By now readers are probably familiar with New York Magazine’s preposterous new etiquette rules.This week, I’d like to discuss rule 36, “Never ask anyone what their job is. It’s classist and boring.” I agree that it’s boring, but the authors reveal their own classism when they say that such a question is classist. They are assuming that, say, day-care workers or custodians or owners of small businesses are ashamed of their jobs and reluctant to discuss them with such august personages as New York journalists. This excessively sensitive tiptoeing around the hoi polloi reminds me of those people who—apparently thinking we rubes will be dazzled and dumbstruck by the mere mention of their Ivy League alma maters—tell us they “went to college in New Jersey.” (I fantasize about responding, “Oh, did you go to Drew? It has such a pretty campus!” and watching them hem and haw.) But I digress.
If not classism, then what is the problem with “What do you do?” My friend Rick offers another hypothesis:
Once in a hotel hot tub in Hawaii, we met a couple from France. Someone asked them what they do for work, and they kind of blanched, and explained that in France all jobs have very specific salaries that everyone knows. So asking what you do for work is like asking how much money you make. I waited a moment, then asked them “So, how much money do you make?”
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The Problem with “What Do You Do?”
In fact I think that the problem with “What do you do?” is not that it is classist or un-French. It’s far worse: Asking “What do you do?” instead of literally anything else contributes to a false and destructive belief in our culture, which Derek Thompson has dubbed “workism.” For many of us, work has become an inadequate substitute for “religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.” A recent Pew study found that more than four times as many people want their children to find meaningful work than said they hoped their children would get married and/or have children. I find this terribly sad. Too often, we encourage the people in our lives to sacrifice relationships for career, when, to ensure their health and happiness, we should be encouraging exactly the opposite.
We know this from an eighty-year longitudinal study conducted by Harvard, which shows that it is not work but rather “Positive relationships [that] keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer.” Heck, we don’t need no stinkin’ Harvard study to tell us that something so obvious is true. If someone were to ask us, “Who is happier in the long run, the person with an interesting job but no friends or family, or the person with a boring job but a loving family and a close community?” we would say, “Well duh, the second person!” When people ask us what our job is first thing, it reinforces the erroneous belief that a paying job is the most important and interesting thing to know about us. But we are so much more than our paying jobs, so why not ask about something else?
Anyway, not every job will spark people’s interest and lead to a stimulating conversation. For example, as someone who unapologetically calls herself a housewife, I have watched as my interlocutors peer over my shoulder for someone they assume will be a more promising prospect. Or, even worse, they will reassure me, “Oh, that’s ok too,” a response that reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld insisting “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
On the other hand, some jobs are so abstruse that the person we’re talking with honestly doesn’t know how to respond. When I was in grad school and a new acquaintance asked “What do you do?” I learned the hard way not to answer, “I’m writing my dissertation on late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century English Puritans, with an emphasis on the novels and conduct books of Daniel Defoe.” Turns out that most people associate Puritans with their high-school tussles with The Scarlet Letter, and not in a good way. It was worse for my husband, whose dissertation was in applied mathematics. Whenever he told people he was in the math department, they would reflexively reply, “I hate math!”which put the kibosh on further discussion. In too many cases “What do you do?” exposes people to assumptions and judgment and limits rather than expands the possible topics for conversation.
Instead of “What Do You Do?” Try “Small-Talk Kung Fu”
The expression “Small-talk kung fu” was coined by my friend Sarahfor her wife, Emily, who has that skill in spades. Emily always begins a conversation with someone new by asking a question
to see if the person even wants to talk, and/or to gauge their conversation style, so it can be pretty anodyne. How do you know [mutual friend]? How long have you been with [our mutual employer]? I like your earrings, where’d you get ’em?
If someone answers with reasonably upbeat energy and interest, they’re signaling to me “I’m game for some small talk, let’s give it a shot!” and I’ll keep going. If I get more of a friendly-but-bland, on-the-phone-with-a-telemarketer-but-too-polite-to-hang-up vibe, I’ll note that and bow out soon.
Following Emily’s lead, we can try questions that open up possibilities—for expanding our horizons and for making true connections. Below are some of my own ideas, as well as others that I’ve solicited from friends. I encourage everyone to try them out the next time we’re introduced to someone new.
Improve “What do you do?” My mom’s former colleague Suzanne, who is now retired, likes to ask “‘What keeps you busy these days?’ . . . That way the response can be anything from work to children to a hobby and still be of interest to the one asking the question.”
Ask about connections between people. When you’re introduced to a couple, “How did you two first meet?” is a terrific way to start a conversation with them. Couples love to talk about how they met! I once went to a party where I knew no one except the host, who had invited me to his party for our second date. He was so busy fumbling with the keg and fussing with people’s coats that he failed to introduce me to anyone,so I brazenly approached a group of four total strangers and asked them how they knew each other. It turned out that they were two married couples who had known each other for more than a decade. They had long ago run out of conversation with each other and were grateful for the chance to tell their stories to a new and receptive audience. Their meet-cute stories were quite entertaining, and because I asked about their lives, I stopped feeling like a fish out of water and started to feel like part of the party.
Rely on old standbys. A former boss has a terrific conversation-starter: “What is something interesting you’ve read recently?” Books, movies, TV, sports, music, or even the weather are all opportunities to find common ground or to engage in low-stakes verbal sparring. Robert likes to share information as a starting point: “I usually throw out some new science-y tidbit I’ve recently learned, or something about our area’s incredibly interesting geography or people.” We can tailor these questions to our own communities. It’s typical in my circle to ask where people are going for their holiday. (We have a lot of holidays.) And speaking of travel, Odette has a fun tip for these discussions: “You can follow up with ‘[what is your] worst place or least favorite’ . . . [or what is the] place you have never been but most want to visit [or the] place you wouldn’t go even if it were offered for free.”
Let people praise their home town. Julianna sometimes asks, “‘Did you grow up here?’ I like this question better than ‘Where are you from?’ because it causes people to reflect on where they grew up and how they came to live where they are now—all interesting topics for conversation.” Emily and Sarah agree that “once they realize the question is being asked with honest curiosity, they tend to open up and feel more comfortable. And if they lived somewhere they really loved, then they’re excited to talk about it. Win-win!”
Go deep. Lee likes to ask “What made you happy today?” or “What brings you joy in your life?” Mark adds that he has “found that people are often asked only about the factual details of their lives, not the EXPERIENCE of living their life, which is far richer and more satisfying.” And I love Janelle’s suggestions: “What’s something new you learned recently? What have you always wanted to learn/try? What’s something you’ve done that no one else here has likely done?”
Dare to be un-PC. In some US circles it is no longer considered acceptable to ask people about their home countries or cultures, but such questions are in my experience quite welcome in international communities. People actually like talking about their cultures, and we can learn a lot if we ask with sincere enthusiasm. I often start by asking people to tell me something about the place they’re from that most people might not know. Or, when I first learn someone’s name, I might ask if it has a special meaning or story. (A side benefit is that this helps me to remember their name.) In fact, I just learned that director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is named Taco Dibbits. Taco Dibbits! How could you not ask him about his name? And speaking of tacos, food is another topic that pays off; whenever I ask new acquaintances about favorite dishes from their home country, they have rewarded me not only with mouth-watering descriptions but also with recipes and offers of cooking lessons. A former neighbor who is currently learning Spanish likes to ask people how many languages they speak, and where and why they learned them. Some of my friends speak five or six languages, and it has been quite informative and also inspirational to talk with them about it.
Shower them with friendly compliments. As Ed puts it, “I like them there pants or shoes or glasses and so on.” Is the person you’re talking to wearing an unusual accessory or piece of jewelry? A piranha necklace, perhaps? Ask her about it! She might have worn it to the party for the very reason that she wants you to talk to her about it!
Try a quirky question. Amy’s dad starts off with a dad joke: “Do you know when you smile your teeth show?” Karin asks “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?”Odette wonders “What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?” Gil hints “Are you gonna eat all those fries?” And Erin, apparently having spent time around the overachievers from my college, jokes “What’s your GPA and why?” OK, maybe don’t try that last question, but I dare you to try the others!
How about you, readers? What’s your favorite way to start a conversation with someone you’ve just met? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
I enjoy the show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, but the host, Peter Sagal, always asks callers the same two questions: “Where are you calling from? What do you do there?” Boring! The only reason it works is that the callers have prepared an interesting response in advance. I prefer the approach of the comedian Alzo Slade, who was the guest-host recently. Slade’s questions are snappy and fun: “What’s happening with you?” “What is your favorite cereal?” And (directed at Rosie Perez), “I got to just fan out for a minute. Like, Rosie, you a stinger. And I know some of y’all may not know what that means, but pick up on context clues.”
And, speaking of my piranha necklace and fish out of water, please enjoy this meme:
It is fun to laugh at the privileged media bubble the rules’ authors inhabit. You don’t have to read your friends’ books? You shouldn’t call your famous friends by their nicknames around other people? You shouldn’t display your luxurious houses or “a view from your yacht” on work Zoom calls but should use a neutral background so your coworkers won’t feel jealous? Good to know!
If, after reading this anecdote, you are thinking Rick sounds like a hoot and a lot of fun to hang out with, you are absolutely right!
One day he decided that the next person who answered “I hate math!” was going to get it, and so he replied, “Oh, that’s ok. I can’t read.” Fortunately, the person he tried that answer on thought it was funny.
Sarah writes a wonderful Substack, Weird Emails, which is full of deep insights and beautiful writing. I highly recommend subscribing!
No, he did not get a third date with me.
I have a theory that adults like ice cream flavors that are shades of beige, for example vanilla, coffee, caramel, and chocolate; while kids like brightly-colored flavors, for example rainbow sherbet, bubblegum, and chocolate-chip mint. When meeting new people I have been known to float this theory and then to ask them for their favorite flavors. Most of the time they confirm my hypothesis!
Just commenting to say how much I like your writing. It's like a "unicorn chaser" to the political and culture war stuff I normally read.
That girl with the fish and drunk cat is one of my all-time favorite memes!
For conversation starters I’m not too creative. At potlucks I lavishly praise the food (and it’s easy to find things to praise, because people bring their “greatest hits” to potlucks) and often get into talking recipes with the cooks.
The thing about “asking what someone does is classist” BEING classist is so true. I’m glad to hear someone say it!!!
There are few things more irksome than the snobbery of someone assuming that you’re ashamed of your job (or car or anything else) because theirs is fancier.
Just this week I was talking to a mom whose kid goes to a “fancier name” college than my kid -- and she was almost ... consoling me? Assuming my daughter had been rejected there? What I felt like saying, but didn’t, was that my kid wanted to go to one of two universities for their very specific programs, and she’s now attending one of them and couldn’t be happier. She didn’t apply or have any interest in the school this woman’s daughter attends, even if it’s a fancier name.
But... to have said that would have been to play along with the snobbery -- responding to snobbery with my own snobbish anti-snobbery -- so I kept that to myself. I just said she’s really happy at her school, which is the only thing that should matter to anyone anyway.