(Flickr photo by Emily Rose)
(Flickr photo by Emily Rose)

“What do you do?”

The classic get-to-know-you question is designed to extract information about your job, that thing you spend a lot of your time doing. But it doesn’t work anymore.

Let’s kill it.

I have another question I’d rather be asked — as do many of you.

But first, a few reasons why “What do you do?” won’t do:

  • It’s understood as “What do you do for a living?” and ranks paycheck activities above all others in the get-to-know-you hierarchy.
  • It assumes permanence and stability when our economy and values pave choppier paths.
  • It pins your identity to a job instead of pinning a job to your bigger, evolving identity.
  • It loads the resume, an automatic output given time and time again.
  • The person may not have a job at the moment, which is awkward to explain in this context.
  • The person may not care about what they do for a living. But they have to tell you anyway.

“What do you do?” is an old question from an old time. Its assumptions are stale, and we need an upgrade.

What else works? A few of you shared alternatives on Facebook this week (thanks!).

From safest to toughest, try adding these to the mix:

1. What are you working on (these days)? 

Amanda Koster

This question is:

  • All-inclusive: It extends beyond “work” work.
  • Open-ended: The person can take it wherever they want to go.
  • Timely: It can be asked again next month (add “these days” to all these questions for the same boost)

And the person you ask can steer it almost anywhere she wants to go. It might be the safest, easiest “What do you do?” alternative.

2. What do you like to do?

“You can ask a 4 year old, a CEO, a homeless person. And sometimes you will discover common ground.” — Valerie Craig

This question is:

  • All-inclusive
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun: It zeroes in on pleasant things.
  • Insightful: It’s a better way to begin to map a sense of self.

People open up when they talk about stuff they like, though you may need an extra nudge to get work-related answers. We tend to believe the things we enjoy can’t also be work. Silly us.


3. What are you thinking about?

“Play, ideas, emotions, and expression are a far more interesting starting place than verbal LinkedIns.” — Brett Horvath

This question is:

  • All-inclusive.
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun.
  • Insightful.
  • Surprising: It makes them go off script.

Thoughts feel light next to big, heavy jobs, but they shift nicely moment to moment and reveal all kinds of things. Asking about them, instead of about someone’s activities, is a neat idea.

4. What are you passionate about?

“You wind up learning much more about who the person is.” — Berit Anderson

  • All-inclusive
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun.
  • Insightful.
  • Surprising.
  • Challenging: Tougher to answer than what’s on your business card.

Not everyone can spout off their passions, and you don’t want to make people work too hard, but just being asked something like this can help you figure it out. Who knows? You might walk away from the conversation knowing more than when you came in.

5. What are you building?

building11“It keeps the focus on an activity — not an identity  —and makes it easy for the person who asks to come up with ways to help.” — OK, this was me

  • All-inclusive
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun.
  • Insightful.
  • Surprising.
  • Challenging.
  • Goal-oriented

It’s not a one size fits all by any means, but after hanging out with a few entrepreneurs I really admire, I’ve realized this is the question I most want to ask and be asked. It doesn’t just get to what you’re doing, liking and thinking about, but also pushes you to think about what we’re building as a product of your passions. (Check out the Facebook thread to see how some Seattleites answered this one.)

Got another “What do you do?” upgrade that works? Let’s hear it.

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  • Blair Hanley Frank

    I’m a fan of “What do you like to be known for?” Myke Hurley uses it to kick off interviews on his podcast, Cmd+Space, and it usually starts an interesting discussion.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I like that. Makes people go on a longer timeline and zero in on their own impact.

      • RubyShelleykip

        Peyton . true that Jessica `s blurb is shocking, last
        monday I got a gorgeous Peugeot 205 GTi after having earned $6860 this past 4
        weeks an would you believe ten-k this past-month . with-out a doubt this is the
        easiest-job I’ve ever had . I actually started six months/ago and pretty much
        immediately started to bring in minimum $84… p/h . Read More Here F­i­s­c­a­l­p­o­s­t­.­C­O­M­

  • Mindy Haidle

    I like to ask this: “On a good one, how do you spend your days?” Especially because I am fulltime working mama, but often am around other moms and have no idea if they work, don’t work. It can be a sensitive topic. Also great if you’re with retirees. Or any human who doesn’t want to be instantly class-ified; most of us don’t.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I hear you on the full-time mom vs. working mom question. With a 2 year old, I’m running into a lot more people who don’t fit the full-time or wants-to-be-full-time working profile (I’m part-time myself). BUT everyone’s still working on cool stuff, whether it’s a new product at a startup, a killer kids’ book collection or a new, cozy spot in the garden (almost there).

  • David Milesi

    Great post. I vote for “what are working on these days”? Much better. Thank You Monica.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Thanks to the people who suggested better alternatives! I was planning to write a different column before we got to chatting on Facebook :)

    • Dave

      I really liked this one as well. “What are you working on these days” fits both my friends who work full time at a single job, those who are consultants and those who have really interesting work but on a freelance or project basis.

      And I’ll confess I opened the article originally wondering “really, is this a problem”. I will do my best to use “what are you working on these days” going forward.”

    • http://eric.jain.name/ Eric Jain

      To me, the question “what are you working on these days” implies that we’ve met in the past. “What do you do” is quite open-ended, and seems just fine, at least at professional networking events. Don’t make me feel like I’m talking to a psychoanalyst, or a headhunter!

  • http://bethbellor.wordpress.com Beth Bellor

    LinkedIn just asked me what I was passionate about as a profile prompt. It was a surprisingly useful question.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Nice! Did you have a good reply ready to go, or did you have to sit back and think about it? (Sounds like you liked it, either way…)

      • Dave

        Honestly, what I’m passionate about is probably a deeper conversation than I’d want to have with most people I just met or meet with casually or professionally.

      • http://bethbellor.wordpress.com Beth Bellor

        Words just spilled out and I decided they provided an apt description. And I did like being more genuine in what is often a stuffy setting.

  • Jonah

    What is your favorite non-real animal. And if not a Liger, why not?

  • Wendy

    I used to live in a resort town where locals asked “Where do you work in town?” instead of asking what you do. Everyone got that you had to make a living, but didn’t equate it with who you were.
    This summer I think I’ll try asking “What are you excited about these days?” Seems open enough to go wherever the respondent wants, but not invasive.

  • Bob

    I like “What do you do?”. Maybe that’s because it’s such an improvement from “Where are you from?” or, even worse, “What are you?”

    “What do you do?” seems like such an aspirational American question, especially for Americans on the West Coast. We don’t care where you’re from or what your ancestry is; we care what you DO. I like that.

    Sure, the suggestions in your article, Monica, are good refinements, and I have nothing against them; I’ll probably transition to “What are you working on these days” in fact. But these are nitpicks when compared against how far we’ve come already, and how much better “What do you do?” is than the hoary old greetings we’ve left behind.

  • Scott Berkun

    My favorite is “Where are you from?” – it’s far more interesting than tech/work blah blah blah and it’s a question adults can answer many different ways: where they were born, where they went to school, what country they or their family moved to the U.S. from, etc. They get to pick which story they want to tell, which is interesting all on it’s own.

  • Paul Perkins

    “What keeps you busy these days?” is less intrusive to the point earlier (remove the hierarchical seeking probe). Plus the “busy” question is all encompassing and is a softer, more genuine conversation starter. The following are odd starters, particularly if you’re meeting someone for the first time: What’s your passion, what are you thinking and what are you building. But can be good follow on’s after knowing what keeps them busy.

  • Fatfingered

    I traveled for six months through Austrailian youth hostels when I was in my 20’s.
    Every single American asked within 5 minutes what you did for a living.
    Not one other nationality, out of a dozen or so I met asked that question.
    I realized this was the only way my ‘tribe’ could communicate with each other, by pigeonholing each other, and that none of the hundreds of people I met in my travels felt the need to do so. It was so prevalent, after a while I knew if I met another American, I could look at my watch to time the question. It was a sad bet I made to myself.

  • SI

    What do you do still works for me. Allows me to sort the unproductive out of my circle. Esp. when dating.

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