What Are We Really Trying to Ask?

Picture the scenario of meeting someone new. You’ve reached out for networking purposes and now have their full and undivided attention at the local coffee shop. There’s a buzz, if only from the espresso. Besides all the regular Googling you’ve done on them beforehand, it’s time to get the conversation started. “What do you do?” you ask. There it is. The question we all wish wasn’t asked as soon as it’s left your lips. It’s what we’ve gravitated to when meeting someone new. Or worse, the question has been posed to you and you have to fiddle around in your brain with the answer that says I-do-something-interesting-but-not-in-a-bragging-kind-of-way. It’s even found it’s way into our cocktail parties and happy hours, “So… what do you do?” asks the girl meeting a guy for the first time at the table next to you. You cringe when you hear it. We all do.

I’ll be honest– I use it too when I can’t think of anything else to ask. But I also judge people who ask it. And lately, I’ve heard a newer version, “So, where do you work?”. Lucky me, I have a generic answer that shuts people up but that unfortunately doesn’t describe me very well. “Who me? Oh, I’m a freelance writer.” Even that doesn’t feel like it covers everything someone needs to know about me. I’m not defined by it nor do I want you to think that I only fit into that bucket. And don’t you dare ask me if I’ve published anything you may have read before. I’m not saying that everything you need to know will occur in one sitting but now you know nothing about my interests by that answer. What if I said I was a consultant? What if I told you I worked at Facebook or LinkedIn? Would you look at me differently? What are you really getting at when you ask me that question?

I’ve tried a few varieties of answers and questions. I think the real question should be “What are you interested in?”. I haven’t perfected the question yet but I believe we should remove the usual ones from our small-talk banter. If I wanted you to know what I did, we’d be wearing nametags. If I wanted you to know where I worked, I’d wear the startup tee. Truth is, I don’t care what you do. I care about what makes you tick, what motivates you to wake up in the morning, and what you do during your free time. Those are the things we probably have in common. Not that I’m hunting you down as a friend but I feel like those answers give me more insight than the typical answers about project management, inbox zero-ing, and marketing/sales daily routines.

I’ve heard this is a typical question of Americans to ask. Some think we use this crutch question as a means to brag about our salaries or make a power play. I agree. Sadly, I’ve seen people use it for those purposes and I’m quick to shut them down. “I won’t bore you with those details. Let’s talk about an interesting book I’ve read recently.” Maybe it sounds as if I’m hiding something but who wants to be bored with the details of work. Why can’t we discuss the state of social enterprise in the city we’re in? I’m more curious as to what challenges you face and how I can help. What is the last big project you worked on? Was it successful or not? All of which is of interest to me. Next time we sit down for coffee, and it’s the first time I’ve met you, don’t be surprised if I don’t ask you what you do. And be ready to answer something far more personal or in-depth about your hobbies and interests.

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