Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Designing a Better Question

Some retired people dread the ubiquitous question, “What do you do?”

If the answer is, “I’m retired,” does that imply you don’t do anything?

"Like flotsam," as one friend recently put it.

We know that’s not true. But short of explaining the many things one does while enjoying the freedom of not working for money (and not being defined by that single focus any longer), it can be awkward to provide a quick answer.

We need a better question.

I heard one recently that I’m going to start using: “What are your interests?”

The question was asked of me by a new acquaintance, a friend of a friend, and it instantly endeared him to me.

He was, in effect, saying, “I’m interested in what's occupying your mind and heart, not merely in your occupation.”

It was purposeful and considerate and surprising to me. I can’t recall having been asked what I'm interested in by a new acquaintance in my six decades.

A variation I heard recently isn’t a question but an invitation: “Tell me about yourself.”

I like that too because it not only shows interest but suggests that the answer need not be a word or two that sums up a person. The listener has patience and is willing to hear some of the nuances.

Why don’t we ask questions like these?

Is it because work defines our culture to such a great extent that we are content to size each other that way? We don’t think about it. We just ask. It’s the default question.

Author Miriam Goodman, in her seminal book on couples and retirement, Too Much Togetherness: Surviving Retirement as a Couple, wrote, "While in some cultures it is not appropriate to ask what you do for a living, in the United States, even strangers act as if they have a right to judge you by what you do with your time."

The risk of awkwardness is high because we are actually asking about social status.

If you can say, “I’m a neurosurgeon,” that’s impressive. Or “I trade futures at Goldman.” Or “I’m the Chair of Psychology at McGill.” These are high pegs on the status board.

But if your occupation is something decidedly less lofty, the peg can be low and the conversation short. “I’m a cashier at Costco.” or “I drive that truck you see over there."

Worse, if you are unemployed and struggling, the question of what you do is just embarrassing.

Many retired people feel something similar.

Here’s a strategy. Flip the what-are-your-interests question into an answer. When asked what you do, say, “I’m interested in a lot these days because luckily my time is my own."

That says retirement is a fertile garden that I’m enthusiastically cultivating.

And if you aren’t doing that, maybe it’s time. If only to have more to talk about when asked.

Changing the Way We Keep Score

The word "retirement" needs work.