Start asking people what they know rather than what they do.
One of my best friends earns an hourly wage working on an organic farm in Central California. She loves her job, the dirt that lingers under her fingernails at the end of every day, and the fact that she gets to supplement her bare essentials income with a steady consumption of freshly-picked vegetables.
I have another friend that works for a London investment bank. She’s clever, hard-working, never struggles to pay her rent and graciously offers to buy rounds of drinks far more than she needs to. While she doesn’t like talking about finance outside of work, when pressed, she’ll tell you that her job is “interesting, but not what I thought I’d be doing.”
When people ask my farmer friend that inevitable question—”what do you do?”—she frequently finds herself explaining that her job requires more than “mere manual labor.” Those same people frequently feel the need to assure her that it’s a good thing she got a degree in psychology, “you know, just in case.”
For my banker friend, it’s rare that her answer to “what do you do?” requires further explanation or justification beyond the financial institution she works for, or the impressive masters program she completed. Unsurprisingly, people don’t feel the need to ask her if she has a contingency plan for her future.
While asking someone what they do for a living isn’t always a subtle attempt to classify their educational, financial, or societal stature, in our achievement-oriented culture, it very often feels that way. Even when asked with the most earnest of intentions, the question gives the respondent a very limiting framework with which to answer. What’s worse is that in shaky economic times, when artists, designers, activists, musicians, writers and actors often pay the rent by becoming waiters, bartenders, nannies, and PA’s, it can be altogether misleading.
The extent to which society relies on this question leads many college graduates, laid-off workers, and career builders I know to vehemently-dread it altogether. The question seems to carry with it the need for those not fully employed to justify their place in life, to make it sound like they’re doing more than working a part-time job, or to at least lay out a vague five year plan.
I often wonder what might happen if we stripped away this formulaic getting to know you question and replaced it with something else.
Questions like: What do you know to be true? What’s your dream job? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Where are you going?
These questions may not help us ascertain which box—fully employed, student, intern, job seeker, drifter etc—to assign someone to upon meeting them, but when answered thoughtfully, they can be much more effective in helping us get a sense of the person in front of us.
Often, the most interesting people doing the most interesting things don’t have a job description at all. They simply don’t tick any of the culturally sanctioned boxes that we’ve grown accustomed to filling. And that’s okay. We are more than what we do, and for that reason, we should start giving people a chance to talk about something other than how they pay the rent.
When I ask my favorite alternative question—what’s your dream job?—I love seeing the look of relief that registers on a person’s face when they realize they get to talk about something that they actually care about. Even if they never get there, a thoughtful and honest answer can serve as a proxy measure of what they’re passionate about today. The head chef at French Laundry, the creative director of Nike, an adolescent psychiatrist, digital media strategist, jewellery buyer for Nordstrom—these are not things that I would want to do, but it excites me that I know people who do. Equally telling is when someone doesn’t have an answer to this question at all; I sometimes hope that asking them might at least spur them to give it some thought.
So try it. Next time you meet someone, ask them not what they do, but what they know, what they’re trying to make happen, or who they’re planning on becoming. It may not be as informative, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting.