Dear Miriam | How Do You Answer a Dreaded Question?

tomap49 iStock / Getty Images Plus

Dear Miriam,

My career has always been somewhat difficult to explain to people outside my field, but now that I’m starting to see people in person again, I’m finding it extremely tedious to bother with the explanations. Can I just tell people I don’t want to talk about work and move on, or is that extremely rude?


Dreading the Question

Dear Dreading,

“What do you do?” is one of the most ubiquitous questions posed to adults, and it’s annoying to people for all sorts of reasons. Someone may be unexpectedly unemployed, or unable to work for health reasons, self-conscious of their current position or, like you, not interested in explaining their work to people who don’t understand.

Saying, “I don’t want to talk about work” may be effective, and if someone presses beyond one or two asks, you may want to use that line. But you have a few other options first. You “do” lots of things beyond work, so if someone says, “What do you do?” which is usually how these things are phrased, you could say, “I really enjoy cooking,” or, “I’m training for my next half-marathon,” or something else that is true about you, may be more relatable to your interrogator and that you’re happy enough to discuss.

If the question is more like, “What is your professional career,” it’s both fair and honest to say something like, “I work for a company based in the sciences [or whatever], but I find it’s not a great conversational topic. What about you?” By turning the conversation back to the other person, you’re being polite and interested but avoiding a topic you don’t want to get into.

Provided your work is not a secret and is just confusing, I would encourage you to find one or two people to explain it to. It may be validating to have a handful of close friends or family who do understand your career, and it may be a good experience to be able to explain a part of your life to loved ones who are genuinely interested in listening.

When you do need to put people off the topic, there’s no need to be defensive or apologetic, though. Answering with a smile that you’d rather talk about something else is always acceptable. And if someone really won’t leave you alone — about this or anything else — a firm no to end the conversation is your prerogative.

Be well,



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here