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What is the difference between 'What are you?' and 'What do you do?' in the job meaning?

How to sense this difference if I need to ask about profession?

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    I believe it would be better if you ask "What's your job?" or "What do you do for living?" – V.V. Jul 18 '18 at 7:47
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I meet a lot of people who are on holiday. I generally ask first where they come from, and then ask "What do you do there?". If somebody then says "I'm a doctor", I could then say "What kind of doctor are you?"

So, those are your two questions, but each needs a little more context to make it clear what exactly you are asking for.

Note that you can't ask somebody what is their profession: tradesmen, housewives, students, etc might be offended.

  • I don't see how offence could be taken to the question "what is your profession?" provided the question is asked neutrally and not in a sneering sort of way. – JeremyC Jul 19 '18 at 21:53
  • @JeremyC: you would be surprised how many people, especially women, missed out on an education and a professional career, and carry a chip on their shoulder about it. If you ask a question like that, you make it clear that you didn't miss out: for these people, you are rubbing their noses in their misfortune. OK, maybe offense isn't quite the right word- how about embarrassment? – JavaLatte Jul 20 '18 at 8:24
  • OK. I agree with 'embarrassment' but there is no accounting for what embarrasses people. To ask "what is your profession?" might imply " You are so obviously intelligent and able: which field of endeavour is lucky enough to have your attention?" If the answer is "bringing up my children", what's wrong with that? – JeremyC Jul 20 '18 at 21:04
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What are you?

seems somewhat vague, or even insulting, to me, out of context. How would one answer that? "I'm 16 years old." "I'm a devout Pastafarian." "I'm a human."

Perhaps in context, it would be acceptable, e.g.

I'm in my second year at Moscow University. What are you?

but even there, a qualifier helps, such as

I'm in my second year at Moscow University. What year are you?

or

You're in the army? What rank are you?

On the other hand,

What do you do?

is not offensive, but again needs context.

My computer won't boot. What do you do?

is quite different from,

You work here? What do you do?

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    You're quite right about "What are you?" being the wrong question to ask. As a footnote, I'd like to mention that "What are you? Some kind of X?" is an idiomatic way to ask if someone is overstepping their role, usually laced with heavy sarcasm or said as an insult. ("What are you? Some kind of lawyer?" isn't usually asking the person about their role legal profession; rather, it's challenging their expertise in the matter at hand.) Or if you don't like someone's idea, you might say, "What are you, crazy?" But that's more of a rhetorical challenge than a true question. – J.R. Jul 18 '18 at 8:38

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