Want more authentic, engaging connections with total strangers? Then stop making this common mistake.
“So, what do you do?”
It’s a simple question, right? It’s completely reasonable to start a new relationship with this age-old query, right after “what’s your name?”
Except, it’s not. It’s not a reliable conversation starter, rather it’s a communication ender. It cuts us off from our authentic voice. It kills any possibility of us being open and vulnerable from each other, and throws us into a robotic autopilot mode of pre-scripted responses.
Let’s stop being human Chatbots, ok?
I say we remove the question from our discourse. It’s lazy, it’s boring, it’s unhelpful, and it robs us of our creative spirit.
While the question ‘what do you do?’ seems simple at first glance, within that simplicity is hidden complexity.
When someone asks you this question, they expect a simple, off-the-cuff answer, and you feel like you’re on the hook to give them one. So we dance the dance, and give into the custom. In reality, we’ve never had an answer that was simple or satisfying — not even for ourselves.
How can you possibly boil down all that you are, all of your hopes and dreams, your loves and your fears, your past and your present, into a definitive one-sentence statement that shares that unique cocktail of awesome-ness with others?
Do we really want to give others the power to fill in the blanks? Do we just roll the dice with whatever preconceived notions and biases that others may have based on our label? There is so much context, nuance and deep richness to “who I am” that it can never be conveyed with such a surface-level answer.
Who’s with me on this? Can we agree that the “what do you do?” question is complete and utter bullshit?
Either you’re with me at this point, or your thinking something like, “They’re just asking about work, don’t overcomplicate it”
You’re probably right. In that case, let’s be a little more honest with the question. If we really want an answer to that, we should ask, “what’s your profession?”
…What? Nobody would ask that? Of course not. It’s totally inappropriate as an icebreaker or conversation starter. A question like that would put your new friend on the defensive, feeling like they were being judged and evaluated.
So then, Why. The. Fuck. Do we think “what do you do” is any better, when we assume the same kind of response?
What does our profession matter? Is this a job interview? Assuming it’s not, and we’re in a social occasion outside of work, why would we want to throw our victim into the fight-or-flight, anxiety-ridden thought loops associated with their clock watching, paycheck-to-paycheck, deadline-looming day jobs? Is that how to put someone in a fun, spontaneous or even sexy — depending on what you’re going for, mood?
I’ll be honest, I’ve always envied those with the easy answers to the “What do you do?” question.
They can say one or two words, shut you up with your nosy inquiry, and move on with their lives.
“I’m a doctor”
“I’m a teacher”
“I’m a dog walker”
That must be so nice. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of mental bandwidth I would save if I had a a pre-loaded ‘one shot, one kill’ answer bullet ready to fire off on a hairpin trigger.
…but are these people really satisfied defining themselves in those terms? Sure, they’ve technically answered the question, but have they provided a proper introduction about what makes them unique?
Others go big, the answers are less easily understood and categorized by mainstream minds. I admire the creativity of these more colorful titles, as they try to interject a little bit of personality into an otherwise dry line of questioning.
From these types, I hear stuff like:
“Social media ninja”
“Customer success specialist”
The problem is, most of these titles are given to them by someone else. Either directly from their employer — “Here, have a fun job title… Hope it makes up for the shit pay, long hours and subhuman treatment”, or from an aspirational figure they gives them some sort of inflated meaning with an artificial title.
You can’t just tell someone you’re a “Chief Fun Officer (CFO)” and expect there won’t be any follow up questions. Well, maybe you can, since your new acquaintance will think you’re a pretentious asshat and regret asking in the first place.
But in the event that the whimsical answer sparks additional conversation you’ve now diverted the energy of the interaction to explaining something that has no bearing on your relationship with this new person. You’ve also switched from an organic, emotional interplay to a logical, explanatory monologue.
There’s no ideal answer for the question. It’s a lose-lose proposition for both people. There has to be a better way.
Let’s not ask others to define and categorize themselves, before we’ve had the chance to explore and uncover their magnificent fullness — organically.
Meeting someone new and forming a genuine connection can be the most exciting feeling in the world. It’s an adventure, with twists and turns, deeply rewarding in each new discovery — whether we uncover a unique quirk, strength, vulnerability, past experience or shared love.
Every interaction, every relationship, creates a unique synergy between two or more people. We bring our life experience together and create something new, fresh and truly alive. The more that we bring our pre-defined meaning into these alchemic cauldrons of new potential, the more we limit the possibilities that can emerge from them.
It’s not a simple question, it’s a cop-out.
How can we create more authentic connections, feel the freedom to discover ourselves anew in the present moment, and step into the uncertainty of new relationships? It’s scarier to be unsure, but it’s more honest and exciting. Life shouldn’t be a conclusion definition of our past, or even our present, but an ongoing uncovering of our true nature.
It’s time to stop hiding from others, and ourselves.
How will you answer the next time someone asks, “what do you do”?