If you are like many people, you get asked this question quite often. Most probably, you did the same at least once, either when you met someone new or when you didn’t know what to say next to keep that talk alive.
If while you read this you think that’s not even a good question, I feel you. I’m still practicing how to avoid those few seconds of awkward silence while some words agonize in my mind under the pressure until they come out in the form of a short and clear sentence.
Did you ever try to memorize a generally acceptable answer for your situation and just deliver it every time needed? Yes, I did that too. But something didn’t feel right.
Currently, my main occupations are: I write, I work as a recruiter, I’m part of several projects in an NGO, and I’m beginning to build a start-up business. So, when I’m being asked what I do, I can’t say all these to a person I barely met, they would possibly think that’s a too-long answer with unnecessary details or that I’m arrogantly bragging.
“Oh, You’re Asking What Do I Do To Earn Money”
And they are right. Those are unnecessary details. Because, when asking this, most people actually want to know where to place you on a socially-economic scale. You give them your job title and they know, more or less, what label to assign to you and, consequently, how to continue the conversation.
However, if I say I’m a recruiter just because that’s been my formal job title for some years, I feel I leave out so much of who I am. My occupations are not who I am, but I’m so invested in all those things, I’m so passionate about them, they are meaningful, so I cannot help to feel I’m dishonoring them or myself.
Although our brains work easier by using “labels”, categories, patterns, we don’t like having a label attributed — because sometimes they go wrong, sometimes they are just stereotypes.
At the same time, most people are well-intentioned and they want to get to know you. So what if you gave people something else instead of the label which only tells about a socially-economic status?
Give The Person A Better Chance To Know You
You might have an impressive title, but is saying that really a good way to create a meaningful connection with someone? Or even a valuable conversation in the moment? Or just to present yourself in a way you feel authentic?
Maybe you don’t have a job or a specific activity to mention, you are searching for a career shift, you retired, maybe you are a recent graduate, or you just take time to pursue a passion, or you name it. Does this mean you don’t have an answer to “what do you do”? Of course not.
Regardless of your situation, try answering something like this:
- I’m passionate about writing. Do you have any passions or hobbies?
- I help people by finding them jobs suitable to their aspirations and competencies. In which way do you enjoy helping?
- I’m very interested in history, so today I visited a new gallery that opened. What are you interested in?
- I’m curious to learn marketing, so I would like to enroll in a course. Do you have any recommendations?
- I’m really into winter sports, thankfully the season began and I can put my snowboard to action. What do you do to keep you active?
Can you see how this not only answers to “what do you do?” in a way that probably represents you better but also invites communication from a different perspective? This type of answer is not usually what the person expects, so instead of leaving them confused about what to say next, you ask them a question which shows you care, you want to have an honest conversation and get to know them at least a bit deeper.
“Life is not about good answers, it is about interesting questions.” Paulo Coelho
Ask Better Questions
When you find yourself on the other side, try asking questions that won’t imply making assumptions about the other person, putting a label, pressuring maybe an answer they don’t have or don’t feel comfortable sharing because they feel they are going to be judged.
“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Pierre Marc Gaston de Lévis
Consider trying some of these options:
- What are you passionate about?
- What are your interests?
- What are you curious about?
- What keeps you active these days?
- What is something important for you now and you’d like to do?
Everybody is interested in something and everybody enjoys the opportunity to share something they care about. You can’t go wrong with this way of formulating questions.
Furthermore, you learn about the other person in their terms, not in the terms of your expectation. You make them feel good in the moment and they make you feel good as well because when someone knows you are interested in them and not their job title or other surface-level details, they will naturally respond in the same way: by showing interest in you. A connection is being created when people share something personal and show some vulnerability.
“In addition to information exchange, we know that asking questions increases interpersonal liking. Because I’m showing that I’m interested in learning what is in your mind, I seem very responsive to you and empathic and that I’m taking your perspective and I care about you. And that’s likable.”
Yes, the struggle is real for some people with regard to this question. But changing this is simple.
Alison Wood Brooks in the above-mentioned podcast said that “anytime you can break the norms, it keeps things engaging and interesting.” Just because we receive this age-old question often, doesn’t mean we have to respond in a standard way which in most cases only validates a stereotype or label the other person already has.
Likewise, when you are in a discussion you would like to find out about the one in front of you, ask a different question and see the results. Try tapping into their interests, passions, curiosities. This will invite the person to share what they consider represents them best and, most importantly, creates a context for a more meaningful discussion.
The way you communicate is important, it can drive people away or it can bring them closer to you. Do the latter.