Imagine this scenario: You’re at a friend’s party and you don’t know anyone else there. When your friend goes to refill her drink, you’re left standing alone with a new acquaintance you just met. A few awkward seconds pass, and then you turn and say, “So, what do you do?”
This question’s become the go-to way to familiarize yourself with a new-to-you individual, and, frankly, I’ve come to despise it.
Perhaps that’s because I’ve never had a particularly straightforward answer. I’m not a pediatric nurse, or a divorce lawyer, or a Broadway actress. At my first job, my title was project coordinator. To this day, I still can’t eloquently explain what the company did, let alone what I did. Other than take notes, order team lunches, and coordinate projects, of course.
But I think it vexes me for bigger reasons—three, to be exact—than not being able to master (or understand) my elevator speech.
1. What We Do Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story of Who We Are
While it may not be intentional, the hidden message is, “Hi. Please inform me of your occupation so I can place you into a category for which I’ve already assigned characteristics and opinions.” It’s a shortcut to getting to know someone, and it’ll often cause you to form an incorrect image of who he is.
Let’s say you just met Tony and he tells you he’s a heart surgeon. You could make assumptions about his salary and how he leads his life. But that’s all they would be—assumptions. The only thing this really tells you is that he went to medical school (hopefully) and performs major operations.
It reveals nothing about his personality, hobbies, family, or dreams. Maybe he wants to open up a pizza joint. Maybe he and his son swim 20 laps together every morning. But you wouldn’t know that from inquiring about his line of work, and you probably wouldn’t learn it by following up with, “Oh, a heart surgeon! That’s quite a lot of responsibility you’ve got there, isn’t it?” [Insert sound of dying conversation.]
“Much like launching into a monologue about how busy or stressed you are when asked about your day,” explains Caroline Gregoire, a senior writer at The Huffington Post, “diving right into ‘what do you do’ can be a surefire way to prevent yourself from making a real connection with the person you’re speaking to.”
2. Talking About the Thing You Do All Day Gets Old—Quickly
The average adult in the United States spends approximately eight hours a day working (not including days off). That’s 480 minutes of thinking about it, discussing it, and looking at projects, presentations, and messages related to it.
And it’s likely that a lot of time outside of the workday is dedicated to thinking about problems that need solving, emails that require responding, and goals you’re trying to achieve. Even if someone likes his current job, he needs a break from it. So, please—please—ask something else. At least at first.
Like that time Starbucks forgot to put the espresso in your White Chocolate Mocha, leaving you with just steamed milk and flavored syrup. (This happened to me once. I’m still gagging). Or how you’ve turned down a few social gathering for weeks in lieu of catching up on the brand new Gilmore Girls episodes. (It’s OK—I have, too).
You’re likely to have a much more engaging and entertaining exchange.
3. It’s a Hard Question to Answer if You’re Unemployed
There’s a chance the person you’re speaking with may not even have a job. Perhaps she was laid off because the company decided to downsize. Or she was fired because she slept through an important meeting. Or maybe, like me, she decided to give her two weeks’ notice with no traditional 9-to-5 back-up plan. Putting her on the spot could turn the situation awkward very quickly.
Unemployment isn’t usually a fun predicament to be in, and having to talk about it often makes people uncomfortable. And unless you’re the CEO at a company she really wants to work for, she probably doesn’t want to tell you the nitty-gritty details about her job search.
Or perhaps she is still employed, but she either hates what she does. When she responds, she says something along the lines of, “I work at [insert company name] and it’s the worst place ever. [Insert several sentences of bitter rambling.] And, well, that’s a rocky road you probably don’t want to travel down.
Listen, I’m not saying you should never talk about your profession. Nor am I saying that you should never ask anyone else about his or hers. It’s a big part of your life, and you should feel more than free to celebrate big accomplishments, share exciting developments, and vent about your frustrations with those you know.
But it’s not the only part of your life, meaning there are plenty of other topics you can bond over, especially during your initial interaction with someone. These 48 better small talk questions are a great starting point. And while it may seem strange at first to skip over the classic go-to question, it’ll ultimately lead to much more interesting conversations.
Photo of men at table courtesy of Musketeer/Getty Images.