The one question you should never ask at a party.

I spent some time in Greece a few years ago. And, being an Australian woman, who’s not so good at talking about feelings but very good at talking about career choices, my first question when meeting new people was the default… “So, what do you do?”

The response? A very, very bland expression of incomprehension mixed with pity… Is that the most important thing you have to talk about?

Apparently, there are other ways to open a conversation.

Because of their utter refusal to talk about work, I got to know the personal journeys, love lives and family lives of my Greek friends; as well as their opinions on big issues like the economy and refugee crisis. I found out about their personalities, favourite memories, most endeared sporting teams… and I still don’t have any idea where they were employed.

But, back in Australia, that question is unavoidable. One of the key ways we take measure of a person, in meeting them for the fist time, is to ask what they do for a living.

Why do we ask it?

At best, we’re looking to find common ground and encourage the individual to open up. At worst, we’re trying to form a judgement around the person we’re talking to, and perhaps avoid more difficult, more personal topics.

Maybe job descriptions act as our theoretical short-cut to getting to know the person in front of us. Librarian? You must be a quiet, nice, educated, etc. Defence lawyer? You must be ruthless, savvy, heartless, etc. It’s a short hand way of categorising people.

“When someone asks ‘What do you do?’ they are often really asking a different question: ‘Who are you?’ And that’s the one most people tend to answer,” author Lisa Owens wrote for The Pool. “‘I’m a doctor’, a doctor will say, rather than, ‘I diagnose health issues and administer medicine’. We attribute characteristics to people based on their jobs. Doctors are compassionate and good under pressure. Accountants are level-headed and organised. PR officers are sociable and enthusiastic.”

Small talk inspiration: Annabel Crabb answers 10 questions that have nothing to do with her profession. Post continues below video. 

Our reliance on this question, and our willingness to answer it as a form of identification (I’m a doctor), reflects our dangerous habit of associating who we are with what we do.

But why do we do this?

One possibility is that we receive so much positive reinforcement for our professional achievements, that our sense of value and self-worth cannot be found anywhere else. We don’t receive the same promotions / pay rises / bonuses / kudos for being a good person, individual, wife, girlfriend, mother, friend or lover. So, even though these things are inherent to who we are, they are not the way we choose to identify ourselves.


There is no better example of this, than an excerpt from Ellen Huerta’s column on making the decision to quit her position at Google.

“The main reason I was resisting [my urge to quit] was because I would be giving up the safety and prestige associated with life as a Googler,” Huerta wrote. “When I reflected more, I realised that external recognition had unfortunately become a primary motivator for me. Over time, being recognised for what I did became more exciting as the stakes grew higher. In fact, the need for recognition was still so engrained in me that I leaned on my start-up as a crutch during my exit from Google. ‘I’m leaving to work on my start-up idea.’ That was shorter and more palatable than ‘I’m taking time to slow down and better understand myself and what I want out of this life’.”

But what if someone doesn’t like their position? What if they don’t believe it has ‘prestige’? What if – like Huerta – they don’t identify with that they are doing? What if they – like all of us – they are more than their job title?

“Even if you’re lucky enough to love what you do, it still may not be how you’d choose to define yourself,”  Lisa Owens wrote. “It feels at once so bold and exposing, limiting and grand to say ‘I’m an editor’ (which I used to be) or ‘I’m a novelist’ (which I am now). ‘But I love TV and trivia,’ I want to add, lest they mistake me for someone terribly well-read or a stickler for grammar.”

Asking someone “what do you do?” can evoke some serious questions around identity and self-worth for the person in question. It also limits the qualities and nuances of every individual. For example:

Is she the woman who was married once, fell in love with someone else, is really into triathlon, believes in Karma, has three babies, moved to London, and plays the guitar?

Or is she simply a lawyer?

So the next time you’re about to revert to that fall-back question. Ask your self why you want to know. Is it about judgement? How will it change your opinion of them? How might it make that person feel? And finally, aren’t there more important things to talk about?