Why we need to stop asking “What do you do?”

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A while ago, while I was seeking input for a post on how we can all be more disability-inclusive, a colleague mentioned that we should drop the get-to-know-you question “What do you do?” because people with disabilities face significant employment discrimination, and this question is often a painful reminder of that. Another colleague of mine who is brilliant and talented and hilarious and wheelchair-enabled told me she spent seven years searching before someone hired her. I can imagine all the times during those seven years when people asked her “What do you do?” and how she must have felt. This has made me think of the “to-do” culture that we have and how it’s been affecting our work.

I learned a few years ago, through my participation in the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship, that the US has a default “To-Do” culture. The first thing we ask someone we meet is about what they do. Actions, in our culture, define us. For other cultures, though, are more of a “To-Be” culture, and you are defined less from what you do, and more from who you are:  Your relationships, your family history, your beliefs, your passions, your haircuts, etc.

In my Vietnamese culture, for example, the first question you ask someone you just met is usually not about their profession, but “que cua ban o dau?” which translates roughly into “Where’s your home village?” This then may lead to questions about the local food specialty of that village, whether you know-so-and-so from that village, and why you left the village, etc. I learned that in some parts of the world, the standard icebreaking question is “Which church bell did you hear growing up?” Even in certain parts of the US, “Which high school did you go to?” may be more prevalent as an opening question than “what do you do?”

So what does this have to do with our work? A lot, as it turns out. Considering the diversity of the people we work with in this sector, this balance between the To-Do culture and the To-Be culture is critical, as it affects every aspect of our work and how effective we can be. So much of the frustration we have—especially frustrations felt by marginalized communities—may be attributed to the fundamental lack of understanding of these two polarities, and to the dominance of the To-Do culture. “What do you do?” by itself is not the issue. But it is a manifestation of a more pervasive philosophy that defines and values people based on actions, often overlooking who they are and the strengths they bring.

Here are examples of how this ingrained philosophy affects elements of nonprofit work, and why we may need to shift the balance over to To-Be:

Hiring and Promotions: I got asked at an event recently why there are so few people of color in leadership. There are tons of systemic issues, including our inequitable hiring practices, implicit biases, thoughtlessly-done recruiting where people reach out to people they know and those tend to be similar in race, etc. But a huge reason may have to do with this dissonance about what is valued, especially in senior positions. We prioritize To-do, and not necessarily to-be, so we focus on people we think can “do” stuff, not those who “are” the right individuals to hire and to promote. This often works in the short run, hiring and promoting those with technical skills to do things. But in the long run, these individuals may not have the relationships, personal experience, language, deep cultural awareness, or other factors necessary to be effective at their job.

Board development: The same as with hiring staff, we default to the To-Do philosophy when recruiting board members. What can people do for us? We need a lawyer to do legal stuff. We need an accountant to do accounting stuff. Of secondary importance for many boards, for example, is prioritizing that someone “is” something critical to the mission, let’s say a board member who has personally experienced whatever societal challenge—homelessness, poverty, accessibility—the nonprofit is addressing. Meanwhile, our agendas are focused on action items that we must get through. Rarely is there time for “being,” where we can focus on relationships, where people can get to know one another. We shoe-horn that part into the first few minutes of a couple of meetings or a retreat, and then abandon it to focus on actions. And we wonder why our boards are not diverse. Maybe it’s because many people from diverse communities come from a To-Be culture, where relationships are the most important part, and actions do not happen until connections are strong. If we don’t understand this, we will likely continue struggling to get diverse candidates on our boards.

Client services: Even in our work with clients, we have been trained to prioritize actions. I remember calling up parents of kids in our after-school program. Many would go on and on for thirty minutes about everything: their kids, their homeland, their health problems. They asked me to talk about myself too. I remembered getting flustered and impatient on one such call, wondering how I’m ever going to get through the rest of the list. In this instance, getting the list done is the most important thing, as we are all trained. But why should it be? When I relaxed and started trying to see people as who they are, and not just a bunch of phone calls I needed to make, all sorts of great things happened. Sure, the calls took longer. But the parents came to the programs more. They responded faster. They asked more questions. They volunteered more. They complimented by hair. When we focus on being, and not just doing things, services often become better and it fosters a sense of community.

Strategic planning: Strategic planning is all about doing stuff. However; many strategic plans end up as door stops and the butt of hilarious nonprofit jokes. But maybe so many are useless because they are too focused on what we must do. We should take the opportunity to think about what we are and must be. Maybe more of us need to insert an element of “strategic being” into our strategic planning process, where we spend time reevaluating our role in the community and whether we are still adding value and how our presence is affecting other nonprofits and the people we serve. These questions may lead to wondering if we need to merge or even close. I would argue this is equally as important as answering what we’re going to continue to do for the next three years.

Community engagement: Community engagement is often done so poorly in our sector, and a huge reason may be because we prioritize this To-Do philosophy. Please fill out this survey. Attend this summit. Put these dots on the easel paper. These things, all focused on doing things, miss the entire point of community engagement, which is to build relationships. Our To-Do culture makes it seem like we’re doing community engagement well if we can check off a few items on our list. Effective community engagement, though, focuses on being. This takes time and it takes a lot more resources, as it must be ongoing and consistent, not the one-time summits and actions that we are used to.

Grantmaking: So much of grant funding is determined by what organizations do, represented by the budget, the program description, the logic model. On occasion, a small question is thrown in as an afterthought: Tell us why you are uniquely qualified to do this work, or how is your organization connected to the community you serve? Why aren’t those questions equally as important as the budget or project description? We need to rethink these questions, and our approaches to them, because the default to-do mentality has been putting marginalized-communities-led organizations at a disadvantage for funding. If we’re tackling disability rights, for example, shouldn’t we value an organization that is from and led by that community over one that simply has a better written application?

The To-Do philosophy has had an oversized influence on our sector and our overall culture. It can be argued that the overemphasis on actions and not relationships is one of biggest barriers to diversifying our teams, our boards, our donor base, our collaborations, our grantees. It may also be preventing us from solving many of society’s challenges. This is not to say that the To-Do culture is not important. But to be effective at our work, especially when our work involves so many diverse cultures, we have to understand the weaknesses of this philosophy and bring some balance.

In some ways, we have started doing some of this shifting towards a more To-Be philosophy; for example, through the emphasis on storytelling, adaptive leadership, qualitative data, etc. We all need to reexamine how this plays out not just with the above elements, but also communications, community outreach, donor cultivation, program evaluation, office culture, etc. We can no longer just focus on what we do, but who we are as professionals, and as a sector.

This will take some time to do. Or to be. But a simple thing we can be right away is more aware of how this plays out in our daily interactions. Next time you meet someone new, try to be conscious of your sudden and highly reinforced habit of asking them “What do you do?” It’s not that this question is bad and we should never ask it. But maybe try a different question. Like “Where do you call home?” or “What’s your favorite food?” or “What’s your story?” or “How do you spend your time?” You’ll probably at least get more interesting answers, and our world will be better for it.

AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM VU (IT’S IMPORTANT AND THAT’S WHY I’M USING ALL CAPS!):

Last week, while giving a keynote in San Diego, I was asked if I had a real job. (I thought, “Dad…is that you?”) I think sometimes people forget or don’t know that I am a full-time Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, (RVC), an awesome social justice nonprofit that develops leaders of color, strengthens organizations led by communities of color, and gets diverse communities to work together to fight injustice. I have the one twitching eye and the cash flow-induced nightmares to prove it.

Our flagship program recruits incredible emerging leaders of color, provides them with training and a living wage and benefits, and sends them each to work full-time for two years at organizations led by communities of color. Our fellows do amazing things, building organizational capacity, leading programs that serve thousands of people, organizing advocacy and civic engagement efforts. During these turbulent political times, they have been a beacon of light in our community. Here, for example, is our fellow Selena with her host organization Families of Color in the news about their work. And here’s a short video featuring our alum Saida, placed at East African Community Services

This week, March 12th, is my birthday, so I am asking for your help launching RVC’s monthly donations program. If you like NWB, join RVC as a monthly donor at any level. Go here and make a recurring donation. You can be a part of our fellows’ and organizations’ work fighting racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, and other forms of injustice. Your support will help build a just and equitable world.

Meanwhile, a special plea to foundations everywhere. I was asked last week if “being a famous nonprofit unicorn” has brought in a ton of funding to my organization. The answer, sadly, is no.

Even with my reach through this platform, we still face the same obstacles in fundraising as other grassroots orgs. Yes, having this blog does open doors for me to funders and donors that I might not have had a chance of meeting, but very little direct funding for my organization has actually resulted from it. Despite the positive feedback about NWB I receive, the answer I get regarding funding is often, “Vu, we love your blog and sometimes use it for trainings and orientations. But your organization is too local/too new/outside our geography/doesn’t align with our strategies, etc.” Like other nonprofits, mine must constantly fundraise, especially as we try to pay our fellows a decent wage above Seattle’s $15 minimum.

Since it is my birthday, I am asking foundations (and potential major donors) to pitch in through discretionary funds. A lot of the stuff I write about—the lessons learned, the feedback, the thoughts on equity and diversity, the hilarious nonprofit quotes—are drawn from my work through my organization. Supporting RVC allows me to continue learning and writing and distilling lessons out to the sector. If you like NWB, if you’ve ever used a blog post to guide a discussion with your team, if any of the stuff on here has made you think or laugh, help keep it going. Become an annual sponsor of NWB, with all funds supporting RVC. You/your foundation get these cool titles:

$10,000 Unicorn Level, aka “Pita Wedge for the Hummus of Justice”
$5,000 Phoenix Level, aka “Fleur-de-Sel on the Caramel of Equity.”
$2,500 Dragon Level, aka “Organic Fire-Roasted Salsa of Progress”
$1,000 Griffin Level, aka “Extra Guacamole of Diversity and Inclusion.”

(Note to self, stop naming things when hungry). Please email RVC’s Development and Communications Manager Jaleh at jaleh@rainiervalleycorps.org if you want to be a sponsor. 

Thanks everyone.

Love,

Vu

  • Kate Wareing

    Great post thanks – and I couldn’t agree more. My favourite alternative question is “What’s been keeping you busy this week?” Answers are always far more interesting and lead to a wider variety of conversations than the far more loaded with judgement “What do you do?”.

    • Devra Thomas

      Stealing!!

      • Nancy Osborn Nicholas

        Me too! – After I have first asked a “Being” question

  • LouAnn Lucke

    I really like your blog. I’ve followed it for some time now but haven’t commented. I’ve been in the nonprofit world pretty much my whole adult life and now in my mid 60s have a lot to look back on. I remember distinctly when nonprofits starting moving toward the “for profit” model of organizational structure and development in the 80s, and though I think a lot of the issues you are raising go back further than that, getting on that bandwagon definitely limited the thinking about relationships, how we treat each other, how we treat people we work with, etc. Branding and bottom line became common topics. I hope you are predicting a change that will actually happen.

  • Ellen Gugel

    You nailed it, Vu! I’ve had a problem with this question for decades (I’m in my 50’s).

    My first awareness was skiing with a tour group in Norway in the 90’s. The kind elderly (in his 50’s) Norwegian guide gently described that we don’t talk about what we do “in the mountains”.

    This works on two levels – 1) We go to the mountains to escape having to talk about work and what we do. Last thing I want to talk about – or hear others talk about; 2) We’re all equal in the mountains – social worker, lawyer, bus driver, etc.

  • betty barcode

    On a related note, nothing makes me draw a blank and stall the conversation faster than, “What’s new?”

  • Carolyn O’Brien

    Vu: Long time reader first-time commenter! This is another wonderful post and I couldn’t agree more about the obsession with the “to do” culture. I’ve had potential clients express shock when I said I wanted to get to know their organizations for a week or two before leading an executive search. Or that I didn’t want “to do” a strategic plan over the course of a morning with a group I’d never met before. (Nonprofit consultants don’t always say no to work!).

    But can you please clarify if there’s a typo in this sentence from above about strategic plans:
    “But maybe so many are useless because instead of focusing on what we must do, we take the opportunity to think about what we are and must be.” Wouldn’t they be useful rather than useless? I look forward to recommending the post to others, as usual, and want to be sure. Thanks very much for your writing and I will consider donating to RVC!!

  • bhavana

    I so appreciate the differentiation between being and doing! So much of what you named resonates, especially “[m]aybe it’s because many people from diverse communities come from a To-Be culture, where relationships are the most important part, and actions do not happen until connections are strong.” As I see a lot of new folks (white allies in particular) being pulled towards organizing in this current political moment, there’s a lot of felt urgency for taking action with little trust established, and it makes me nervous for what happens when conflict (inevitably) arises.

    I want to add though, that a part of me got a little wary at the naming of “to-be” questions like “where did you grow up/come from” as inherently more spacious than “to-do” questions. In the context of (South Indian) Telugu Hindu culture that I grew up in, I’ve seen these questions utilized to determine where someone “belongs” (particularly with respect to caste/religion/class, in my context) and close as many doors as they could potentially open.

    • willworktomorrow

      Thanks for saying this–it’s similar to my thoughts. Growing up in South Carolina and Ohio, i learned that being asked “what high school did you go to?” was a way to determine social class, not genuine interest in people and family and social networks. I totally agree with the premise of this piece and love the discussion here. I do think that for people who are new to any situation being aware of subtext and hidden meanings is important.

  • F Henderson

    Hi Vu – as someone from a traditional culture also (Southern US) I would never ask someone what they do, I would ask where they are from, and I might ask what they are up to these days, or what they like to do. More interesting anyway!

    • Gina Sideris

      Yes! The three most important questions in the south seem to be:
      1) Who is your mama? (It may be an “old boy” network, but families and society are matrilineal.)
      2) Where do you go to church? (Identifying your community of where your comfort zone is.)
      3) Have you ever….? (made a roux, built a boat, gone duck hunting, fished an entire weekend – the question varies, depending on the answers to the first two questions.)
      These questions focus on the things that have shaped your development and who you are as a person, and are so much more informative than “What do you do?”)

      It’s important to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.

  • Amy Barra

    I agree with you on a great deal of this post, but I think it is difficult to always be correct in asking any questions to strangers and many feel that work is a safe question. People are often more aware of the difficultly of answering a question if they are in that situation. I have no children and I NEVER ask people about children unless they mention them first. It is awkward for me to say, no, I have no children and get the inevitable blank stares and knowing that people are mentally analyzing my reproductive abilities and life choices. People with children rarely think about the fact that some people can’t have kids, don’t want kids, have lost kids, etc. They ask about something that is familiar to them. What you do all day is familiar to you and that is likely why people ask it.

  • Stephanie Tharp

    Hi Vu, great post. I would also point out the class and gender patterns of To Do vs. To Be, particularly regarding being valued for relationships vs. accomplishments. Maybe it goes without saying, but the To Do culture is a middle class value. With women traditionally valued for relationships, middle-class feminism calls women to claim value through accomplishments and career, not just their relationship roles (mother, wife, etc.)

  • Rhiannon Orizaga

    You can also flip the script when someone asks “what do you do?” by saying “I love to knit” or “hiking, mostly, but the occasional yoga.” It startles people out of their job focus but it’s also a fun way to talk about the real you.

    • Ted T

      I worked in Washington DC for years where every single moment is networking and I would always do this! It threw people off, and I found let the person she or he is to shine. 🙂 Good thinking Rhiannon!

  • Steven Byers

    Great post, thank you. As a white male, I don’t ask anything like “where are you from,” so thanks for all the other selections. At gatherings, I like to ask, “What brought you here today?” or “Why was it important for you to be here today?”

  • Beth Seetch

    I love this blog, and today’s post is full of riches I will start using right away. Thank you!

  • digopheliadug

    I like “tell me about yourself” as an intro question, because it leaves folks free to answer with what’s foremost in their mind as a defining trait, be it hometown, work, volunteerism, etc.

  • Kelly

    Another great discussion Vu, with important awareness about being inclusive.

    The assumption that what we “do” only counts if it’s for pay is so embedded in this culture! It seems that the question about “what brings you to is the safest, leaving room for the other person to pick up on whichever element (their doing or their being) they want to share.

    Being middle-class, employed, white & US-born while working with others who aren’t, I’ve become hyper sensitive about anything that implies I think the other person “isn’t from around here” or doesn’t belong – I’d worry that asking about food, etc can seem to be another way of saying ‘you seem different’

    Asking about education is difficult, as noted – where (or whether) you went to HS can be a marker of class.

    Re: “Who’s your mama and where do you go to church” That *is* so southern! In most parts of the country that wouldn’t go over well. And of course, “going to church” is a huge assumption (maybe I attend a mosque, or a synagogue, or am atheist!)

  • jennpete

    Thanks for this, Vu. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve worked in New York City for the past 12 years but still have my laid back Texan spirit that enables me to connect with people so well. It’s always been challenging to carve out that space of “being” in a city that is “doing” non-stop. I don’t have any answers but I’m glad to know that someone else is thinking about this too.

  • Dave Kilp

    thanks Vu! (from a funder with cerebral palsy currently undertaking strategic planning). Now, how did you get into my head?? 🙂

  • Anonymous11

    Thanks for asking us to donate. Hadn’t thought of it, but I think I will! I do support what you are doing! Keep it up!

  • Rhi Myfanwy Kirkland (Rhi)

    I really hate this question because I work in a field I’d like to move out and then do a bunch of other stuff. It ends up being this muddled existential crisis and I don’t know if I ever have a good answer.

    I like asking people about their neighbourhood or high school. High school is a default for people who grew up in the same city as you.