My best friend Williams sez:
“I’m reading "Everything that Remains: A Memoir" and I saw this. Thought I’d share it with you fellas.
"what we’re actually asking when we posit this question (what do you do?), albeit unknowingly, is: How do you earn a paycheck? How much mney do you make? What is your socioeconomic status? And based on that status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you? Am I a rung above you? Below? How should I judge you? Are you even worthy of my time?”
“I’ve got to find a way to change my answer to this question.”
 
Discuss amongst yourselves.“

Alright.  I’ve thought on this.  

Because in any given situation, there’s what we do and what we wish we would do.

I think "What do you do?,” outside of meeting her father for the first time, is code for “We have been placed in this conversationally adjacent place against the will of at least one of us. Neither of us cares to take on the work of getting to know the other because the fact is, neither of us are really interested in meeting new people unless we have something to gain by it. So here is a conversationally and emotionally innocuous question that can fill dead airspace until the elevator comes or the girls come back from the john or whatever.”

It’s different in the case of meeting someone new in a setting like a run, or volunteering, or even a work setting, where you already have the situation in common.  While I don’t go to the gym for what you fellows refer to as “a pickup game of ball”, my guess is that the first time a schmendrick walks on to the court and says “So whaddya do?” as an opener with another bunch of guys playing “ball” is likely to be the last time schmendrick has that rock tossed himward. 

Before Cube fucked around and got his triple double, he didn’t ask Felicia’s brother from Chicago “So yo Holmes, what do you do?”  Nope.  They talked smack to each other. Mild insults aimed at each other or a common enemy that allows one to size up the other and determine whether that person belongs in the box of “people who I would talk to, I suppose, if I had to” or the other box of “yeah, I think I met him once; I don’t recall wanting to stave his head in with a rock at the time so I guess he was cool.”

I think that outside meeting someone in a shared context, “what do you do” is making noise. I’ll make a joke about the situation or something similar to avoid having to ask that. If it wasn’t so pretentious, and if people read more, I would love to ask “What are you reading that’s cool?” But if I end up asking “so what do you do,” either I have failed to care or the other person has failed to be interesting enough to inspire a better opening out of me.“

All of which sounds super cynical.  But I think it’s true.  I think it’s why it becomes harder as we get older to make new friends absent a common structure or situation. A job, a team, a neighbor, it all has built-in context.  Even two old guys sharing a room at the retirement ranch have that cute nurse in common. But outside an established context, finding a common ground to begin the business of building a new relationship is probably lots more work than most of us are willing to undertake voluntarily.

That’s what I think at least.