|"What do you do for a living?"|
"Why, so you can pretend like you're interested?"
We Americans use "so what do you do" as the cornerstone of opening conversations. The question seems like you are just asking about someone's career to start a conversation. But really, doesn't it just seem like you're really setting yourself up to identify, in your head, how much money they make, thereby making numerous assumptions about that person and their lifestyle? I suppose it's more pleasant than, "What job did you take in desperation to pay bills?"
I actually like the question now. I tell people I wash dishes, and I actually avoid telling them I'm a comedian until later in the conversation (if it continues). When they hear I'm a dishwasher, it makes them uncomfortable, which I find fascinating sometimes. It's like if someone has a "worse" job than you, you feel bad. Then why ask? Finding out what someone does for a paycheck is just a small part of who someone is, as most of us know.
Our society values money over everything. This will not change anytime soon. I have friends who like to come up with clever responses to this question to fuck with people who ask it. I don't want to do that. Instead, I'd rather come up with an alternative question to ask others without even touching their day job. I like the idea of just asking, "What do you do for personal fulfillment?" Of course, that sounds like you're about to introduce them to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
How about, what is your art? What do you create? What do you do for happiness?
I think many of us know that money doesn't buy happiness, and that there's more to us all than our job. We should quit talking and acting like it then...especially in our small talk.