Is “What do you do?” a poor question to ask a new acquaintance?

My favorite etiquette guru says yes--a good conversationalist can do better. Here are a few reasons:


1 - Almost everyone asks. It’s not at all creative, subtle, or savvy. Asking it suggests we doesn’t have the ability to leave the most well-trodden path of small talk.

The man who refrains from the most obvious question becomes more intriguing in the eyes of others.

2 - The question is reductive. It buys into dumb elite notions of professional hierarchy--that a person is what they do, and that everyone who is someone has an interesting sounding job.

This is patently false in 2021. The most interesting man I've met in the last year is not an engineer, doctor, or writer--but a plumber.

Asking him the obvious question too early in our acquaintance is a way of reducing him.


(On a related note, asking this question too sharply might suggest that we are networkers, climbers, status-seekers, gold-diggers—rather than people who can simply enjoy the company of others.)

3 - Maybe most importantly, the question disadvantages homemakers. When you ask a stay-at-home-mother what she “does,” she often responds with a little embarrassment that she doesn’t work but only raises her children.

This is because, again, the question imports all sort of backwards assumptions that devalue those not contributing to GDP in the most prestigious ways.

Like homemakers, who are actually doing more much important work than banking executives.

Such ladies should be honored, not made to feel like they ought to apologize.

It could also be said that mercenary corporate culture and backwards economic policy have left a lot of people out of work or forced them into less glamorous jobs, through no fault of theirs. Asking "what do you do?" tends to cut these people down.

What should we ask instead? My guru suggests something along the lines of a person's projects, hobbies, interests, loves.

“How do you spend your time?”
“What do you like to do?”

These questions are also easier to follow up. I've got no response when George tells me he's an accountant other than, "Oh, okay."

But if George tells me he likes to lift weights or garden or go skiing with his children, I can run with that.

And if they really like their job and want to talk about it, this will give them ample opportunity...


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