In defense of “What do you do?”.

A friend recently posted this video:

The gyst of it is that the small talk question ‘What do you do’ fails to address the individual qualities of the person, and is instead an attempt to put people in boxes.

I concede that there are some problems with the question ‘What would you do’ – mainly that it can be an awkward question for people who don’t work – eg. people who are stay at home parents or unemployed. The question carries an implication that working has higher intrinsic value that these other occupations.

To address this – I prefer to ask the question ‘What do you do during the day?’ – this is a bit more open to possibilities outside work.

But I don’t think the small talk question is entirely without merit, especially if it’s reasonable to assume that they do in fact work fulltime.

I think the suggestion that the question is boring or irrelevant discounts how a big a part of our life work is, for those of us (the majority) who work full time.

We spend third of a waking week at work. I think it’s only natural that’d we’d want to talk about it. That might be because we need to let of steam, or because we take pride in what we do.

I think the suggestion that it’s wrong that work might be the largest priority in one’s life is either naive or cynical. I agree that work shouldn’t necessarily be the biggest priority in our lives – (and I think that attitude is a cultural throwback from the baby boomer generation). But for many is a major priority, and they shouldn’t be see as ‘less in tune’ or similar because they prioritise their work, and not say, writing poetry.

I think it implies that one can’t make the world a better place through their fulltime work, or being paid somehow discounts the value of what you’re doing for the world. I think if you look at the vast majority of the developments in the last century, that have improved our lives – technology, medicine, science have come from people  going to work everyday.

But ok – not every person who works fulltime is doing one of these jobs. For many people working is a means to achieving their top priorities – providing for their families or travelling for example.

In any case, their working week still makes up a large chunk of their life, and warrants attention.

Personally – I like telling people about what I do, (though I think for many people web development is probably interesting for about one minute max), and I also enjoy learning about what other people do.

I don’t think ‘What do you do’ is the only small talk question we should ask – and indeed, perhaps it’s a symptom of a lack of creativity – but let’s err on the side of not dismissing people for valuing work.

There’s another reason that work related small talk questions are good – because they’re safe. Sure asking someone what the craziest thing they’ve ever done is, or what their hopes and dreams are might be more interesting, but someone who you’ve just met might not feel comfortable sharing that with you. Asking about more neutral topics allows both parties to get comfortable with each other before getting more personal.

Here are some other small talk questions that also work:

  • What do you do after work?
  • What do you do on the weekends?
  • Are you watching any TV shows at the moment?
  • Do you write or make music or anything?
  • What do you usually eat?



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