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Becoming Ill Made Me Realize 'What Do You Do?' Can Be a Judgmental Question

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a question we ask people we don’t know, or don’t know very well, all the time.

For a long time, I felt that this was a polite, non-invasive question.

And sometimes, even without meaning to, I’d judge someone based on their response.

“Oh, you’re a retail assistant? That’s good, I guess. I mean, I need to by my clothes somewhere.”

To which one could reply, “Oh, you’re a teacher? You know what they say about teachers. Those that can, do…”

It wasn’t until I became seriously ill and was forced to take time off that I realized how deeply invasive and personal the question actually is.

For example, when people I don’t know (or don’t really know well) ask this question, I feel stuck. (Or, rather, I did, as I’m currently working.)I don’t want to lie to them. However, if I say I’m a teacher, they’ll ask what school I teach at. Being in a small town for most of my life meant that lying wasn’t the best option (because they always know someone who knows someone who teaches there/goes there and have you heard of such and such and do you teach what’s her name?).

If I answer slightly more honestly, and say I’m only a substitute teacher, it begs the question of, “Why?” and I truly don’t know how to answer the why.

This is a problem due to the judgement you’re often subjected: if you’re not a mother, and there’s no visible reason for you “only” being a substitute teacher, you can tell people are judging you.Or, at the very least, asking silent questions they are too polite to voice.

What, you got married and decided to live off your husband?

Are you not a very good teacher? Is that why you can’t get any work?

The other option is to tell the truth: that I’m, quite frankly, too sick to work. That every single day I work is torture; my body wants to give in, give up. Exhausted, when you have chronic fatigue, is an understatement. Waking up is so intensely painful. Seriously. Imagine you’ve had three hours sleep in two days because you wouldn’t stop drinking — and now you’ve got to get up and go to work.


That’s my life. Pretty much every day. Staying awake is even harder. I sleep for roughly 10 hours each day — sometimes up to 16 on the weekends — and it’s never enough. I pretty much always feel sick. I’m often plagued with severe headaches that often develop into migraines. This information is deeply personal — it’s not something I want to randomly share upon greeting strangers. And, to be honest, I’m keeping a lot of medical information from you. I’m deliberately being vague.


Shame, maybe?

Perhaps because “invisible illnesses” are not always given the attention and respect they deserve?

I’m not sure. All I know is that, to me, this information is personal and private. The only reason I’m sharing it is to raise awareness. And, let’s face it, chances are if I said this to another person — someone I didn’t know, or didn’t know well — they would probably be shocked by my honesty. They probably wouldn’t know how to respond — or worse, assume I’m well because I look well, and wonder if I’m lying. Or maybe even start asking more personal questions about how I got sick, and what I have, and if I’ll get better, which may be even worse than thinking I’m a liar, because who wants to be put on the spot and answer questions like that? Questions they might not even have the answers to. (I know I don’t have all my answers yet.)

I once wrote about how asking women about babies is extremely sensitive, sometimes painful, invasive and tremendously personal. This question, I have learned, is no different. So many people can’t work for mental or physical reasons — some of which are “invisible.” Some people don’t have to work and therefore they don’t want to. If they have that luxury and that’s their choice, their choice should be respected, not judged. Some people want to be stay-at-home moms and dads and view that as their “job.” Again, that choice should be respected, not judged. Perhaps we need to find a new way of asking, “So, what do you do?” and realizing that a person is not defined by their education or career path. They are defined by far more than that. After all, if we judged people by success and career choices, people like Donald Trump and Kanye West would be given more “worth” than they deserve.

Originally published on The Melodramatic Confessions of Carla Louise.