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  • Writer's pictureMr. FI Musician

Stop Asking "What do you do?"

It's the go-to conversation starter. It's how we express interest in someone else's life. It's proof that the United States is a 'work first' culture.

I think what makes me most sad about this question is the fact that even though it's truly an open ended question, we all interpret it as "What do you do for a living?" It subconsciously informs us work is at the forefront of our minds, that even when we're out socializing, our job is a constant presence. It defines who we are as humans.

But does it have to be that way?

I've heard that other countries don't do this. I often wonder if my wife's friends and family find it bizarre when I'm visiting Europe and I instinctively ask them this question. Do they think things like:

"Why does he want to talk about work?"

"Ah, what a typical American thing to say."

"What do you mean? Like, what am I doing right now?"

Side Note: I'm traveling to visit Mrs. FIM's family in a few months. When I'm there I plan to have a conversation with them about this question to see what they say. I'll update you upon my return.

In the meantime, I'd like to challenge you. This challenge has two parts.

Part I: For one month, don't ask anyone "What do you do?"

(Or any variation on that question that implies or directly asks about work).

It might seem easy, but I can tell you it's not. You'll quickly learn how instinctual it is to use work as a conversation starter. A few weeks ago I decided to try to remove this question from conversations, and found it extraordinarily difficult. It takes legitimate practice to find other things to talk about. Try asking questions like:

  • What do you like to do in your spare time?

  • Did you do anything fun this weekend?

  • Have you read any good books lately?

  • What are your favorite hobbies?

  • Where did you grow up?

  • How long have you lived here?

  • Do you have kids?

This can lead the conversation to a place of mutual interests, which is way more fun than work. But be warned: even when you ask these questions, chances are good the person you're talking to will try steer the conversation back to work. It will take work to avoid talking about work.

Part II: Don't answer the question when someone asks you "What do you do?"

By this, I don't mean ignore the person.

I simply mean don't talk about work. When they ask "What do you do?", interpret the question as either "What do you like to do?" or "What do you want to do?"

"What do you do?"

Typical Response:

"Well, I went to school for music, but right now I work as a digital marketer in an arts admin job. I handle website updates, email marketing, social media, and other digital platforms."

"What do you like to do?"

"I love to watch hockey. In the winter I'll play outdoor games on frozen ponds. My wife and I also love to go hiking. On weekends we'll travel to state parks and hike on trails for a few hours. We've recently gotten into kayaking too."

"What do you want to do?"

"I write & play music and plan to tour the world with my wife as a duo. Eventually we want to move to a foreign country. Maybe Portugal or Thailand."

Yes, you will absolutely catch them off guard. They will not be expecting this response. It will feel weird and uncomfortable at first. That's okay. Your answer will most likely steer the conversation into a different direction from work.

If you start doing this regularly, the idea that your work defines you will slowly dissolve. You'll realize having conversations about your interests and goals are way more satisfying than talking about your day-to-day grind. The conversation will lead to more interesting discussions and better opportunities for your dreams and ambitions.

So take the challenge and let me know how it goes by commenting below.

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