When you're introduced to someone for the first time, after you shake hands and exchange names, what's the first thing you ask? More likely than not, your default question is: "What do you do?"
We tend to drop this heavy question into conversation before almost anything else has been said, as a way to quickly gather information and start forming an image of the person we're speaking with. While the inquiry might seem harmless, it perpetuates a dangerous habit: The tendency to associate who we are with what we do.
"What do you do?" is the mother of loaded questions. According to Elizabeth Spiers, former editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, the traditional conversation-starter comes with a whole lot of other implicit questions, like "How much money do you make?" "Is what you do significant?" and "Do we have anything in common?"
For those who take pride in their title and the organization they work for, the question may come as a welcome opportunity to assert their status, and a chance to align who they are with the prestige of what they do. And for those who don't, it's simply a bad way to start a conversation.
"There is some refuge in institutional affiliation, as there is in certain job titles," Spiers wrote in a Medium blog post in May. "But what do all of these things really say about who we are? There’s a danger in conflating work with self, even if work has consumed everything we do."
And this points to the real problem. In our ambitious, success-driven culture, many of us do consider the person we are to be practically one and the same with the work we do -- and could use a reminder that, simply, we are not our jobs.
Of course, it's ideal for your work to be a reflection of who you are and a forum for self-expression. But when we lean on our careers as our main source of personal identity and validation, we risk associating the self entirely with the work we do. And it's a dangerous association -- one that leaves us feeling lost and empty when, inevitably, we leave our jobs and are forced to look elsewhere for a sense of worth.
"When I left my job, it devastated me. I couldn’t just rally and move on," Erin Callan, former chief executive officer of Lehman Brothers, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did. What I did was who I was."
Similarly, entrepreneur Ellen Huerta experienced something of an identity crisis when she left her glossy job at Google.
In a recent HuffPost blog, "Why I Left Google," Huerta describes the process of letting go of her job:
When I sat down and really thought about why I was resisting, I realized something about myself that I didn't like, something that I'm ashamed to even admit now. The main reason I was resisting was because I would be giving up the safety and prestige associated with life as a Googler. When I reflected more, I realized that external recognition had unfortunately become a primary motivator for me.
The problem is not in asking others what they do and sharing our own vocations, but in taking the answer as a foundation marker of a person's character and identity. And much like launching into a monologue about how busy or stressed you are when asked about your day, diving right into "what do you do" can be a surefire way to prevent yourself from making a real connection with the person you're speaking to.
Some people love what they do and find deep meaning in their careers, while others are happy to have jobs that pay the bills so that they can pursue their passions outside work. And still others have not had the freedom and financial means to pursue meaningful careers. In any case, who we are is a far more complex and wonderful thing that what we do.
Chuck Palahniuk may have described it best in Fight Club: “You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet... You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
There are a million ways to start a conversation. If you're not sure how, here are a few ideas about to get things rolling:
- Give a compliment
- Comment on something awkward about the situation you're both in
- Launch right into a funny story and hope for the best
What's your favorite way to start a conversation with someone you just met? Let us know in the comments.