Every time you’re at a party or any other kind of social gathering, you bump into someone new and almost invariably, they’ll ask you some variant of the following question that has formed the backbone of small talk and the bane of existence for many of us:
“What do you do?”
Talk about a loaded question.
Depending on your answer, this person is going to decide whether or not they’re going to bother pursuing a conversation with you, or listen to you with their eyes glazed over before politely having to attend to a life-threatening emergency.
There are so many possible implications that may arise from this question. They’re deciding if you’re of a high enough status, how much attention to give you, trying to determine your net worth, your ideas and values etc.
I’ve always had trouble answering this question, because I’m never doing the same thing for very long. Sure, I’ve been a student for many years on end, but I certainly don’t want to be defined as a student!
Now, let’s create an imaginary member of our society, Generic Jimmy.
Let’s give Generic Jimmy a profession that sounds quite dull on the surface, or perhaps one that really is quite dull.
Let’s make Jimmy an accountant.
While he doesn’t usually jump out of bed, excited to go to work, perhaps Jimmy has played a vital role in protecting the endangered species of birds in his area, or maybe he enjoys tinkering with classic cars in his backyard in the evenings. What should he say when asked about what it is he does?
There’s a lot more to each person than what they’re (usually) forced to do in order to survive in our society.
So, what should we do instead?
What to Say/Ask Instead
If you are the one asking:
I’d suggest that you skip the “what do you do?” and use this question instead:
What are your personal projects?
It’s an elegant question that does two things.
- One, it allows the recipient of this question to talk about the things they love doing, especially if it does not relate to their professional life. It gets to the root of what they are truly interested in, rather than forcing them to talk about what they have to do for work.
- Two, if they don’t know what you mean, they’ll probably ask you, and that leads to a conversation in itself!
I’ve tried this a few times myself and it works wonders. Instead of the dreaded small talk, this question shifts the conversation into an engaging and interesting topic, where both participants are able to understand and get to know each other, and get to the heart of what truly interests them.
If you are the one answering:
Now for the tricky bit. If you’re on the receiving end of this question, you can turn this to your advantage and pose a counter question. So it’ll look something like this:
A: So uhh.. (staring into wine glass, attempting to come up with an innovative question) What do you do?
You: Well, I could talk about work, I’m a/an (fill in the blank), but that’s quite boring. I do have a few personal projects that I’m involved in.
I’m willing to bet that they’ll ask about your personal projects.
But What About That Other Question?
There’s a chance they’ll ask you “What do you do for a living?“, in which case you’re positively screwed.
Okay, not really. For almost any question, you can be creative and try to sidestep the question, but my suggestion is to simply answer the question, and casually redirect them later by asking them about their personal projects instead. That way, you steer them to a topic in which you both actually have an interest in.
What about you? How would you like to be defined? Or better yet, what are your personal projects? I’d love to see your answers in the comments!