’Tis the season for awkward conversations with people you haven’t seen in a year. And while it’s impossible to predict the array of inappropriate questions you’ll receive during the uncomfortable, crowded holiday gatherings you’ll be required to attend, one inquiry you’ll hear at least a few times is, “So, what do you do again?”
The question seems simple, but as business has become increasingly complicated—and creative—job titles like “technology evangelist” or “corporate securities legal ninja” or “chief culture officer” no longer provide the easily digestible job descriptions they used to. During the holidays, when you’re faced with making small talk for days on end, it can be tough to describe your professional role to people who don’t know—or really care about—your industry.
Nevertheless, you need to have a prepared answer to this question because otherwise you will have to talk about something else—potentially a topic of substance like global warming or the downfalls of the South Beach diet or what your cousin Mary thinks she is doing with her life—and God knows no one wants that.
But don’t worry. I’ve consulted with my professional network and developed a number of best practices for how to explain your job, tailored by audience.
Explaining Your Job to Your Grandparents or an Elderly Relative
Their Goal: To make sure you’re doing something with your life and earning enough money to support yourself.
Your Goal: To avoid having to set up Gmail on Nana’s iPhone again.
When you’re speaking to folks who have been out of the workforce for a while, it’s important to avoid jargon and simplify your everyday responsibilities.
Instead of focusing on your day-to-day tasks, explain the end result of your hard work.
For example, a UI designer might say, “I make websites more organized so it’s easier for people to find what they need.” Highlight how your job contributes to the organization’s overall mission, emphasize long-term stability, and downplay technical skills (to avoid becoming the ad hoc help desk).
Explaining Your Job to Someone You’ve Met Before, But Can’t Remember When or How
Their Goal: TBD
Your Goal: Get this person to say something that will trigger your memory before he or she realizes that you don’t have a clue.
The tall guy at your neighbor’s holiday open house clearly knows you, but you can’t quite remember how you know him. Was it the strengths-based learning workshop you took at that conference last year? Your officemate’s wedding? Who knows.
Regardless, you’ll need to describe your job with enough detail to extract clues from him about his identity, but without excessive detail because he, after all, might know all about you and your role.
In this case, focus on current projects and accomplishments instead of big-picture items, which no one will have heard about no matter where they met you. And ask questions about the other person’s recent work (again, avoiding the risk of exposing yourself) in order to dig for clues.
Explaining Your Job to a Drunk Person
Their Goal: Best case scenario, this person’s in a chatty mood and just looking for conversation. Worst case scenario, you’re getting hit on.
Your Goal: To totally bore this person, so he or she will leave you alone, and you can get yourself a much-needed second cocktail.
Confusion is the name of the game here. Start by spouting off some acronyms—if you’re a regional sales manager for the North American territory, for example, refer to yourself as an RSM for NAT. Inject the words global, cloud-based, and integrated whenever possible.
If this person is still asking questions about what you do, begin explaining the systems that you use (CRMs, project management systems, or expense management systems) or, even better, the metrics that those systems collect to measure your performance. As soon as his or her eyes begin to glaze over, make a beeline for the bar.
Explaining Your Job to a Potentially Valuable Contact Who Can’t Hear You Over “Jingle Bell Rock”
Their Goal: To make it out of the party with two fully functioning eardrums.
Your Goal: To communicate your expertise and get your business card in hand.
You’ve wanted to meet this person for months—and here you are! But, unfortunately, the DJ isn’t invested in your professional development.
In order to make a lasting impression and ensure an opportunity for follow-up, focus on describing your professional talents with well-known keywords that can be easily lip-read. Use exaggerated gestures to demonstrate the scope of your work (i.e. “I manage the entire department [insert sweeping, double-arm circle here]).
And wrap up quickly—your new contact will appreciate that you don’t want to monopolize his or her time. Hand over your card and send a follow-up email within 24 hours.