Our Daily Bleg: Occupational Hazards

From a reader named Eric Robinson comes this interesting bleg. (Click here for blegging information, and send your own requests here.)


When I’m at a party and get asked what I do (I am an architect), I always hear one of the same five responses:

+ What kind of architecture do you do?

+ Hey, you can design my dream home!

+ I like Frank Lloyd Wright, do you think he’s good?

+ My brother/father/aunt is an architect.

+ I thought about going into architecture.

All of these responses are fine, but just knowing how consistent they are, it makes me wonder in what ways I ask stereotypical questions of others.

It would be nice to avoid this by having a list of what jobs get what kinds of responses. This idea has led to many interesting party conversations — because many times, the responses are not so nice!

So here’s my bleg question: what are the typical responses you hear when you tell people what you do?

I’ll start things off. When someone asks me what I do and I tell them I’m a writer, they typically say:

+ Oh.

+ Does that mean you just make stuff up?

+ Yeah, I thought about doing that before I became a doctor/lawyer/investment banker (i.e., something productive).

+ So why do you live in New York? Couldn’t you live in Maine or Aruba or somewhere else?

+ Really? Can I have your agent’s phone number?


I'm a reporter for a newspaper. I get:

+ Oh, I've read your stuff (followed by awkward silence as they judge my work)

+ Why is the media so liberal?

+ Why don't you write about [this one thing that only affects me] but I won't be a source for you?

+ Oh, so do you want to be on TV one day? (no, that's why I work for a newspaper!)

+ Your paper sucks (gee, thanks.)


I'm studying business in Japan :

1. hot chicks there, right ?
2. do you read mangas ?
3. did you ride the Shinkansen ?


I'm a legal advisor for a Dutch government agency which builds/manages/maintains the major roads, dams/dikes/bridges and large surface waters in the Netherlands(I'd say were sort of a blend of the US Army Corps of Engineers and EPA). I always get these:
1) Ooh, you're a lawyer, goody. I've got this [insert legal problem here, it can be everything from family law to contracts to criminal law] - what should I do?
2) I get asked to explain the latest court case that caused a stir - usually it's about criminal law (about which I don't know more than most people).
3) I get drawn into discussions about the death penalty, the right of the accused in criminal cases to have an attorney, privacy v. anti-terrorist legislation etc.

If I want to avoid all this, I just say I'm a civil servant. Although then I tend to get these:
1) Wow, that must be boring.
2) So, are you also wasting taxpayer's money by doing nothing at all the whole day? How many hours do you actually put in in a week? (I really hate this one - just because I work for the government doesn't have to mean I am a slacker! FYI: I'm on my lunch break now)



I used to work at a nonprofit that sought to legalize marijuana. Instant conversation starter. Invariably, people would ask one of the following (and they always thought they were the first to ever ask such a witty, original question):

1) Do you smoke pot? [If I worked at planned parenthood, would you ask me if I practice safe sex? In other words, none of your &*$# business.]

2) So do you, like, get paid in weed? [Yeah, I get it direct deposited into my checking account.]

3) But, um, it's illegal. [Hand slaps forehead.]

4) Is your office supply closet full of pot? [Seriously? That's the best you can come up with?]

5) You're my hero. Let me buy you a drink. [Thanks!]

Diana c

When I was a Research Chemist I got the following responses: 1.)WoW, you must be smart.
2.)I sucked at Chemistry
3.) Blank stare
When I worked with the disabled and elderly population I got the following responses:
1.) Blank stare
2.) you are a saint
3.) How can you do that?


I work for an investment bank and used to work in the mortgage securitization group. My most often asked questions at my old job are:
1. "Do you have any stock tips for me?" (No)
2. "Wow, you must make a lot of money" (I wish)
3. "What do you do?" (After a 5 minute explanation of about what I do) - "Why do you securitize loans?" (After another 5 minute explanation of securitization) - "Wow, thats just too complicated for me"

Now I work in operations, but I still get asked all the time:
1. "Wow, you must make a lot of money" (see above)

In this evironment:
1. "Why did you do this to the economy?" (Like I made any decisions)
2. "Are you going to get laid off?" (I have no idea, but thanks for reminding me that I have no job security)
3. "I lost a lot of money in my 401(k) this year" (Sorry??)


I'm an astrophysicist, which means that I can describe myself as either a physicist or an atronomer. The responses to the two differ somewhat. When I say I'm a physicist, the two most common responses are

1. You must be smart.
2. I hated physics in school.

I urge people to avoid #1, as it's not clear what the proper response is. ("Why, yes, I am!" doesn't seem right for some reason.) #2, while depressing for those of us in the business, is at least something that can lead the conversation forward.

When I say I'm an astronomer, reactions tend to be more positive, although unfortunately I do get asked about horoscopes on occasion. I know I'm not alone in this: the astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, has said that he's met people who were very excited to hear about his position, until they found out that he was just a scientist, not the person who casts the Queen's horoscope.

Whether I say I'm a physicist or an astronomer, a sizable minority of people do barrage me with questions about things like black holes. I'm not complaining about this, though. On the contrary, I think it's great when people are interested, and like lots of people I enjoy talking about things that I know something about. So if you meet me at a party, feel free to fire away with your questions.



Mathematics PhD student, and in 99% of cases the response is "I was never good at math." Gotten that one from physics post-docs, even...

Tim H

I used to work in IT for a funeral home company. People would usually ask if I encountered dead people in the course of my work (I did on occasion). The second most common question was what a funeral home company needs IT for, which always struck me as a little silly.


I'm an electrical engineer, and like others have said most people don't have much more to ask about that unless they want to know where I work, at which point they either want to know what the company is or they know someone who works there. On ocassion I do get questions from people about fixing something electrical (I'm not exactly an electrician, but they don't know).

Paul M

I am an Aerospace engineer, I get these a lot:

+ "Do you work for NASA?"

+ "You must have been a straight-A student." Not even close...

+ "Like a rocket scientist..?" That one I like.


Since I'm an economics graduate student when people ask what I do I go with this reasoning:
If I say I'm a student they will think that I'm broke or lazy to get a real job.
If I say that I'm an economist I will have to explain stuff about the real world and I have a hard time doing that (I'm a theorist, so the best I can do is show existence, uniqueness or propose an equilibrium refinement).
So, I say that I'm a politician. This is not a lie. I collect money from the department and distribute among several people/companies. Then, they just don't want to talk to me anymore....


I home educate my children and the stock questions/comments are:
1. Are you a teacher?
2. Are you allowed to do that?
3. What about socialization?
4. You must be very patient.
I don't begrudge people asking though as I realize that you have to start conversation somewhere. But the responses to my name are another story. Before the current usage it was jokes about feeling Merry and Gay and now it is "So, you're gay are you?" followed by raucous laughter. Each person acts like they are the very first to think of this slant but I tend to find the more interesting people are the ones that just say they are pleased to meet you.


I'm also in IT and like several people above, if I admit it I get asked endless questions about fixing PCs (about which I know nothing).

So if among strangers I say I'm an air traffic controller - everyone knows what they do & they move right on...

But I think from the responses so far, perhaps I'll try Engineer next time.

(Engineers - I'd be really interested in what you do!)

Tim Vaughan

When I would mention that I have a Ph.D. in particle physics, people almost invariably ask, "Do you make bombs?"

It got to be so familiar that I changed my introduction to, "I'm a physicist, but don't worry, I don't make bombs." One day after I gave that response, the other guy said (with an absolute straight face), "What's wrong with making bombs?" It turns out he was a bomb designer.

Let's just say that conversation didn't last much longer.


I am an aircraft accident analyst.

1. Oh
2. Like on TV?
3. It's always human error, isn't it?
4. It's always a computer error, isn't it?

(If there was a recent accident)
5. What happened at (fill in name of crash site)
6. Are (fill in name of airline) still safe?


When I tell people I am in the Army, if they are not in the military they inevitably ask:
"Have you been to Iraq?"
"How many people did you kill?"
"Why would you join the Army while at war?"
If they are in the Army, they inevitably ask me a string of questions similar to:
"What is your MOS, duty station, unit, last deployment, rank, how long have you been in, and are you staying in?"
Either way, I get horribly tired of these questions, especially from people who are not in the military in any way. I would much rather have someone change the subject and ask me something more meaningful, like what I would do with an extra toe? Believe me, that question will illicit far greater responses from strangers than generic questions about their job.


I'm a PR, but I am brazilian and live in Brazil. People have are not habitual with this profession - crazy, I know. So the most common answers I get are:

+ Oh.
+ What does a PR do?
+ That's related to communications, right?
+ So, you plan events? Can you plan my wedding?
+ What does a PR do?



I had asked a temp coworker where he worked before this and he told me he worked for the "Feds". I already knew he was fired from a previous job and went to work for the IRS at some entry level job.

At that point, I knew I had heard enough.


I have experimented with two answers (without having to lie)

an economist (my major):

1. oh...so how is the country doing?
2. what do you think about competition from china?
3. is it a good time to invest in the markets?

a quant at (once) an investment bank (my day job):

1. oh?
2. what's that?
3. but i thought you studied economics?
4. hmm...