You know that asking someone what he or she does for a living is a surefire conversation starter. Unlike commiserating over the weather or complimenting someone on her necklace, “So, what do you do?” lends itself to follow-up questions that can keep a conversation going.
That is, of course, when both people are gainfully employed.
Responding to this common question can feel uncomfortable if you’ve recently quit or lost your job, and your response begins, “Well I used to…” or, “Well I’m looking…” But there’s no reason you should have to feel bad or give an awkward answer. Come prepared with a stellar response, and you’ll impress new professional and social contacts with your poise in light of an (unintentionally) tough question.
See below for three ways to gracefully answer, “What do you do?” (no matter what you’re really thinking).
You’re Thinking: “I lost my job, and I don’t want to talk about this.”
Say: “I’m transitioning—and what do you do?”
Sometimes you’re unemployed, and you really don’t want to talk about it. Maybe you recently got laid off, you left a bad situation, or you’re reconciling with passing up a great opportunity for personal reasons.
Intuitively, you may think a quick response (e.g., “My department was downsized”) signals that you’ve answered that question and are ready to change topics. However, your new acquaintance may—with truly the best of intentions—keep asking you questions in an attempt to avoid callously moving right along.
But “I’m transitioning” has a “never complain, never explain” air about it—there isn’t enough information for your contact to ask a follow-up question. Moreover, immediately adding, “and what do you do?” is a way of passing back the talking stick: Your turn is over, and it’s time for your new contact to discuss his or her career.
You’re Thinking: “I’m actively looking for a job in my field—know anyone?”
Say: “I’ve been an interior designer, both corporate and residential, for the past 10 years.”
When you first meet a great new contact, it can be tempting to immediately let him or her know you’re job-hunting—or even ask straight-out for connections or job leads. For many people, even if they’re incredibly shy about making such a bold ask of their networks, they’re not as concerned with someone new, because there is no fear associated with offending him or her.
First, this thinking is totally backward—you should be leaning on your established contacts! Second, you don't want your first interaction (read: impression) to revolve around asking for a favor. Rather, your goal should be to genuinely connect with your new contact, because that’s the first step to building a professional relationship.
The best move here is to answer the question by referencing your field of work. This way you can highlight your experience and showcase your awesomeness—which is still there regardless of whether you’re working for a specific company. (Bonus: To keep with the flow of conversation, a new contact will often naturally respond with an indication of how connected he or she is to that field—“What is SEO? I’m still clueless about the web!” versus “You know, my cousin works in event planning too!”)
You’re Thinking: “I need a job—but I have no idea what I’m looking for.”
Say: “I love media and working with people, and I’m looking for something that’ll help me do both of those things.”
While you might think saying, “I’m open to anything,” makes you look flexible, it’s actually too much for a new contact to process. First, he’s not going to connect you to every single person he knows. Second, it can make you look unfocused or like you haven’t really thought your career through. Third, it can take the conversation off-track (or end it altogether).
Instead, always answer with something that frames your search—be it lab research, social impact, working with others, working independently, whatever. It will dramatically increase the odds of your new acquaintance suggesting something for which you might be a fit—and at the very least, spur a much more interesting talk.
When you’re unemployed, discussing your current professional situation with new people can be tough. But remember, “What do you do?” is meant as an innocuous way to get to know someone better. So don’t let it get you down, and do choose a smart answer from above: It might just help you gain a great new contact—and job opportunity.
Photo of unemployed sign courtesy of Shutterstock.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author