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Why Can't Washingtonians Resist Asking Each Other What They Do For A Living?

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Is "what do you do?" a quintessential Washington question? 
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Is "what do you do?" a quintessential Washington question? 

This is the first story from What's With Washington?, our new initiative where listeners and readers get to ask questions about the region, vote on other questions that have been asked, and — if their question wins a voting round — join a WAMU 88.5 reporter in reporting out the story. Do you have something you'd like us to look into? Submit your question and vote at WAMU.org/whatswith.

On a recent Sunday morning, parishioners quietly filed into Capitol Hill United Methodist Church as an organ played hymns. They greeted each other, engaging in the usual small talk that precedes the service. They may have talked about family, sports or weather, the usual things that make for chit-chat between strangers.

But there was one topic they wouldn't touch upon — work. "Our practice is to never ask someone what they do," explains Pastor Alisa Lasater Wailoo, who has served at the church since 2008, though says the practice if avoiding the question was in place before she arrived.

Pastor Alisa Lasater Wailoo preaches at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, where asking what fellow parishioners do for a living is a no-no. (Capitol Hill United Methodist Church)

"Years ago, as I understand it, and this predates me, church leadership was sitting around talking about how do we make this a safe space, because, honestly, in the world of politics there’s not a lot of safe space. And one of the initial comments was, 'It’s not safe if my identity is based on what I do, because you probably do something different, so I’m not likely to trust you if that’s the primary thing I know about you,'" she says.

That the church took the step of discouraging parishioners from asking "What do you do?" and "Where do you work?" says as much as the fact that many see it as a quintessentially Washington question, the sort of icebreaker you're likely to hear in any conversation with a stranger.

But it also sparks more questions: Is it really unique to Washington? And if so, why? And more importantly, what does the question say about us as a city?

The origins of 'What do you do?'

Deborah Fallows has spent time thinking about just that. She’s a linguist and author who’s spent time traveling around the country with her husband, James Fallows. (He's a writer for The Atlantic, and she's contributed writing to the magazine.) A few years ago, she wrote about what she calls the "second question": the thing you ask after asking someone how they’re doing.

"If you call someone in St. Louis and say what’s your second question, they’ll say, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ If you call somebody in Greenville, South Carolina, they’ll say, ‘Where do you go to church?’ And if you call somebody in New Orleans, they’ll say, ‘Who’s your momma?’ The one in Washington is definitely, ‘Where do you work?’" she tells me, adding that the question is often asked in New York as well.

Fallows says these "second questions" are a way for people to put strangers into context, to make quick sense of them and to better understand how they might fit into their world. The questions often reflect the culture or characteristics of the place where they are being asked, she says.

"The questions that become attached to a town are there for a couple of reasons. Either that there’s a really strong culture in that town, or there are some strong characteristics in that town, or there are some strong preoccupations in that town. In Washington, it’s a very strong culture of people are here because this is a working town. Of course there are exceptions to that, but that’s why people come here — for work," she says.

It's hard to disagree with that. Professional Washington is a town of the ambitious and the idealistic, the sorts of people who move here to try to change the world. They're proud of what they do, and finding someone that does something similar may not only make for good conversation, but also a useful professional connection.

Talking about work also makes for a quick icebreaker; in a town where congressional staffers and federal government workers come and go with electoral cycles, there aren't the same shared experiences or history that makes second questions about high schools, churches or, well, mommas, work as well.

And that's fine with Matt Guttentag. He hails from North Carolina and came to Washington five and a half years ago to work on foreign aid for the federal government. Last November, he took to Medium to write a spirited defense of strangers asking each other what they do for a living. (The "WDYD" question, he calls it.) Not only is it a common question among professionals in cities across the country, he wrote, but it's a natural topic of conversation.

"People’s jobs are really interesting! In the course of your life, you may only work in one or two industries, so it’s really cool to hear about what people do on a day-to-day basis. There are millions of jobs out there, and some are really interesting!" he says.

What ... can you do for me?

But Fallows says the question isn’t always really about your job. In fact, she says there's a subtle pretext to the question that speaks to the culture of Washington, the political town.

"I think it’s a power question. When you’re just getting to meet someone the ‘Where do you work?’ and saying ‘Well, I work for the finance committee’ or ‘I work for the no-name committee’ gives you a lot of the answer," she says.

I think the more sinister part behind the question is that in true human nature we want to connect with people who are like us... so what we are really asking is, ‘Are you for me or against me?' — Pastor Alisa Wailoo

"I’m not a political person, but I’ve heard it enough and seen people asked that question enough and been the recipient of that question enough to say that it’s placing you not only in context of what you do but how much power you hold, and I think that speaks to the culture of Washington," she adds.

That’s what made the question alienating for Nick Abbate, who grew up in the D.C. area and worked here after college. He’s since moved to New York, where he works for Yahoo! as a products manager.

"When I was in D.C., I kinda felt somewhat marginalized because so many other people in a group setting would be able to talk about politics in terms of what they do, and then they would get to me and they would ask, 'What do you do'? And I would say, ‘IT manager,'" he says.

It was an almost-certain conversation killer, not only because his job didn't fit the mold of traditional D.C. jobs — not in politics or policy, that is — but also because it meant he had little to offer by way of influence or connections.

"It would make things a little bit awkward, and then they would go to the next person and that person they would have an instant rapport with," he remembers.

Guttentag rejects the assumption that someone asking the WDYD question is looking to see how much you're worth to them.

"If by somebody’s nature they’re looking for a way to judge your status, they’ll find a way to do that. They’ll ask about college, they’ll assess you based on where you’re from, they’ll assess you based on your clothes. I don’t think that question itself has any extra gravitas as a status symbol," he argues.

But Pastor Alisa Wailoo from Capitol Hill United Methodist says that the question's underlying inquiry — what do you do, and what can you do for me? — is what motivated the church to dissuade parishioners from asking each other what they do for a living.

"I think the innocent part behind the question is that many of us have moved here because of our work, and so it is an easy place to link. I think the more sinister part behind the question is that in true human nature we want to connect with people who are like us, we are comfortable with that, so what we are really asking is, ‘Are you for me or against me?’" she says.

And in a town as political as Washington is — and in a church only blocks from the center of some of its most pitched political battles — heading off those divisions is vital.

"What do you, it often becomes, 'Are you red or are you blue, so are you for me or are you against me?' There’s that heavyweight. But then it becomes, 'What do you do, so how highly do you rank, meaning do you need me or do you not?' So instantly we’re defining our relationship by two questions, which just isn’t how God would do it," she says.

Finding a safe space

There are times that people need a break from official Washington, says Wailoo, a safe space where they aren't defined by what they do. She remembers being told of a congresswoman who came to the church after losing a bruising fight for re-election. She was recognized by a church volunteer, who had to offer comfort by reminding her that in that church, "What do you do?" would not be a topic of conversation.

"She needed to be refilled, and find herself afresh out of the pain of that election," says Wailoo.

And there’s also this, she adds: Not everyone has a job to talk about.

"We have a large unhoused or homeless community, many of whom work, but some of whom are without work, so we didn’t want them to think that you have to do something in order to be part of this place," she says.

Wailoo recognizes it’s almost second nature for people in Washington to ask each other what they do. And as linguist Deborah Fallows says, Washington is a working town, so what you do for a living has always been a part of most conversations.

But Wailoo also says there are better things to ask about.

"What you in your free time, what brings you joy, what worries you, where you come from?" she says. "Things that really, in our opinion, have much more value or more significance to who you are as a person."

[Music: "Go Little Car" by Podington Bear]

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