We’ve all seen this scenario played out too many times. You meet someone for the first time and as a way to engage in a little bit of conversation, one of you asks, “so, what do you do?” I hate this question. I hate it because my reflexive response is always “I’m a software developer… you?” Is this how I define myself? Of all the things I do, when someone asks me this generic question, why do I respond with my job rather than my passions, hobbies, or interests?
Chances are, if you’re asking someone what they do, you’re not actually interested in what their job title is. You’re actually interested in other personal questions that can be derived from their answer. You really want to know how much money they make so you can determine if you make more or less than they do. You want to know how your status compares to theirs.
After you’ve asked the other person “what do you do?” and listen to their response, they will undoubtedly return the question back to you. At this point, you already know how your socioeconomic status compares to theirs, so you have to either try to sell them on your lesser job, or play-down your job to make it seem as though you’re no better or worse than they are. Once you tell them your occupation, you’re both stuck with the awkwardness of knowing how you compare with each other, and the conversation is more than likely soon to die.
So, if this question is almost inevitable in life, how can we answer it to avoid this mundane exchange of how we generate income? You need to proactively think about what you want people to know about you. Do you want people to think of you as John, the office assistant, or John, the guy that enjoys spending time with his family and mountain biking? You also don’t have to give the same answer to everyone that asks you this question. You can be John, the mountain biker, to one person and John, the history buff to another.
This is going to catch this person off-guard, but it’s your responsibility to not ask them what they do in return. You need to rephrase the question to something like, “what about you, what are you passionate about/interested in?” This will hopefully get them to tell you something they are interested in rather than what their job is, which will definitely make for more interesting conversation. Not only will it help your conversation, but hopefully they’ll take note and use the same technique the next time they are asked the age-old question, “what do you do?”