Better questions than “What do you do?

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“What do you do?” might be the worst question to start out a conversation with a new person and yet it’s the one we all seem to ask at the outset. It’s our default question. It’s our “go-to.” It’s frustrating to ask and frustrating to answer so why do I keep falling into that trap every time? I suppose it’s easy and it cuts through that lengthy silence right after, “Nice to meet you” or maybe it’s just a matter of habit in modern conversation. It’s what we do.

It’s been hard for me to answer the “what do you do?” question over the years because I’m self-employed, because I’m a stay at home mother, because I “do” a lot of things, who knows. When it’s asked of me I find a way to muddle through eventually. Usually I just say, “Laundry. I do a lot of laundry.” But no matter how well I answer the question or how much of a chuckle I get from my conversation partner, I find I am still unsettled by it.

Worse than that, I find I am still likely to ask it in response. It’s like a knee-jerk response for me. It got me to thinking about what we are really doing by asking what someone “does.”

Recently there have been articles floating around the interwebs dedicated to the psychology behind asking “What do you do?” Some say it’s a leveling maneuver, some suggest that it’s elitist and demeaning or that it’s all about positioning. For most people though, I’d say what we’re really asking is “who are you?” and then “how are we connected?” I like to think to ask what a person does isn’t merely a function of placing them into a box or jockeying for position but rather a desire to understand how we can best relate to each other.

Unfortunately, the question itself as an opening to a conversation is more likely to lead to stalled answers and the awkward shuffling of feet. So while learning how to answer the question better is one step in the process of evolving in this whole “get to know you” dance I’d say that what we need to do is learn to ASK better questions. Otherwise, we’re just part of the social status quotient problem after all.

So rather than continuing to further that awkward shuffling of feet, here are 5 things I thought might be better questions than “What do you do?”

  1. How do you know (insert name here)?

When we ask what someone does we’re trying to figure out how we’re connected and so asking about the human relationship in the room can be a great way to know that connection without relegating someone to their job.

By defining “relationship” in the first few minutes of a conversation, we bring everything to a human, personal level. Another way to put it might be “what’s your connection to (this place, this event, this pep rally) if you don’t actually have a personal connection at that moment. Even this question develops connection rather than setting up a job-based hierarchy.

  1. What’s a nice girl/boy/person like you doing in a place like this?

This one has a bad rap and perhaps you’d frame it a bit differently depending on your circumstances and location, but it still gets across the more rude version, “Why are you here?” Another way to phrase this well would be “What brings you here?”

This gives people a chance to place themselves rather you placing them according to their vocation. And at the same time it opens the door to a smorgasbord of follow-up questions related to this place, this setting or this location. What we’re after in asking about the location and a person’s connection to it is to build some connection through a sense of “place.” This can be a great foundation for the rest of the conversation and help people to connect at deeper levels.

  1. I love that scarf (hat, coat, eyeliner) where did you get it?

Now, this question is a little tricky. First off, don’t give a compliment that isn’t true, that’s like offering someone a counterfeit quarter. Choose something that really does strike you about that person and pay that compliment with real sincerity.

Asking more about a trait or fashion choice shows you are taking an interest in them and, of course, that’s what we’re aiming for when meeting new people. What works well with this question is that it might begin as a surface observation but again, it opens doors to other topics to discuss and that can help to bring about more engaging dialog.

  1. That was an amazing speech (concert, pep rally) earlier. What did you think?

This works best when you’re having a shared experience. The danger is that your conversation partner might not think it was an amazing speech (concert pep rally) at all, certainly but it’s worth the effort to at least test the waters and get a conversation going.

And even if they don’t agree with your perception of the event, it may help you to expand your own perception of what’s going on. Asking what people think is a good way to get to know them but also a way to keep an open mind in general and that’s a good thing especially when getting to know new people.

  1. What do you do?

Okay, I admit this works against the premise of this article but honestly, at some point in the conversation this will most likely surface. It’s not ALWAYS a bad thing to ask about someone’s work, it’s just not always the most expedient way to know him or her better at the outset.

So that being said, it’s not a question to be completely taken off the table; it’s just a better question to save until after dessert. Most of the time starting with one of the other four questions will answer this fairly easily and in a more natural and authentic way but if it flows with the conversation, this is a perfectly fine thing to ask someone new.

So for those of us who hate “what do you do?” let’s make a social pact to stop scratching the surface of conversation and find the deeper connection waiting underneath. Why not? Let’s walk into new situations and new introductions with an eye toward knowing more than we knew when we walked in. We might learn something amazing. We might realize the person before us is like lost kin or a potential best friend. Maybe they have hiked Mt Everest. Maybe they have swum the English Channel. Maybe they know the secret to the very best chocolate chip cookies. These are important things, people.

The best way to discover all of this is to be interested and curious. Don’t fall into the easy trap of simply asking first where someone fits (or doesn’t) into the workforce. Take an interest, channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and learn to ask better questions. It’s worth the effort!

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