What do you do for a purpose?
An Alternative Small Talk Question
When you are entering a new social arena at a party or in other situations where small talk is expected to circumvent periods of awkward silence, one of the standard questions usually is “What do you do for a living?” The function of this harmless question is to get to know the other person on a superficial level, usually in order to create potential segways for deepening a conversation — or not. It also serves as a quick way to gauge the social status as a person, its net worth and generally enables us to categorize our conversation partner into one of our pre-formed mental boxes. It serves our ego to reduce complexity in a busy world. As such it is useful.
But since the ego is constantly gauging every thing and every person in relation to its own image, its desires and fears, the result is often not a sense of deeper connection but rather a more acute sense of separateness. Me here, looking at you over there as another skin-encapsulated ego, trying to figure out if you are useful, dangerous or uninteresting for me. For ME. We don’t really see — or feel seen. The conversation stays shallow, lifeless and boring.
Moreover, most people don’t relate to their job with great passion. For most people it is not what defines them as unique human beings to work for an insurance company, a grocery chain, or a car repair service. As such it is often not terribly informative — given that we truly want to understand another human being in a deeper way.
Next time I suggest to ask a different question instead:
“What do you do for a purpose?”
If anything, it will startle your conversation partner because the slight variation in an otherwise familiar and expected question is derailing deeply entrenched communication pathways. Most of us are on autopilot all day. “What? For a purpose? What do you mean?”
Now we’re talking!
Shifting the conversation from that which most of us feel like enslaves us, the daily 9–5 grind that enables us pay our bills, to that which points to a deeper felt sense of meaning and significance in our lives can be inspiring. It challenges the assumption that we’re living in order to work, that we are corporate robots, mere mouthpieces of a capitalistic system forever chasing more stuff.
Questions are not as innocent as they seem. Every question contains a whole set of assumptions, values and unconsciously held paradigms that say almost more about the person asking than the person asked. “What do you do for a living?” in particular often contains the assumption that you are not valuable per se, because you exist, but rather that you are worth shit if you are not a successful member of the workforce with a prestigious and well-paying job. Social status is measured in money.
I certainly felt the sting of that question throughout most of my adult years. People expect clear cut answers — especially parents. (Mine still do.) Getting an academic degree in philosophy wasn’t really satisfying most of my conversation partners — but the time I spent studying (I was in no rush) helped me to figure out what I really want to do with my life, what I wanted to do for a purpose.
I prefer asking a question that communicates the expectation that you should know what really matters to you in life — or at least startles you into discovering it, if it had never even occurred to you — over asking a question that presumes you should submit to the status quo.
When I meet you, I would like to know what really moves you, not what you think you should be or do, based on your interpretation of other people’s expectations towards you.
So, what do you do for a purpose?
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