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“What Do You Do?” is an Overrated Question

By Jacquelyn Adams

“So… what do you do?” Ahhh, yes, that go-to question we always pull out when we meet someone new. It might be the standard introductory question in the United States, but it has recently started receiving pushback. People are starting to question the benefit of this question. Let’s take a look at some of these concerns, and check out some alternatives as well.

Stop making assumptions

When we ask people what they do, it serves as the first box we put them in. It does have the merit of possibly telling us a few things at once. Perhaps it tells us how much education they received. We might find out about particular skill sets they have. If their job is similar to ours, maybe we have comparable mindsets. It can also open a variety of conversation topics… or be a conversation ender. We find out what color their collar is. We start to put them in a box. It is very easy to judge, for better or worse, based on that one piece of information, disregarding the journey that occurred along the way. A principal might look more impressive than a cafeteria worker… unless you knew that the principal got their job by cheating through school and nepotism in the workplace, while the cafeteria worker is a single parent taking college courses in the evenings. What we do is just a tiny part of who we are, and there are many paths to the same career.

Keep the work/personal life balance in check

I get that this topic might seem contradictory for a leadership blog on a website for technology professionals. However, to be clear, I am encouraging you to be leaders in your families, communities and volunteering opportunities around you. Leaders are not relegated to the workplace, and if we are defined wholly by our job, what happens when our work is at risk… as so many jobs are in our post-pandemic world? All of a sudden it’s not just the standard concerns of income and the future that are thrown into a tailspin, but now we get to toss in an identity complex, too. Or… we could start making little changes in how we approach our work life, for example, not using, ‘What do you do?’ as the first getting-to-know-you question and instead spruce up our question repertoire.

Ask this instead

And, of course, as an engineer, I am ready to help fix the problem (yes, I see what I did there).

  • What are your interests? While this is safe and generic, like asking what a person does, it also offers other variations including “How do you spend your time?,” “What do you do for fun?” and “What are you passionate about?”
  • What’s the best thing that has happened to you today?
  • Create your own random go-to questions. What cheers you up? What’s your favorite word? What personal habit are you proudest of? Or you could even ask about someone’s favorite (fill in the blank). Come up with questions you like to ask and see which people like responding to.
  • Lastly, there are situational questions. If at a park, restaurant, etc, you can comment that you like this one and ask if there are other ones they would recommend. Or if doing an activity, find out about their previous experiences doing it or similar ones, or if it is new to them, what prompted them to try it?

The world is your oyster when meeting someone new. There is no need to lean into the old standard. It has been overused and just adds fuel to the fire of our becoming our identity. As author Simon Sinek said, “We can define what we do, but what we do must never define us.”

Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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