What I’d Rather Hear About than Your Job

When meeting new people, it seems the default question of “What do you do?” comes up shortly after names are exchanged. Our jobs become our definitions. However, only a lucky few who are truly passionate about what they do for a living welcome such a definition.

“What we do” is not always “who we are.” With the noted exception of those fortunate few who love their jobs, asking what someone does provokes, at best, a neutral, pre-packaged response.

There are other things I’d rather hear about.

1. What you are reading. As an avid reader (be my friend on GoodReads!), I love to hear about, talk about, obsess about books. I read thrillers, novels, personal essays. I dabble in poetry collections. I fill my home with books and pass good ones along to whoever I think would enjoy them. Tell me about the last great book you read. Tell me about the recent article you read in the newspaper, a magazine, or online that changed your thinking about foreign policy, menswear, or drapery pleats. Reading makes you interesting, and everyone loves to hear from interesting people.

2. Where you’re headed. I’m always planning my next trip – be it real or imaginary. I like to ask people where they’d go if they could jump on a plane right this minute and go anywhere, all expenses paid. My own answer to this question changes frequently. I want to go to Quebec, Istanbul, Mumbai, St. Petersburg. I want to see much of South America and Africa. I want to ski wherever I can. I’d love to hear about upcoming vacations, past vacations, or fantasy vacations. Distance doesn’t matter.

3. What you’re eating. My boyfriend is quite the chef. Prior to him, I had no real appreciation for the culinary world. Now, I have a cabinet full of spices and cookware. I’m slowly learning to love food – preparing it, eating it, and talking about it. Going to a great restaurant? Have a wonderful meal the other week? Love cooking at home? Peeved about Top Chef? Please share!

4. What you do. If your job is your passion, I’d love to hear about it – even if I have no real understanding of what it is. Listening to people talk about their passions is fascinating. The other night, I joyfully eavesdropped on my sister as she discussed chemistry with a mutual friend. I’ve never heard two people so pumped about Tungsten. Your passion may not be your job, but, for most of us, your job is not all that you do. Tell me about your hobbies. Tell me about your weekend plans.

People’s jobs can be fascinating. People’s jobs can be boring. Unless they are enthusiastic about it, I’d rather talk about something else.


About Helena

Helena lives in Chicago with her boyfriend and two cats. Her boyfriend thinks she's awesome. Her cats agree.

Posted on June 24, 2011, in Who I Am and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Hahaha, I’ll try not to dwell on my job for too long Sunday then 😉 Writing and grammar are my passion but not so much when it involves office supplies 😀

  2. I’ve always hated the question “What do you do?”, precisely because people ask it as if they’re asking who you are.

    It’s like when you’re a kid and people ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I just want to be myself! How I earn a living doesn’t define that.

    Thanks for writing this, it’s very uplifting and you have great conversation suggestions I’ll have to remember!!

  3. My it’s refreshing to see someone who’s greatest interest in learning about the other person. It seems a higher and higher percentage of folks (and canines) are so busy exponding on their particular talents asking questions is a lost art. Good grief, I don’t need to know the number of Rolls Royces someone’s had in the last 5 years. Good Post.

  4. Yay!!!! I live in NY, where the “what do you do” question, when I answer, writer, becomes a really annoying game of “show me your resume” when they ask who I write for (so they can rank and peg it.) I write for the NYT and write books, so no shame in my game but….borrrrrring! I loathe the innate competitiveness of that question and, in Europe and other countries, it’s not what people focus on at all. Thank heaven. You can go through an entire evening or social event without ever discussing your job or work with someone.

    My favorite way to shift the conversation is to ask “So, what do you do for fun?” It almost always seems to surprise people and they are always happy to answer it. I think it lets them show their true passions, even if they work for fun.

    • Exactly! When I tell people what I do, they want to know where – as though the company is an indication of my abilities at my profession. And yes, this job thing is an American obsession.

    • Natanya Green

      I love that question, “What do you do for fun?” I’m sure the surprise factor in the unexpected ending on the question will be an extra bonus.

  5. So true! It’s hard not to fall into the usual job question, but it’s not always an insight into who they are. I hated being asked that question when I was dissatisfied with my job, but now I love talking about it. I try to accommodate for both ends of the spectrum by then asking whether they enjoy what they do and if not what their dream job would be.

  6. Natanya Green

    Thanks for this post Helena! This exact situation came up today in a conversation with a new acquaintance and I cringed when I habitually asked this question without thinking. I swayed the conversation to what his dream life/job is instead and that made for much more interesting and playful fodder.

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