05/31/2016 06:26 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

When 'What Do You Do?' Is the Wrong Question

"So, what do you do?" a friend of a friend says, leaning against the kitchen island at a party.

I'm a Rabbi, and I hate this question. For a long time, I fantasized about how simple it might be to answer, "I'm a lawyer." Or, "I'm in real estate." Or, "I'm a teacher." Something neutral, I imagined, with less baggage. I imagined that this would make the conversation simpler. Because saying: "I'm a Rabbi" to folks raised in a largely Christian country means confronting assumptions about what you believe, rather than what you do, or who you are. (Rabbi, in its literal translation, simply means teacher.)

Because answering this question honestly would require at least a paragraph: "I'm a professional meaning maker." I'd begin, "A counselor and a therapist and a ritual leader and a teacher of texts. Also, sometimes I tell stories to 4-year-olds where I use different voices for each of the animals. And people bring their ethical dilemmas to me. And I perform funerals. Also, sometimes I'm supposed to be a public intellectual."

But this dilemma, I'm beginning to realize, isn't just for clergy. A real estate agent might answer: "I sell dreams. I sell dreams of what it is to have a home, a community and a family." A lawyer might say: "I fight for justice. I defend people who have no one else to defend them." Or a criminal attorney "I redefine what redemption means. I help us decide, as a society, who pays for the ways we damage each other -- and how."

Because when we ask each other, as we do, every week, hundreds of times a year, "What do you do?" what we're really trying to do is take the measure of a stranger: how smart they are, how much money they make, what their socio-economic status is, how they can be useful to us, where they fit into our picture of the world. And often we're asking from a place of privilege: we're assuming that people chose their careers out of desire rather than necessity. We're assuming they do what they do because it was how they wanted to spend their days, not because they had bills to pay or mouths to feed or couldn't afford graduate school or college.

And by doing so we're avoiding questions that really matter, with answers that could allow us to truly see and know the stranger in front of us: questions like:

Who do you want to be?
What do you do when you're not working?
If money were no object, how would you spend your days?
How did you choose your career?
What brings you joy?

These are the questions that are riskier to ask and to answer, especially when we first meet a stranger. But they're also more revealing and perhaps, tells us not only what the other person does, but who they are. Imagine how surprised and perhaps even delighted we might be about what we find there.