• Amy Michele

Why is "What do you do?" the wrong question to ask?

When we first meet someone, in the course of casual conversation, how many of us default to the very common question; "What do you do?"? Not only does it lack in creativity, and imply a desire of comparison, in so many cultures it is actually rude or insulting. Your intent may be in the right place, but let's examine why it is not the best option, and what may be better.

When we ask someone what they do, they respond with a job title. What we are really asking is: "How do you earn a paycheck?", "How much money do you earn?", "How successful are you?", "How do I compare to you in measures of success?". In reality none of these things defines a person or really helps you get to know them. When "what do you do" is answered with a less than glamorous job (cleaning portable toilets for instance) we all unfortunately make assumptions about the individual giving the answer. Job titles do not define us, and I am saddened by individuals who try to draw the sum of their existence from their career. I approach my life like many Europeans, work is a way to afford life, not a definition of who I am.

For someone like myself who has multiple jobs that make up what I do, the answer to the question gets lengthy and confusing. I have had people lose interest before the question is even answered. The reality is that most people don't want to talk about their day job ad nauseam, or they will just give you the "sound bite" answer they have perfected over the years that does not give you any insight into who they are. If your goal is simply to fill space and time until you can move on to the next person at an awkward party, then feel free to stick to the "What do you do?" line of questioning.

If instead you are actually interested in getting to know someone, consider asking better questions. Questions like "What are you passionate about?" or "What has brought you the most joy in the past (week, month, year)?" will bring answers centered around action, not simply a job title. When the question is posed to you, turn it around and respond "I am really passionate about _________." Fill in the blank with whatever you would like to share. This will move the conversation toward discussing things you each enjoy rather than an exchange of resumes. On your next opportunity, try this change in paradigm and and make an effort to connect on a deeper level. The results may surprise you.

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