A Better Question Than "What Do You Do?"

I was forced to put together a 100-word bio this week. I felt mildly panicked.

You may know the feeling I'm talking about... sometimes it strikes when someone asks you "What do you do?" It's a conflicting concoction of how do I describe myself mixed with my sense of what's expected tossed with my own feelings about how well my job may or may not introduce me.

Oh, am I overthinking it? Probably.

Still, for many folks, the "What do you do?" question is not the best fit. So I've tried to shift my thinking, especially in cross-cultural conversations. Here's why.

Why I Don't Ask "What do you do?"

"What do you do?" is a very American (U.S.) question. We derive a great deal of identity from our jobs, our titles, or our vocations. It's also just a common ice breaker.

Billy and I had been married for several years when I wondered out loud, "Does your family know what I do for a living?" He shrugged and responded, "I think so."

I couldn't really remember having any extended conversation about my work. But it wasn't because of disinterest in me. Instead, I was always asked, "How are your parents... your sister... your nephews?"

Particularly in relationships that also bridge economic divides, questions about work or jobs can be sensitive. Someone may be struggling to find work, may be underemployed, or may feel their employment lacks prestige.

Of course, these questions may also just seem irrelevant since, in my opinion, many other cultures have better boundaries with work. After all, if your job is a means by which to live your life, wouldn't you rather discuss your life?

A Better Question: "How's your mom?"

We've often hear that other cultures are more family-centric, but I think that orientation plays out in important ways in cross-cultural conversations. Instead of work-focused questions, I'm learning to focus on relationships and family.

It's taken some practice for me. Usually, if I'm talking about your mom, I'm making a yo mamma joke.... because I'm an eleven year old boy. One day my kids will truly appreciate these jokes.

But I'm starting to ask "Do you have family in the area?" "How is your family?"

Remembering details about friends' families is good practice all around. But I think this topic is even more appreciated in multicultural contexts.
What questions are your go-to ice breakers? How do you feel when someone asks what you do?
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  1. Julie Martin Cruz12:37 PM

    I think you have made a great point. My husband played soccer and is now a soccer coach. Many people want to talk about soccer with him (how their child is doing, etc.) and my children and I try to listen with patience. In social situations I'm saying in my head, "He's not at work. This is our social time." We sometimes want to tell them that there is so much more to us than soccer! We've learned to try to steer the conversation away from work because as much as we love soccer, it is work. How about asking how someone met? (I love to hear about people's romance or even friendships.) We could talk about vacations or even staycations. Where did you grow up? Do you like to travel? Can you recommend any good restaurants?

  2. ekstein1112:58 PM

    This morning, I was reading a reflection on when Jesus asks the question to Peter, "Who do you say I am" Note that Jesus didn't ask "What do I do" but rather, who am I? separating your identity from your job. In light of that, along with your blog post, I'm beginning to realize how much the USA focuses on work. Perhaps next time I'm making small talk, instead of asking what you do, I'll ask who they are. :)

  3. You're right. Our identity is not tied to our work or how we pay our bills. You'll have to let me know how people respond to "Who are you?" Could be amusing!

  4. Hi Julie! I can definitely understand the trickiness of your situation with soccer being a hobby for so many, but wanting to expand your conversations subjects. I LOVE the question about how you met because I always learn so much about people when they answer. And the restaurants is a good one to try. I'm going to remember that!

  5. Katie7:18 PM

    Thanks for the suggestion. It's hard for me because I'm not a good talker, but I love talking about my job! But I do try to be sensitive and understand the reasons you mentioned why asking, "What do you do?" is not always the best conversation starter.

  6. I'm with you. I actually really like talking about writing, which is my job, and I think we should talk about our work if we want to. Discussing what you're passionate about or finding out what the other person is passionate about, and if that happens to also be your job, is cool. I think the challenge is when we start conversations simply by asking about someone's job. Hope that makes sense. I appreciate your commenting and your honesty!


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