The Hidden Agenda Behind Asking 'What Do You Do?' (VIDEO)

05/28/2014 09:34 am ET | Updated May 29, 2014
  • OWN

It often seems to be the first question that comes up when you meet someone: "So, what do you do?" We typically respond by citing our career fields, job titles or personal accomplishments, but spiritual teacher and A New Earth author Eckhart Tolle says everyone should be aware of the hidden agenda lurking behind this seemingly innocent question.

During the above conversation with Oprah, Tolle explains that many of us speak differently to different people -- your boss versus your sibling, for example -- and tend to make adjustments based on who we perceive to be "important." As Tolle and Oprah discuss, asking, "What do you do?" is a subconscious way for people to determine who ranks among the "important."

It's an ego-focused principle that Oprah has seen in action before. "What I realized is people want to know [what you do] so they can determine your so-called 'value,'" she says.

Tolle also explains that answering the question with, for example, your defined career means that you actually give power to others by playing a role. "[They calculate whether you] enhance the ego or whether you might be a threat to the ego, whether they can use you or whether they need to be afraid of you," he says. "Then, many judgments go through people's minds."

So how should you respond instead? Stop defining yourself by a role.

"When you don't play roles anymore, you don't have to become strange," Tolle says. "You can actually talk quite normally without being identified with what you say."

Oprah then sums up this lesson in A New Earth. "Of course there are all roles that we are assigned or labels that we use to identify ourselves," she says. "What you're saying is, the problem is when you become completely identified with it and you think that is who you are."

"Yes," Tolle responds.

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