News & Politics  |  Opinion

Ask the Washingtonologist: Is It Ever OK to Ask “What Do You Do?”

Our local know-it-all solves your capital city conundrums

Illustration by Jenny Rosenberg.

Dear Washingtonologist:
Once and for all, what’s the best response to the DC social-gathering question “What do you do?” Let’s assume my job is something moderately interesting but I’m kind of turned off by that as an opening gambit, particularly when the event isn’t a work-related schmooze kind of thing.

—Annoyed in Alexandria


Dear Annoyed:

Once upon a time, the Washingtonologist used to get turned off by that question as well and would try to make an excuse—“Time to refill this drink!”—to exit the ensuing conversation as quickly as possible. Nowadays, of course, your columnist relishes any opportunity to answer, truthfully: “I ponder crucial questions about how to comport oneself in this, the greatest city in the world.”

But over the years, we’ve also come to the conclusion that even people who don’t perform this essential civic function should avoid rolling their eyes when queried about their profession. Years ago, journalist Sasha Issenberg wrote a convincing defense of the question. In a city to which newcomers often migrate in order to take a specific job (rather coming for the summer weather or affordable real estate), Issenberg argued that inquiring what someone did for a living was tantamount to asking how they got here—the kind of question that can steer a conversation into your biography, your hopes, and all kinds of other non-superficial things. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Of course, the Washingtonologist—who got here because he was born here, thank you very much—has spent enough time working the cocktail circuit to know that not everyone who asks this question is so nobly motivated. Maybe they’re living up to the overblown local stereotype and actively judging whether you’re worth a five-minute happy-hour chat. More likely, they’re just awkward and not sure what to say. Never mind: Your goal at this point should be less about shaming your interlocutor than having a nice conversation for your own reasons. And the secret to that, in our humble opinion, is the word “and.”

“I work at the EPA, and it’s been completely insane lately.”

“I teach fourth grade and am praying that I don’t have to teach by Zoom this fall.”

You get the idea—the interesting conversation lands on the part after the conjunction. And if the person who posed the question merely takes in the professional info and doesn’t engage—well, make an excuse about having to refill your drink.

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This article appears in the October 2021 issue of Washingtonian.