“So what do you do?”

Recently, I read an article by 99u’s Sarah Kathleen Peck called, “Answering the Dreaded ‘So what do you do?’ Question.” Amazing. For nearly a decade, Kurt Heinrich and I have pioneered a micro-social-engineering initiative designed to eliminate the “what do you do for a living?” or “what is your job?” question from all forms of small talk. So, I speak for both of us when I say that we appreciate Ms. Peck’s efforts to provide folks with creative ways to answer this terribly uncreative question.

Peck details strategies for answering the question by applying narrative tools like visualization and sketching as building blocks for a powerful person story. If you are in search of world class self-marketing tips, I recommend reading Ms. Peck’s article in full (it’s better than anything that I could write), but that’s not what this article is about. This article is about how we can put an end to the “what do you do?” question once and for all.

As I mentioned above, while asking people what they do for work is both easy and logical – we spend most of our waking hours at a job, after all – the question is also lazy, predictable and doesn’t  help people share their whole, genuine self with you. Human beings truly realize our potential and genuinely demonstrate our passion in places beyond the work that we are paid to do.

The next time you engage in small talk with a future friend, forget about the “what do you do?” question and try one or all of these three alternative questions:

“What do you do for fun?”

It might also sound like, “what do you like to do?” I give Kurt 100% of the credit for this question, as he’s been asking it for as long as I’ve known him. Sure, your potential new friend with whom you are chatting at an annual company event might have fun at their job, but they might also have fun combining sport and community service with Vancouver’s Street Soccer League. By asking a slightly broader question your future friend has a larger scope for their answer, too – the concept of “fun” can be interpreted in myriad fun ways.

Most importantly, this question gets people talking about things they like doing, which is a huge bonus for the question-asker, as you are lucky enough to collect talking points about stuff that your future friend likes, and you will be remembered for making them feel positive. Both of these things will help during follow-up conversations.

“What are your three favourite things about [INSERT NOUN]?”

Vancouver. Italian food. Skiing. Traveling. Tailgating at Seattle Seahawks games. Vancity’s Three Year Plan. Pick something that you know the person wants to talk about and dive deep into the topic. When asking people to make a list just be sure that the experience doesn’t feel like a pop quiz, as this might put them on the defensive.

From writing to presenting to persuading, there is much to be said about human beings and how we remember things in threes. There is also a reason that Fast Company, Inc, BuzzFeed, and this blog use lists as a storytelling convention – human beings love to organize, categorize and list stuff. With this tactic, you get people talking about things that they like, make a game of the conversation itself, and create an authentic and very personal basis for future discussions.

“What feeds your soul?”

I had a friend in university named Andrew who inspired me by always – and I mean always – engaging people in the deepest intellectual, emotional, philosophical, and/or spiritual way possible whenever he had a conversation. Frankly, the chats didn’t always go well, especially if the person didn’t know Andrew, but there is something powerful about connecting with another person in a way that cuts through the tedious ceremony of cocktail party small talk and reveals what gets them out of bed in the morning. I highly recommend this tactic for folks who struggle with the authenticity – or lack thereof – of networking and want to really find out what their conversation partner cares about. Trust me, this approach will make you memorable.

By focusing on what people care about and what they like to do, we can foster deeper and broader dialogue about values, passions and potential. These things might not always manifest in the work that we’re paid to do, but people love to talk about such things, and your conversation partner will remember that you were the person who asked the typical cocktail party question differently.

So, how will you change the way that our communities engage in the dreaded “So, what do you do for a living?” question?

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