Instead of Asking ‘What Do You Do?’ Try This

questions to ask at a networking event


Apr. 5 2016, Published 3:30 a.m. ET

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“I never liked the cocktail question ‘what do you do?’ because it reflects an epidemic of job descriptions and self descriptions.” –Tim Ferriss

I was in the bathroom during a friend’s birthday party. It was one of those bathroom trips where you go to linger.

The truth was, I stayed in there to avoid that question: “What do you do?”

At the time I was doing freelance work in digital media for a TV personality in D.C. I didn’t live in D.C, he was a relationship coach, and it all seemed like too much to explain to someone who wasn’t familiar with the industry.

I was envious of my friends with easy answers like “engineer” or “medical school student” because there was a universal understanding of what people in those professions did. I loathed explaining my work to people who were asking more out of politeness than interest. And ultimately, I saw it as a transition job, which was a weird thing to share, so I rarely did.

The one commonality I came to realize among the easy-to-explain and hard-to-explain job descriptions was one thing: boring, limiting answers often telling you little to nothing about the person you were talking to besides where they went to spend their day.

This question was sometimes alienating or uncomfortable (especially for my unemployed friends) and almost never told me what was unique or interesting about that person.

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It honestly made me frustrated because I have teacher friends who are SNL-level hilarious. I have accountant friends who should be running the UN with the amount of knowledge and passion they have about world affairs. I have law school student friends who have very specific interests about the kind of law they are studying that says something wonderful about the type of person they are. That’s what I want to hear about and never could seem to get to in conversation.

So why aren’t we asking the questions that tell us about the interesting parts of people?

I couldn’t seem to find the answer, so I settled for the consolation prize of just trying to avoid it until I heard Meg Jay’s TED talk. 

Dr. Jay talks about the concept of identity capital, which is things we do or skills we build that create who we are over time. These could be items on a resume, like a teaching certification or a degree, but they can also be skills like glassblowing or writing a blog about a topic you enjoy. These are things you choose because of your interests, and they say something about the type of person you are.

After watching this talk, I had a new mission: Find a way to ask people about their identity capital. The solution was simple. In fact, I simply added two words in the question I so dreaded.

Now instead of “what do you do?” I would ask, “what do you like to do?”

The question was normal enough to not solicit a head tilt, but open enough to give the person an opportunity to answer with a piece of identity capital they wanted to discuss.

So next time you’re at a party, ask a question that inspires passion, not predictability.

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