‘What Are You Doing?': Meaning and How to Reply

By Sophia Merton, updated on March 13, 2023

Did someone ask you, ‘what are you doing’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, definition, how to reply, and more.

When a person asks ‘what are you doing’ at the start of a conversation, they are typically asking what activity you are currently working on. That being said, you don’t necessarily need to give them a detailed explanation of what you’re up to– the question is used as a type of alternative to ‘how are you’ or ‘what’s up.’ In some situations, ‘what are you doing’ can be an accusatory question when someone believes that you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing.

What Does 'What Are You Doing' Mean?

‘What are you doing’ is a question that can be used to ask another person what activity a person is working on at the time.

  • Depending on the context, the intent of this question can vary.

For example, if your friend texts you and says, “Hey! ‘What are you doing?’” They’re just asking what your current activity is. They might be asking out of curiosity or because they want to make plans together.

At the same time, you don’t necessarily have to go into the details of what you are currently doing when you respond. You might simply say something like “just the usual” or “just hanging out.”

'What Are You Doing' In Combination With a Time Period

This phrase can be used in combination with a time period in a way that changes the meaning a bit. For instance, if your friend asks you, ‘what are you doing tomorrow?’ then they are trying to find out what your plans are for the next day.

When someone asks ‘what are you doing’ with a specific time period attached, they might ask out of curiosity or because they are trying to coordinate a plan with you.

Remember to Consider the Context

It’s always important to pay attention to context when working to understand new phrases, as the tone and circumstance can really change the meaning. In some situations, someone might ask, ‘what are you doing’ in an accusatory fashion because they believe you are doing something that you shouldn’t be doing. Similarly, someone might ask this question if you appear to be doing something they don’t understand and they want an explanation regarding your activity.

  • An example of using this question with a different intent would be if you parked your car in an area that explicitly states no parking is allowed. A parking attendant or a concerned citizen might ask, ‘what are you doing?’ with the implication that you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing.
  • Another example would be if you were visiting your parent’s house and all of a sudden, you started coloring on their pristinely white couch with a red Sharpie marker. Your mother might ask, ‘what are you doing?!’ in a dismayed fashion, shocked by your destructive action. It’s not that she doesn’t understand that you are drawing with a Sharpie on her couch. It’s more that she is so surprised that you would do something so destructive that she is making an exclamation in disbelief.

Though ‘what are you doing’ might sound similar to the question “what do you do,” both of these queries have different intents. While ‘what are you doing’ implies that the asker wants to know what a person is doing currently, ‘what do you do’ implies that the asker wants to know what the person does for a living– i.e., what their profession is.

How to Respond to ‘What Are You Doing?’

There are a lot of options for how you can respond to the question, ‘what are you doing?’ You’ll want to consider the context when deciding how to reply.

If someone asks you ‘what are you doing?’ through a text or on the phone, you could give a simple, standard reply such as:

  • Nothing much
  • Just the usual
  • Nothing in particular
  • Just hanging out
  • Just chillin
  • Same old, same old
  • Just taking it easy
  • Just enjoying the beautiful day
  • Just taking it one day at a time

If it seems that the person is actually curious about what you are up to rather than simply using the question as a greeting, you could choose to give a little more info. Of course, there’s no obligation to give someone the details of your daily routine, but it’s perfectly appropriate to let them know what activity you’re working on.

Here are some examples:

  • “I’m working on a report right now– the deadline is tonight!”
  • “I took the day off because I’m feeling sick. You’ll have to bear with me; this cold has been impacting my ability to think clearly.”
  • “I’m getting ready for my trip. I’m leaving on Friday, and I want to make sure I don’t forget anything.”
  • “Oh, I’m just taking care of a few things on my to-do list.”
  • “I’m out in the garden harvesting tomatoes. They’ve really been prolific this year!”
  • “I’m just out on a walk with my dog and taking some photos of the sunset.”
  • “I’m running out the door to bring my daughter to her first day of kindergarten– can I call you back in half an hour?”

If someone asks you, ‘what are you doing?’ in an accusatory way, you’ll likely want to respond differently. How you respond will depend on the context of what is happening.

For example, let’s say that you are in your father’s office looking through his papers.

  • He might say, ‘What are you doing?’ because he is surprised and concerned that you are paging through his things.
  • You might say, ‘Sorry to bother you, but I’m just looking for that form you asked me to fill out.’

Other Ways to Say 'What Are You Doing'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'what are you doing'?

Here are some options:

  • What are you up to?
  • What’s going on?
  • What have you been up to?

Final Thoughts on ‘What Are You Doing’

When someone asks you, ‘what are you doing?’ they are usually asking what your current activity is. In certain contexts, people might ask ‘what are you doing’ when they are displeased with your actions or confused by what you appear to be doing.

If you hop on the phone with a friend to chat for a bit and they ask ‘what are you doing,’ they are basically using the phrase as an alternative to ‘how are you,’ ‘what’s up,’ or ‘what’s going on.’ Common broad responses to ‘what are you doing’ include ‘not much,’ ‘just hanging out,’ and ‘just the usual.’

Depending on the person you’re talking to, you might choose to give a bit more specific information. For example, if your mother calls and asks ‘what are you doing,’ you might tell her that you’re busy studying for your exam or that you’re just getting ready to head to the store. You can choose how general or specific your answer is, and there is no obligation to go into detail about your activities if you don’t want to.

If someone asks ‘what are you doing’ in a dismayed way, it means that they are witnessing you doing something that they don’t understand or approve of. For example, if you poured a glass of water over your friend’s head, they might ask, ‘what are you doing?!’ It’s not that they don’t understand that you are pouring a glass of water over their head; it’s that they are so surprised and shocked that they are essentially asking why you are acting in such a troubling way.

Are you ready to learn more English expressions? Head over to our idioms blog for more idioms, phrases, sayings, and adages.

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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