It’s small talk season. Ahem, I mean the holiday party season! And as you flit from ugly sweater party to Christmas cocktail party to New Year’s Eve bash, you’ll likely be asked this question multiple times: What do you do?
In my opinion, this is the laziest small talk question. It doesn’t often lead anywhere and the answer doesn’t make you laugh or emotionally invested. And without being aware that we’re doing it, we’re sizing someone up: what class do they fit into? How much money do they make? How successful are they?
So why are we so quick to ask this question?
“In contemporary America, we do really define ourselves, to a large degree, by our work,” said Kio Stark, author of “When Strangers Meet,” where she makes arguments about why you should talk to strangers more. “Particularly since the 1950s, we are a very work identified culture.”
In countries like France, it’s considered rude to ask someone, “What do you do?” at a dinner party. Virginie Paradis, who used to run her company, French Truly, out of Seattle, teaches Americans how to be a little bit more French. She explains just how rude the question is.
“I was thinking about it the other day, and it would be a little bit like if I met you for the first time and I asked you what your bra size was. Why are you asking me this? Why do you need to know this? There are so many things that you can talk about that will tell you about someone’s personality. So [work] does come up, but in an organic way and certainly not the first time you meet someone. That would be so not appropriate for us.”
When she first moved to the states and was meeting a lot of new people, she was caught off guard by the question. She liked her job as a French teacher, but thought back on times when she didn’t like her job, and wouldn’t necessarily want to be asked about it. How she might feel judged for doing something she wasn’t proud of.
“Instead, if you find out what kind of person I am and what I like to do and where I live and what’s the last book I read,” said Paradis. “If you try to find out what my personality is, and then I tell you what I do, then it doesn’t matter as much. I’m not so defined by what I do.”
“One of the things I learned from the research I did, which was interview-based and anecdotal, so I can’t say this as a blanket statement; but a lot of people from Germany and Austria told me that if you ask someone what they do for a living, it sounds very prying,” said Stark. “Why do you want to know? Why does that matter to you? But it would be much more comfortable there than here, to ask someone about their political affiliation. That is a much less sensitive topic than it is here.”
People often ask Stark what they should ask people when they’re meeting for the first time.
“I sometimes ask people what they did all day, which tends to give me an answer about their activities and not their position. I also like to ask somebody what they’re reading, what they’re obsessed with. I want to know something about them as a human, not just a classification.”
So challenge yourself this holiday season, when you’re making small talk, try and get to know someone better. You can always ask, “What do you do” later.