“What do you do for a living?” It’s one of the first questions anybody asks upon meeting somebody new. It’s arguably the most socially acceptable icebreaker in the U.S., but what a terrible way to start off a new relationship. By making this one of the first (if not the very first) question we ask of someone upon meeting them for the first time, we are, as a culture, universally implying the single most important/interesting thing about another person is the job they do. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that a whopping 70% of Americans are “disengaged” from their jobs. This is a very bizarre way to start off a new potential relationship considering we often don’t believe our jobs are the most interesting thing about ourselves.
Take active notice of this phenomenon next time you are in any scenario where you are meeting new people. See how long it takes for one of you to bring up careers.
I am carving out a new identity for myself right now. For the last five and a half years, my identity was “anonymous, replaceable cog in a large technology company.” Nobody batted an eye at that, of course. I earned a large salary working at a respectable organization. I even had an inscrutable job title that led people to assume I was smart and important. I quit that job to become a full-time dad because I was not among the 30% who got fulfillment out of their careers. My job was a little more meaningless way to fill more than a third of my daily life while drawing a paycheck. Now that tell people I’m a full-time dad? The reaction is much different.
A thought experiment
What would a ten-minute conversation with somebody you just met at a dinner party sound like if you refused to talk about work? What are some icebreaker topics you would use, and how would your conversational partner react? Here are some possibilities:
Do you have any kids?
This is the obvious alternative to the “what do you do for a living?” question, and why not? If I’m not going to talk about my job to you, then I can, at least, talk about family. The good news is if the answer is “yes,” it gives a good common-ground set of discussion topics: parenting, education, finance, and on and on.
If the answer is “no, I don’t have children,” it kind of stops the conversational thread in its tracks.
What’s your favorite movie/book/restaurant?
These sound like questions you’d ask about 15 minutes into a first date. It’s all low-hanging fruit on the Small Talk Conversational Tree, but some people don’t really engage in these topics like I might. Personally, I can expound on the terrifying implications of The Truman Show for hours. How, for instance, the lighthearted nature of the subject matter actually makes for a far more horrifying worldview that our society’s constant need for distraction means it’s acceptable to destroy an individual’s free will to feed our insatiable entertainment appetite. And maybe you’d find that thread interesting, and even proffer an opinion of your own.
I’m similarly happy to talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s bibliography or John Gorham’s mini-restaurant empire in Portland.
Equally likely, though, the answer is something along the lines of “Oh, I don’t really have a favorite,” or, “There are so many I like,” because the topic is not that interesting to you. Mildly entertaining, perhaps, but not enough to sustain a conversation beyond a few minutes.
Where did you grow up?
Biographical questions are good ways to get other people talking about themselves. And people looooove to talk themselves. The problem is if you ask me this you have to sit and listen to me talk about Phoenix, Arizona. Which, fine for me, but for you? Zzzzzzzzzz……
What do you think about Donald Trump/Bernie Sanders?
Ah, politics, one of the third rails of polite conversation. You get yourself into this topic, and you’re either in lock-step agreement, or you’re nodding your head and not saying much because you don’t want to get into a fight with somebody you just met. And let’s just avoid the religious topics, shall we?
What’s your favorite season of “Survivor?”
I think the most likely response to this question is “wait, that island reality show where people get voted off? That’s still on?” Then slightly horrified amusement when they follow up with, “and you actually watch that show?”
You could replace this with any niche interest you have, a high-risk/high-reward strategy. If I ask and somebody comes up with an actual answer, I may have just made a friend for life. The worst thing that could happen is they think you’re not worth talking to for bringing up such a subject, which, let’s face it, is kind of the point. I’m really not all that scared of a little awkward silence.
My answer, by the way, is Pearl Islands.
The thing is not everybody is a great conversationalist. You may rip through your store of icebreakers in under five minutes before coming to the inevitable clunker of “What do you do for a living?” It’s a hard habit to break, such an easy conversational topic. But one day I hope I get to the point where I never ask this question of anyone.