You’re in a bar, you have an intoxicant in your hand, it’s a Thursday evening. So far so good.
But then you’re called over and introduced to your partner’s friend, or your friend’s ex-colleague, or your ex-colleague’s second cousin. As your partner or friend or ex-colleague doesn’t know of anything that you and this new acquaintance-to-be have in common, like the same hometown or the same obsession with marmalade, they inevitably introduce you both via your job titles: “This is Jane, she’s an animal hypnotist.” Or, they don’t even do that and simply run off to the toilet, and it’s left to you and the stranger to say, “So… [awkward pause while you pretend to soak in the scene or stir your drink with a straw] What do you do?”
There’s a lot of discussion out there about why we feel compelled to ask this question, and why it’s wrong. The cynical interpretation is that we’re trying to glean how much money they make, for that is the only true value left in society, or that it’s an easy way to box people into a stereotype and judge them accordingly. The more generous interpretation is that we’re sincerely trying to ask a question to find out more about this person. For me, it’s the only acceptable one that doesn’t make it sound like you’ve put them in a psychiatrist’s chair.
It’s the only socially acceptable line of personal inquiry
Ideally, an opening line of inquiry in small talk such as this would enable you to obtain hints about their personality, interests and views, in order to find something in common, but more importantly to ensure that you don’t accidentally offend them. And to me, career is the last remaining line of inquiry that is socially acceptable and yet still useful in forming judgements, which then help to develop a conversation.
Political correctness and a self-imposed ban on the lowest forms of stereotyping demand that you must be blind to your new acquaintance’s gender, age, physical appearance and colour of skin, even though you notice these instantly. It would be wrong ethically and factually to say: “Oh you’re Asian, you must have a ruthless work ethic,” or “You’re clearly above 35, it must be tough balancing your career and the desire to have a baby,” or “You’re a woman in a high-powered suit, I bet you’re ambitious.” As for their looks, it’s even more taboo even though we react to it most quickly and powerfully of all, whether it’s awe, attraction, intimidation or disapproval. If the popularity of Tinder is anything to go by, judgement of physical features is a key and pleasurable way of deciding whether you want to get to know a person. But while you’re given moral permission to rate people’s bad hair or big lips within an app, in a face-to-face scenario you have to pretend you haven’t noticed.
In comparison, someone’s job is a relatively safe thing to comment on: “Oh you’re a lawyer, gosh they must work you hard,” or “A graphic designer, interesting, what sort of thing do you work on?” It’s true that you make judgements, some accurate, many not: the lawyer must be rich, busy and clever, the graphic designer must be a bit Creative with a capital C. If they throw in another detail like where they work, it further consolidates your judgements: “at Clifford Chance” means the lawyer is very rich and very busy, “freelance” means the graphic designer is either struggling to find work or enormously successful.
Whatever the case, you’ve built on what you know about that job title and can now follow up with the appropriate questions, while being careful not to convey too many prejudices. You’re probably OK for five minutes before you hit another awkward pause. Then you can always talk about your job – that’s another five.
It makes for safe small talk
Asking about career may turn out to be a superficial line of inquiry, but it’s relatively reliable. Your conversation partner is probably used to talking about their job, whether they like it or not, and has at least a few lines prepared to rattle off. With any luck, you’ll also know something about their job, or at least know someone who does it. It’s a more predictable line of inquiry than, say, “Where have you travelled?”, and finding yourself not even knowing where Moldova is.
For similar reasons, “talking about jobs” fits many of the criteria on the list of what makes the perfect small talk, as outlined by the reference book publishers Wiley & Sons. It’s a topic that has legs – “where do you work?” “how long have you been working there?” – and it’s familiar and personal for your conversation partner, while you can easily show curiosity and interest.
Why other opening gambits don’t work
Ideally, we’d skip the career part altogether and go straight to hobbies or where they grew up. These kinds of information can often tell you much more about your new acquaintance’s sincere interests and important experiences – in fact, some of my best friends don’t really understand what I do for a living, and vice versa, and it barely matters.
But instinctively, I find these questions too personal to be the very first thing to ask a stranger. Perhaps it’s my English-slash-Japanese shyness-slash-standoffishness, but they feel too intrusive, precisely because they would reveal more about the other person.
As for other suggestions for alternative conversation starters in the blogosphere, I find them even more daring and unrealistic:
“What excites you?” Wise Bread
“How awesome is your life?” Psychology Today
“When was the last time a moment took your breath away?” CNN
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post recommends you give a compliment, tell a funny joke or take a postmodern approach and comment on the awkward situation you’re in. They’re valiant suggestions, but they’re not questions that indicate you’re interested in finding out about your acquaintance, and crucially, they don’t lead into another question that prompts an observation that leads into another question, which is what you’d want for small talk.
Dangers of hurt and misunderstanding
Of course, some job titles are obscure, and can leave you at a loss as to how on earth to follow up. A financial consultant writes of a solution in Forbes – he now has ready an idiot’s guide opening reply: “I answer questions about money.”
There are other, more serious preconditions than the ease of explanation that must be in place for “What do you do?” to be successful. Your new acquaintance needs to be in a job that they’re happy with and that they’re willing to talk about, and most importantly, it needs to be a situation of the nature that the questioner can appreciate and understand.
There are many scenarios where these preconditions aren’t fulfilled, and it can cause a lot of hurt and misunderstanding, prompting Wiley’s last rule of small talk to collapse: “Make people feel comfortable, allow them to relax and enjoy a casual conversation with you.” People working in less well-known fields or on non-linear career paths, or those who are in between jobs, feel rightly defensive that they’re being judged on a five-minute appraisal of their career, and feel irritated that they need to justify themselves.
I know that feeling. When I first followed my husband here to Beijing for his work, I quit my job in London. He was sensitive and caring enough to know that I should be acknowledged by our new acquaintances for being more than just his wife, so he made a point of saying, “Mariko used to work at so-and-so”. I felt grateful that this started a conversation about me, as opposed to “us”, and yet I was sad that this was the easiest way to portray me as an “intelligent and independent woman”.
Women on maternity leave or taking a career break to look after their children feel this pressure much more acutely; they’re often simultaneously dismissed and revered as a mother, and it’s assumed that’s all they are or need to be. People with even more sidelined or unusual roles, such as full-time carers of family members or stay-at-home dads, must find it incredibly frustrating to see people’s reactions of surprise and confusion followed by incredulity, sympathy or exaggerated praise.
I imagine that “What do you do?” is even more unwelcome and unhelpful for the younger generations, for whom unemployment is a real possibility and a stable job can feel like a distant wish. I wonder, how will the Millennials introduce themselves when they leave school? Will they find a new line of personal inquiry that is less restricting, or will there be another form of social branding that they will use to define themselves and judge each other?
Hang in there
This is what we aim to do in engaged yet polite small talk with a stranger: as the questioner, you want to be relevant, you want to flatter, you want to be innocuous. As the questioned, you want to sound sincere but vague, normal but impressive. And given these criteria, “What do you do?” seems well-meaning if misguided: it may hark back to bygone eras when your job title very much defined your identity and role in society, but at the same time it’s a form of enlightened compliment that assumes your role is something you’re proud of and helps identify you.
Opening a conversation with “What do you do?” is not ideal. But the crucial thing is that it’s ultimately small talk, not dating or networking – these are different beasts again. You know you’re more than what your job title suggests, and your conversation partner should know it too if they thought about it in any depth after your ten-minute chat. If you’re not standing in a bar but stuck next to each other at a dinner party, before long you’ll start to ask more nuanced questions, and if you went on to become friends your job won’t even be relevant. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before your new acquaintance excuses themselves to get another drink, and your friend or partner or ex-colleague comes back from the loo. You’re not invested and you don’t ultimately care – and you should tell yourself that as you take another big gulp of your G&T.