

“I hate that question, I am sure you do too! It just makes boxes that we have to live in. How about I tell you about what I am most passionate about?”

Yes, I have said this at a business networking event and it actually went over well. The death grip on my conversation partner’s wine glass lessened and we chatted for nearly 20 minutes.

4.  Tell them about all the boxes they can put you in.

“Too many things! Executive Coach, HR Director, Speaker, Author … and then there is the personal life stuff.”

Rolling your eyes about the amount of boxes you could be put in can be helpful at this point.

5.  Give them what the result of your work is.

“I help people figure out what they want and how to get it. Best way to put food on the table EVER.”

Feel free to elaborate about a client, project or something you’re in the midst of learning that you’re enjoying – let the happiness ooze out.

If the conversation doesn’t naturally progress from there, simply change the subject and ask them about something you are curious about. Do not ask them what they do for a living.

Some possible ‘next’ questions:

  • What projects are you enjoying most right now?
  • When you’re not putting food on the table and paying bills, what are you up to?
  • What are some goals or big things you’re working on this year?
  • What brought you here / how are you connected to this group?

The main thing to remember is to be fully ok with yourself that no matter what labels or weirdness people put on you when you answer – even if you just give them your title. Your confidence tells them a whole lot more than your words.



No matter what, you are going to get categorized and put into a box, just do your best to make sure it is a fabulous one. Getting put in a box means people know where to find you, which isn’t all that bad. Yes, there is a whole lot more than the initial box you get put in, but it will be discovered over time if they know where to find you.

In my keep pile from the storage closet are my squash racquet and squash shoes. If I didn’t dig through the closet and put it in the ‘keep’ pile, I wouldn’t have it on my list to rediscover my love of hitting a small black ball in a closed off court while gasping for air.

Sometimes being put in a pile or box isn’t so bad, sometimes it helps connect you to your passions.

What strategies do you have for answering this question? What answers do you have?

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!


  1. Great, as always. I particularly agree with #1. Most recently though, I have taken to offering one of two answers when asked. The first, I teach proper exercise for a living That always opens the ears. The other, I do summer vacation a living. I find that using responses that engage my profession lead to good conversations and better understanding.

    Nice to see you back in the saddle of writing!!!

  2. aah, the dreaded questions #1, What does your name mean?, #2 Where are you from?, #2b No, where are your parents from?, #3 What do you do?
    Too many questions for this intensely private introvert. I don’t ask people what they do for a living because I don’t like when people ask me that question. Sometimes I just want to say, “I’m a hooker!” in the hopes that they’ll never ask anyone that question again.
    I simply tell people that I can’t talk about the work I do because of client confidentiality and that usually helps. If they continue asking I simply repeat to them that I’m not able to speak about my occupation because of FOIP.
    p.s. What have you been reading lately, you haven’t updated your readers about your 52 books in 52 weeks.

Speak Your Mind


Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.