The Hidden Agenda Behind Asking 'What Do You Do?' (VIDEO)

05/28/2014 09:34 am ET | Updated May 29, 2014
  • OWN

It often seems to be the first question that comes up when you meet someone: "So, what do you do?" We typically respond by citing our career fields, job titles or personal accomplishments, but spiritual teacher and A New Earth author Eckhart Tolle says everyone should be aware of the hidden agenda lurking behind this seemingly innocent question.

During the above conversation with Oprah, Tolle explains that many of us speak differently to different people -- your boss versus your sibling, for example -- and tend to make adjustments based on who we perceive to be "important." As Tolle and Oprah discuss, asking, "What do you do?" is a subconscious way for people to determine who ranks among the "important."

It's an ego-focused principle that Oprah has seen in action before. "What I realized is people want to know [what you do] so they can determine your so-called 'value,'" she says.

Tolle also explains that answering the question with, for example, your defined career means that you actually give power to others by playing a role. "[They calculate whether you] enhance the ego or whether you might be a threat to the ego, whether they can use you or whether they need to be afraid of you," he says. "Then, many judgments go through people's minds."

So how should you respond instead? Stop defining yourself by a role.

"When you don't play roles anymore, you don't have to become strange," Tolle says. "You can actually talk quite normally without being identified with what you say."

Oprah then sums up this lesson in A New Earth. "Of course there are all roles that we are assigned or labels that we use to identify ourselves," she says. "What you're saying is, the problem is when you become completely identified with it and you think that is who you are."

"Yes," Tolle responds.

Also on HuffPost:

  • Mistake #2: Connecting By Complaining
  • Sharing gripes is an easy way to bond -- after all, everyone has so many -- but what starts as an ice-breaker can quickly launch a snark spiral. You have the right idea, which is to find common ground. Say a co-worker at your new job mentions the way your boss only invites a few favored employees to eat lunch with her every day -- a habit you've noticed, as well. Instead of saying, "And another annoying thing she does is..." try something like, "I've never been a big fan of the middle-school cafeteria, either. Actually, I was thinking of going out to eat, but I can't decide where to go -- do you know of a good place around here?" Something that acknowledges the complaints you share but redirects them in a more productive -- or at least more neutral -- way.
  • Mistake #3: Pretending That You Don't Know A Lot About Each Other, When You Actually Do
  • Let's acknowledge that it can be awkward to meet someone after having admired her Instagram food photography from afar, or having heard stories from mutual friends. So you say nothing; you pretend she really is a stranger, and that's even more awkward, because she probably knows that you know, and you know that she knows that you know and, oh, the whole run-around makes it seem like you aren't paying attention or simply don't care. There is nothing more off-putting than feeling like someone cares so little about you that they can't even be bothered to acknowledge your semi-shared history. Even if it feels weird, say, "I loved those cupcake photos you tagged Sam in," or even just the plain, vanilla, "The new girlfriend! Hi, I've heard so many wonderful things about you." Compliments: the easiest way to make potentially awkward situations more comfortable for everyone.
  • Mistake #4: Confusing Dominance And Confidence
  • Striking a wide-legged, straight-backed, confidence-exuding power pose (the way your career coach or favorite magazine told you to) leaves a strong impression. Ask Amy Cuddy, the Harvard social psychologist who has done numerous studies on how body language can actually change the way you feel, to the point of altering your body chemistry. If you stand up straight and take up more space with your body, you increase testosterone in your body, decrease cortisol and physically begin to feel more dominant. Which seems like the perfect stance for making a strong first impression. But it's not the only piece of the puzzle. This same psychologist has also found that dominating someone is not the best way to gain his or her trust, and that to be powerful in any setting, you need to have that trust. Cuddy recently told Wired, "If you are trusting, if you project trust, people are more likely to trust you." Cuddy notes that people often think, "'I better get the floor first so that I can be in charge of what happens.' The problem with this is that you don't make the other person feel warmth toward you. Warmth is really about making the other person feel understood. They want to know that you understand them." Her suggestion? Project trust by letting the other person speak first.
  • Mistake #5: Introducing People In The Wrong Order
  • Here is the mistake you never knew you were making, because 99.9 percent of the time, it isn't actually a faux pas. But that .1 percent of the time that it comes up, you have a chance to get this 100 percent right. It's really easy, and invisible to everyone but the elderly and extremely proper: When introducing people to one another, speak first to the person you want to honor, and be sure to use both of their full names and titles. Which is to say, when the city councilman visits your church and you want to connect him with your friend, you say, "Councilman Fredericks, may I introduce my friend Billy Williams. Billy, this is Councilman Fred Fredericks." Look at you, acing your fancy-etiquette opportunity with flying colors. (P.S. This handy chart from Emily Post is a good refresher for this and other first-meeting manners your grandmother taught you.) Amy Shearn is the author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn: A Novel.