If I could summarize the human meet and greet ritual in a single phrase, it would be:
Hi… So, what do you do?
It’s an interesting question. What is it that we who no longer have jobs do? How can we answer this question in a way that helps us connect with others? What happens when we are completely honest with our new friends?
Over the years I’ve experienced this inquiry in numerous countries, languages, and cultures. Here are a few of the more entertaining interactions.
So, what do you do?
Some possible answers…
When we first kicked the jobs to the curb I was really excited about it, so of course I told everyone. I don’t do that anymore.
Scene: US Immigration, fresh off a plane from Mexico
Immigration officer: You were outside the country for 6 months? What do you do that allow you that much time away?
Me: I’m retired.
Immigration officer: *glares at Winnie* “I suppose you are retired too….” STAMPS PASSPORTS LOUDLY.
Scene: Having brunch in Thailand, being chatted up by the senior woman at the table next to us
Woman: blah blah blah, talk talk talk, <10 minutes> oh cute kid, So, what do you do?
Me: We are retired
Man: <heretofore more interested in his eggs> You are what? <returns to eggs, now with back to us>
Woman: Oh never mind him, he just got his pension from the State after 40 years so now we live here blah blah blah
Scene: Happy hour with 100 of our newest friends at backpacker bar in rural Guatemala
Dudebro: So what do you do?
Me: I’m retired.
Dudebro: Cool, I’m a lawyer and working on becoming partner maybe next year, and <proceeds to talk about himself for next 12 hours>
Scene: The Internet
Me: We retired in our 30s to travel the world.
Captain Save-a-Reader: I have come to warn your readers against the dangers of saving too much money!
Internet Retirement Police: Your 4 hour per week hobby earns an income, you aren’t retired. LIAR!!!
Also Internet: Hearing your story inspired us to completely change out lives, and now we will be Financially Independent in x years. Thank you! (Love it when this happens!)
Telling people I was retired wasn’t working too well, so I tried to mix things up a bit.
Scene: Chatting with a bunch of American and Canadian Seniors studying Spanish in Mexico
Lady: So what do you do?
Me: Nothing, really. We are just traveling.
Lady: So you are going to keep traveling until the money runs out…? Or maybe work a bit along the way? Or until your Mom stops sending checks?
A variant of “what do you do” for travelers… “where do you live?”
Scene: small park in Thailand, Jr is 8 months old crawling around with another young boy.
Family guy: Yeah we are on a 3 week tour of Thailand. We brought the whole family, mom, grandma, all the kids. We hired a guide and have private tours of everything, it’s great. And so cheap!
Me: Yeah, totally, everything here is pretty inexpensive.
Family guy: So where do you guys live?
Me: We are just kind of traveling right now…. we’ve been here 2 months, next we’ll head south to the beaches. I guess you could say we are homeless.
Family guy: <bends over to quickly grab his kids… turns back and walks away>
I guess he thought we were contagious.
Productive Member of Society
Scene: Our neighborhood park in Taipei. I’m there every day with Jr, often several times per day.
Old lady: <gets right up in my face, speaking Chinese> What do you do that you can be here every day? Don’t you have a job? Don’t you do anything?
Me: (in bad Chinese) I work for myself on the Internet and have a lot of freedom.
Old lady: Oh. <nods approvingly>
Since our way of life is still not very common (but could be) I’ve experimented with various answers to the question, “So… what do you do?”
Sometimes people ask without much real interest in the answer, so I tell them what they want to hear? (“I work online.”) We can then move on to more interesting topics.
I’ll respond with something softer if I think there is risk of anger or jealousy, particularly with people much older than we are… “I just got my pension and this young punk thinks he is retired?!” (“We are traveling a little before Jr has to go to school and we need to settle down and get jobs again.”)
But when people are genuinely curious, they get a full dose of early retirement philosophy. It’s a beautiful thing when you can help others become aware of new possibilities… (“We are financially independent and location independent.”)
In the end, we all have a whole lot more in common than we have differences. This question just helps us uncover those commonalities.