The Labels We Wear (or Bear)

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“So, what do you do?”

Am I the only one who doesn’t like being asked this question?

It’s not because I feel someone’s trying to pry into my life or one-up whatever it is I “do”. And it’s not because I feel they’re trying to “define” me based on my work.

No, my problem with this question is that I don’t know how give an adequate answer.

Most of us keep it simple: “Oh, I’m in sales.” “I’m an engineer.” “I own a roofing company.”

We define ourselves by our jobs or careers almost exclusively. It’s a good question and a good answer, because other people want to know how we might be able to help them survive and thrive.

“Oh, you own a roofing company? You know, it’s been a while since I’ve had someone take a look at my roof. Could you come by and give me an inspection?”

But that falls short of who we really are. There is more to us (hopefully) than just our work.

That’s the problem I have with this question.

I want to tell someone, “Well, I own my own business where I help small businesses and nonprofits create the right words to talk about what they do so other people will do business with them or donate to them. I also work part-time for a defense contractor, which I could tell you about but then I’d have to kill you. I also play in my church’s worship band on Sundays, and play guitar and bass as a hobby. And I like studying the Bible, especially in its original languages as best I can. When I’m not doing all that, I’m probably reading, writing, or planning a trip somewhere.”

You might think that’s facetious, but I feel I’d be doing someone a disservice by just telling them what I did for a living. That’s only part of my story. And that’s only part of your story, too.

Answering the “What do you do?” question forces us to pick labels. This is something I’ve had a hard time with. I am a web designer, but I am also a copywriter—yet I distance myself from either label because using just one would silo me and be inaccurate. (Those are just two work-related examples of several.)

And yet, this “need to choose” became very apparent at a recent business networking event. A business coach asked me what I called myself, and I answered, “Marketing engineer.” (Another label I’ve picked for myself—because I am an engineer—but have had trouble bonding with.)

He shook his head. “No, don’t say ‘engineer’. That sounds complicated. People don’t like complicated. People don’t know what a ‘marketing engineer’ is. Just say you’re a ‘marketer’. People understand that.”

The business coach next to him nodded in agreement.

Sigh… “marketer” it is, then!

So, not only can we not live without labels, in many cases we rely on others to help us label ourselves. This can be a good thing, as long as we trust the people who label us.

Even if we take on titles to “play the game”, we shouldn’t necessarily let those get to the core of who we are. Jobs and job titles change, careers change, relationships change.

Yet at the core of our beings, there is a kernel that remains the same… that is always “us”. I believe that is planted by God with all of our hopes and dreams, aspirations and desires. Though we pass through chapters, putting on and throwing off labels, even changing goals and courses as we go, that core remains constant.

And that’s something you can’t put a label on… except perhaps “me”.


I propose a different way of learning about people, one that doesn’t imply all of their value is in their job or business. The next time you meet someone new, instead of asking them what they do, go deeper.

Just say, “Tell me about yourself.”

You’re going to get a much more interesting answer and a much deeper appreciation for the person you’re talking to. They’re also going to feel much more valued and appreciated since you’re showing interest in their whole self, and because the conversation didn’t go straight to work. (In case you didn’t realize, a lot of people don’t want to talk about work outside of work!)

I have found that some of my best relationships, even business ones, developed because I took an interest in more than just a person’s worth in work. It’s a great way to be remembered, because most people won’t open up a conversation that way.

Let’s take off the labels and give others a chance to take them off as well.

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One Response

  1. Excellent way to get to know someone. I’ll start using that request: Tell me about yourself. Very helpful in ministry to let people own and tell their life story, without a prompt from me.

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