Asking about a person's profession



I live in Taiwan. English is not our native language.

I have a question. When we ask about people's profession, which sentence should we use?

What do you do?


What are you?

Please tell me the correct way of usage. Thank you.

Natalia Hsu
Posted 07 September 2002

When we don't know anything about a person's job or profession, we never say "What are you?" We say instead "What do you do?" "What does she do?" etc. This is a short way of saying "What do you (or does s/he) do for a living?" It is appropriate to ask if you know that the person is employed.

"What are you?" is a very blunt way of asking a question, and besides, is too general. It could be answered in many ways, such as "I'm a Democrat / a Catholic / a free thinker." It is not used in asking about someone's work status.

I f we already know where or in what kind of organization a person works, but we don't know what particular position that person occupies within the organization, we might say "What are you?" meaning "What is your title or your position?" For example, at a party for new employees one might hear:


Hi, I'm Paul. Welcome to the company!


Nice to meet you. I'm Steve. Have you worked here long?


Two years. I'm in the media division.


Really! What are you ?


I'm head scriptwriter for TV ads.

It would be just as natural for B to say "Really! What do you do?

In aother usage, "What are you?" is often used to ascertain the sign of the zodiac of the other person:


Hi, I'm a Capricorn. We age well. What are you?


I'm a Gemini. We're always late.

Generally, however, "What do you do?" is the polite way of asking about a person's job or profession.

Marilyn Martin

It's not generally OK to ask "What do you do?" right away upon meeting somebody new, even if you are dying to know what s/he does for a living.

It's better to wait until a little into the conversation or until an opportunity presents itself. For example, the person might say: "This is such a nice party. I'm glad to be here after the terrible week I've had at work." Then you might say: "Me, too. I work with John at Minute Software. How do you know John and Carol?" or"Me, too. I work with Carol at Minute Software. What do you do?"

If you bluntly ask about a person's occupation right away, it might be considered rude.


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