Status Anxiety: Or, Why We Need to Stop Asking People We’ve Just Met, “What Do You Do?”

It’s become pretty standard for us to ask one very particular question whenever we meet people for the first time: The dreaded “What do you do?” I suspect that the reason why we ask that question is because it gives us something simple by which to categorize and define an unknown quantity — but it turns out, that’s the very reason the question is so problematic. YouTube channel The School of Life’s latest video takes the whole “What do you do?” thing to task, explaining not only why we need to stop asking it, but moreover, what we can do to alleviate its ill effects.

I’m as guilty as the next person of asking “What do you do?” whenever I meet someone for the first time (especially at other people's company holiday parties) — but the video’s argument is convincing enough that I think I'm going to try to stop (or at least do it less often). First, the it identifies the problem: The question “What do you do?” creates something called “status anxiety,” which occurs when you’re either further engaged by whoever asked you the question or dropped like the proverbial hot potato, based on how desirable your answer to it is. It makes us worry about judgment and humiliation, and it’s all kind of a downward spiral from there. Here’s the crux of the matter in six pictures; scroll down to watch the whole video:

The Problems:

The question boils us down to one thing: Our jobs.

How people behave towards us once they get the answer to the whole “what do you do?” question makes us feel like our worth as human beings is based entirely on what we do. Not so good.

Our jobs then become the measure of how “successful” we are.

When most people think of “success,” they think of financial success, which is assumed to be a reflection of our jobs: Having a lot of material goods that cost a lot of money means we must be good at our jobs, which means our jobs must be awesome, which means we must awesome. Obviously this is flawed logic, but we all often follow it anyway.

“Success” happens when we live up to our potential — or doesn’t happen when we fail to live up to our potential.

We’re always told we can become anything we want to be, which should be awesome. But tied up inside all that awesomeness is also a little nugget of doubt: What if we don’t “live up to our potential?” What if we “fail?” Whether or not we get dropped by new acquaintances as soon as we tie ourselves to an “uninteresting” or “undesirable” job, it hits us right in the doubt center, which makes us feel like hell.

Furthermore, we’re usually told we live in a meritocracy these days, but that comes with its own set of problems. This assumption tells us that those who make it to the top “deserve” to be there, while those who don’t “deserve” to be at the bottom — so, hey, thanks for telling all those people who haven’t made it to the top of the heap that any misfortune that might come to them is “deserved,” irrespective of luck or chance.

So What Can We Do About It?

A few things, it turns out.

The Solutions:

Realize that luck really does have something to do with it.

First, we need to come to terms with the fact that “meritocracies” don’t really exist. Luck, chance, and accident play hugely into reaching a condition of “success,” so regardless as to whether someone is at the top or at the bottom, let’s stop assuming that they’re there because they “deserve” to be there.

Come up with your own definition of "success."

Society doesn’t get to tell you whether or not you’re “successful.” You get to decide whether or not you are, based on your own terms.

Don't let your outwardly visible achievements define who you are.

There’s so much more to you than just your list of "accomplishments" or lack thereof. You’re not just “what you do.” You’re awesome. Never forget that.

I don’t fully believe that the solutions presented in this video are no-fail ones — but they’re a start. Watch the full video below, and check out more over at The School of Life’s YouTube channel.

Images: Fotolia; The School of Life/YouTube (6)