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Ask a Teacher: Asking Someone About Their Job

Ask a Teacher: Asking Someone About Their Job
Ask a Teacher: Asking Someone About Their Job
Ask a Teacher: Asking Someone About Their Job
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Have you ever wanted to ask someone in English about the kind of work they do but were unsure how? Many cultures have ways of doing this.

Today on Ask a Teacher, our question comes from Azra in Turkey.


Is it polite to ask people about their jobs? How can I ask someone without sounding impolite? - Azra, Turkey


Hello Azra and thanks for writing to us!

In the United States, asking someone about their job is one of the most common things to do when meeting that person for the first time. But in some other cultures, this question may be considered disrespectful, so be careful.

Although questions such as “What is your job?” and “What are you?” seem like the most direct ways to ask, we do not use them. The questions are structured correctly but, to Americans, they can sound impolite and unnatural.

Ways to ask

Instead, we have a few ways to ask that sound more natural.

When you meet someone in a social situation, and you want to know what kind of work they do, the most common question is this:

What do you do?

It is a shorter way of asking:

What do you do for a living?

Listen to both questions and some answers you might hear. Pay close attention to the pronunciation of “What do you do?” as it usually sounds like “Whaddya do?” when said quickly:

What do you do?

I’m a teacher.

What do you do for a living?

I work in photojournalism.

What do you do?

I run an arts program for teenagers.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a musician.

Compare the question “What do you do?” to “What are you doing?” They sound similar, but the second is not work-related. It is asking what the person is doing right now, this minute.

Two other friendly ways to ask some about their work are “What kind of work do you do?” and “What line of work are you in?” You can answer in the same way, saying something like, “I run an arts program for teenagers” or “I’m a musician.”

Following up

After the person answers the question, it is a good idea to ask one or two more questions. Listen to an example:

What do you do for a living?

I run an arts program for teenagers.

Nice! How long have you been doing that?

For about five years now.

Where do you work?

At the city’s arts and culture division.

What not to ask

Despite how common job-related questions are in social situations in the U.S., situations differ. Some people may find these questions too personal if asked too soon. If you’re ever unsure, you can start a conversation in other ways, such as asking what the person does for fun in that city. Or, you can comment on something interesting or funny at the event or activity.

You should avoid asking the questions “What is your profession?” and “What is your occupation?” They sound too official, so we do not use them in friendly situations. You would probably only hear them during a job interview or in an office environment.

Another thing to know is that, in American culture, we do not ask about a person’s wages. Even some close friends and relatives do not discuss this subject. So, unless someone shares this information with you or asks for wage advice, avoid asking this question.

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Do you have a question for Ask a Teacher? Write to us in the Comments area. Be sure to list your country!

What do you do for a living? How long have you been doing it? Do you enjoy your work? We'd love to hear from you.

Ways to Ask

Following Up

What Not to Ask

What do you do?

What do you do for a living?

What kind of work do you do?

What line of work are you in?

How long have you been doing that?

Where do you work?

What company do you work for?

What are you doing?
(It's not work-related)

What is your profession (or occupation)?

How much money do you make?


Words in This Story

politeadj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people

pronunciationn. the way in which a word or name is said

interviewn. a formal meeting with someone who is being considered for a job or other position

professionn. a type of job that requires special education, training, or skill

runv. to direct the business or activities of something

teenagern. someone who is between 13 and 19 years old