Introductions and identity: does your job define you?

Illustration Showing Layers of Identity With Work Family and Recreation

Identity illustration made available under the Creative Commons License CC BY-ND 3.0. It may be used and displayed without charge by websites if attributed. — Illustration and article by Patricia Bouweraerts

When meeting two new people, one may introduce herself to you as a shift supervisor from Chicago, and the other as a creative who loves outdoor photography and works as a graphic designer to support his family.

Infographic: Countries with the Most LinkedIn Members | Statista

Courtesy Statista

As communication evolves toward expanded use of online social and networking platforms, there are more places to introduce yourself … to define and express your identity. Many introduce themselves according to their job title, while others branch out to define who they are by adding unique aspects of their lives.

Steve Aten’s title was Maintenance Repair Specialist at a college before he recently moved across the country to help and support a family member. He landed a new job, but doesn’t identify himself by a professional title — instead Aten expresses who he is in his own way.

“I’d say I’m a jack of all trades, master of only a few, usually know enough to be dangerous, and like to stay busy,” he said. “I relocated back East to be near my father who is 86, and alone now that both my brothers and mother are gone. So I went back to work to stay busy and still close enough to be able to help dad when he needs it.”

Another method of introduction is to base specifics on the audience — to be clear with whom one is speaking.

Kelley Dachtler is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and visual artist when introducing herself in professional environments. But when thinking about who she is as a whole, she expresses her identity more broadly.

“How I view myself is a Christian woman who is an educator and artist that lives in Nebraska,” she said. “Jobs come and go and I don’t define myself by them. The one constant in my life is my faith.”

A comprehensive survey released by the non-partisan research organization, the Barna Group, confirms a majority of Americans view factors other than their job as an essential part of their identity, naming family and country as important. In addition, different population subgroups place varying emphases on factors such as ethnicity and occupation.

Another interesting study by researchers at Yale University and the University of Arizona strongly suggests that individuals are known more by their character than their skills, memories, and abilities. In fact, when thinking about integrity, experts recommend that self-identity be based on these internal qualities, because external circumstances often change.

People list common influences, family comes in first

Individuals typically define themselves by factors including the following:
• Family
• Country of residence or origin
• Religious faith
• Ethnic group
• Occupation, career
• State of residence
• City, town
• Interests and hobbies
• Other aspects

Barna Group, a private for-profit organization conducted a 2015 study on the dynamics of American self-identity. Data was gathered from a sample group of 1,000 adults.

Family was found to be the most important influence, with more than 60 percent saying this aspect makes up ‘a lot’ of their identity, according to the Barna Group study.

Illustration of Family Playing Frisbee

“Adults are most likely to point to their family as making up a significant part of their personal identity, ‘being an American’ comes second and ‘religious faith’ is in third,” Barna Group added. “In a tie for a distant fourth are people’s career and their ethnic group. Significantly fewer adults would claim their state or their city have much impact on their personal identity.”

Americans weigh career and ethnicity as significant, but not the most important influence.

“Less than one-quarter of adults say their career makes up a lot of their personal identity (23 percent), though more than a third admit their career makes up some of their personal identity (36 percent),” according to the Barna study. “Similar percentages point to their ethnic group as shaping their identity: Just under a quarter (23 percent) say it makes up a lot of their identity.”

There was a consistent value assigned to career among age groups, with 22 percent to nearly 26 percent in these categories who indicated that career makes up ‘a lot’ of self-identity, reported the Barna Group. The exception was within the category Elders, more likely to be retired — only 17 percent named career as central.

Identity varies by population group

One interesting aside from the study is that within the overall results, there were less in the younger age categories who indicated being an American was an important influencer.

In addition, political and religious affiliation, region, economic group, and ethnicity had an impact on the ties between various factors and their personal identity. For example, the Barna study found differences in how various groups perceive the importance of their ethnicity.

“When it comes to those who say their ethnic group makes up a lot of their personal identity, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans and other non-white groups are the most likely to say so,” according to “Similarly, other segments that tend to have higher numbers of ethnic minorities — Catholics, Democrats, practicing Christians and mainline Christians — are more likely to say so.”

Social honor is not always transferable outside one’s circle

The way individuals define themselves is often revealed with the question, “So, what do you do?”

Joan Williams, professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law was a guest on the podcast Hidden Brain. She discussed a conversation between her husband and a fellow schoolmate at their high school reunion.

“He asked one of his classmates, ‘what do you do,’” she said. “Absolutely the standard question in my crowd. And his classmate was really offended. The classmate put his face very close to my husband’s face. He got beet red, and he said, ‘I sell toilets.’ And he obviously felt that the ‘what do you do’ question was a class insult from, virtually, the only member of their high school class from this blue-collar, Rust Belt town that had made it.”

Illustration of Female Construction Worker and Male Call Center Associate

Williams said the occupational question is a type of social display. When the other person indicates that he or she has a job such as professor or lawyer, it implies social honor.

“What the ‘I sell toilets’ comment meant is that ‘I’m not just the man who sells toilets,’” Williams said. “’Don’t just boil me down to my job. My job is not who I am.’ And also it shows that that guy needed to keep close to home in a small circle of friends and acquaintances who knew, ‘no, he’s not just the guy who sells toilets.’ His social honor is not portable.”

She added that many who consider themselves working class place a high value on the support they offer to their community of neighbors and workmates, and consider work as the way a person supports a family. Conversely, individuals who think of themselves as professional or managerial tend to regard individuality, self-development, and personal achievement as overriding ideals.

Hard work is a central principle for both groups, though in differing ways.

“But (for non-elites) the hard work is a matter of persevering and staying in that job, despite the fact that you may kind of hate it, in order to support your family and provide them with a settled family life,” Williams said. “Elites are completely defined by their jobs. You know, ‘what am I? I am a lawyer.’ ‘I am a techie.’”

The side gig, or moonlighting

Freelancing with a special skill, working a second job, or volunteering in a field of interest is typically known as the “side gig.” Musicians are well-known for working a “day job” while rehearsing their band in the garage on weekends.

Rob Gillies answered a question on, “Does your job define who you are?“ He suggests that job and work may differ.

Illustration of Woman Rock Climbing and Man Kayaking

“Some people can be defined by their job as they have pursued a passion in their life and turned it into a paying career,” he wrote. “Others do a job for the sake of being able to afford their real passions. Getting paid would undermine their interest in it.”

Rachael Tulipano, in her article “Five Reasons Why Your Work Doesn’t Define You,” agrees that a person’s job and his or her work may be unique.

“For the struggling artists out there waiting for their big break, a temporary job and their passionate work might be two separate things,” she wrote. “Your job title now might be a secretary to pay the bills in the interim.”

Is there a trend to defining yourself by work title?

Currently, when people introduce themselves, they often lead off with their name, job title, and company, Tulipano wrote.

“The nature of the work others engage in is the first thing we want to know about them, and more often than not we judge them based on their job titles,” she added.

Title affects the interpretation of how worthwhile one job is viewed in relation to another.

“From that one brief answer of what we do for work, others will make conclusions about our intelligence, education, income, drive, and value to society.” Tulipano wrote.

Charles Faraone, in answering the Quora question “How does your job define who you are,” agrees that a job title affects perception.

“For almost 40 years I’ve been fortunate to get away with being ‘the boss’ and there’s no doubt in my mind about the connection between the job title, how I’m perceived (by employees, suppliers, landlord, bankers, salespeople, family, friends, customers, competitors, strangers) and how I perceive myself,” he wrote.

Personality strengths integrate with job requirements

Personal makeup can come to the surface in an occupation — such as a well-organized individual thriving in office administration, or one who likes to coach groups of kids feeling successful in physical education.

In the Quora question-answer string, “Do you believe your work defines you,“ Kevin Limanta wrote that his nature as a mathematician also predisposes him to dislike illogical or inconsistent arguments.

“Assuming that your work is not forced upon you, I believe what you do should reflect who you are,” Limanta wrote. “I study mathematics, and it is not in my nature to accept things without questioning them. I am highly skeptical about many things.”

Integrity, not skills, reveals who one is to others, study finds

Research has demonstrated that people know individuals by their character more than via their talents and abilities. Bobby Azarian posted an article on concerning a study showing the identity of people with memory disorders is associated with moral compass rather than mental ability. The research was written and conducted by Nina Strohminger at Yale University and Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona.

“A new study has found that ‘who one is’ is largely defined by one’s moral behavior, and not by one’s memory capacity or other cognitive abilities,” Azarian wrote. “Thus, although Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may powerfully impact the mental functioning of individuals, sufferers can find some solace in the fact that substantial memory deficits — when unaccompanied by changes in moral characteristics — seem to have no effect on how others perceive ‘who you are.’”

The impression that an individual makes on others is influenced by principles to a greater extent than by expertise.

“In other words, how we see people — whether they are positive or negative, to be approached or avoided — is mostly determined by our assessment of their moral character, and not their intellect, knowledge, or other personality traits,” Azarian wrote.

Creating a working definition is an individual matter

Psychotherapist, college lecturer, and author Amy Morin recommends basing self-identity on internal aspects of one’s character.

Illustration of Couple Reading

“Basing your self-worth on your job title is a big risk,” she wrote on “An economic downturn, unexpected shift in the job market, or a major health problem may put an end to your career and lead to a major identity crisis. Even a planned retirement may destroy your self-worth if your identity is tied to your job title. If you’ve always measured your self-worth by what you do, you won’t feel good about yourself when your career ends.”

Instead, she advises to look for what you can control, the person within.

“When you know who you are — and you’re pleased with the person you’ve become — you’ll experience a sense of peace throughout life’s inevitable ups and downs,” Moran wrote. “You’ll believe in yourself regardless of whether you’ve been fired, gone through a divorce, or failed to get a promotion. Instead of chasing things that temporarily boost your self-esteem, measure your self-worth by who you are at your core.”

Tulipano expresses a similar view.

“Our self-identity needs to be about our potential and qualities,” she wrote. “Are we a good friend, father, mother, son, daughter, spouse, etc.? Are we loyal, trusting, caring, and kind? Do we treat others with respect? How do we define ourselves in regards to our goals, interests, passions, etc.?”

The case for a broader definition of identity

John Brandon, a contributing editor at considers job title as too narrow of a self-definition.

“My job is to write, to research — to do the things a journalist should do,” he wrote. “However, if I define myself as a writer, I fall into a trap. Am I a writer in the evening when I’m watching TV with the kids? Am I a writer on Sunday? Am I a writer on vacation? What if I decide to do a different job? Does what I do in my job always have to define who I am and therefore dictate my relationships, my outlook, and even my mood? Not really.”

Molly Walker would agree based on her answer to the Quora question “How does your job define who you are?

“Your job defines how you survive, how you pay for things,” she wrote. “Who you are is defined by your perspective and your actions.”

Achievements and education add to identity

It is said that an education is something no one can take away from you. Hard work and achievements are similar in this respect.

Illustration With Word Identity and Layers of Color

Lizzie Velasquez was born with a rare congenital syndrome that affects her appearance, including that she cannot gain any weight. Velasquez is blind in one eye and faces additional health concerns.

Her biggest difficulty has not come from physical difficulties, though. The hardest part for Velasquez has been bullying, she said in a December 2013 TEDx talk in Austin, Texas. In high school she found a video where someone labeled her the ‘world’s ugliest woman,’ with a total of four million views.

She credits her parents with supporting her from the time she first experienced bullying early in her school years.

“’You have this syndrome, but it’s not going to define who you are’ they said, ‘Go to school, pick your head up, smile, continue to be yourself, and people will see that you’re just like them,’” Velasquez said.

She decided that she would define herself by the positive things she has going for her, the parts of her life for which she is grateful. Velasquez refuses to be defined by name-callers.

“No; I’m going to let my goals, and my success, and my accomplishments be the things that define me — not my outer appearance, not the fact that I’m visually impaired, not the fact that I have this syndrome that nobody knows what it is,” she said.

Velasquez added that she has worked very hard to achieve her aspirations, and the goals she has reached so far include finishing a college degree, beginning a career as a motivational speaker, and writing three books. Her TEDx talk has gathered more than 7,250,000 views.

Consistency and integrity

Velasquez has not only worked hard and achieved, she encourages others to look at their inner beauty. Her leadership arises naturally from her occupation as a motivational speaker, and at the same time reflects a strong character.

On the subject of character, Bobby Azarian included a useful summing-up statement in his Scientific American article.

“Essentially, identity is not what we know, but what we stand for,” he wrote.

Therefore, an individual’s introduction of “a shift supervisor from Chicago” or “graphic designer from Los Angeles” may not sufficiently reveal his or her inner honor and grit. Research has established that individuals are known more broadly by their moral compass and empathy toward others.

So, this creates for us an interesting project — to create an introduction that expresses who we each are; layers, facets, and might.


  1. Kelley Dachtler - December 1, 2018 12:14 am

    Your article was very interesting and informative! The subject is relevant and thought provoking. Thank you for the enjoyable read!

    • admin - December 1, 2018 5:51 pm

      Thank you for your kind words, and thanks for reading! Warm wishes, Patricia