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The loaded meaning behind 'What do you do?'

American Futures: A special project from The Atlantic and Marketplace.

Jim and Deb Fallows of the Atlantic continue their travels across the United States, in partnership with Marketplace. This week, the Fallows are taking a break from exploring different towns across the country to examine something we all do – introduce ourselves.  

Or more precisely, they're examining the thing we say right after we introduce ourselves. It’s different in every part of the country.

In New York or D.C., the first question after an introduction is often “What do you do?” – meaning, what’s your job? But careful asking that question in Burlington, Vermont, says Fallows. People are more likely to respond, “I ski or I run a lot or I have a little boat.”

Deb Fallows says “It’s a question that matters. It’s something we say all the time." She was caught off guard when, in Greenville, South Carolina, she was asked what church she went to. In cities like Chicago or Boston, it’s not uncommon for people to ask "Which parish do you live in?" In midsized cities, it's often "Where did you go to high school?"

Fallows says the questions are meant to tease out socioeconomic status, political viewpoints, and cultural background.

“You know that somebody’s kind of digging for information to put you into their world – how do you fit into my world?

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

American Futures: A special project from The Atlantic and Marketplace.

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