I recently met some new people. Very nice people who knew my husband, but I had never met. Prior to our introduction, I made a small wager with him. “I bet you $10, I will be asked what I do within the first 30 seconds of meeting these folks.” I won (although I am sure I never got paid).
Small talk often begins with this simple question. “What do you do?” I’ve begun to slightly loathe this question because, well, I do a lot, and no one thing really captures who I am. Perhaps that’s my strength, that I am multi-dimensional. But it’s never a quick answer and it takes some investment to hear me out, which can then lead to a conversation, if the person cares to listen.
I don’t mind answering it, nor do I think it’s rude to be asked, but I’ve grown to believe this simple question reflects a societal value that equates work with identity and for many that’s not a true depiction of who we are.
The answers to this question is often a statement of identity. “I am a blank (fill in the blank with your job/career/vocation).” But that doesn’t answer the question, what do you do nor does it get at the essence of “who are you.” I argue we’ve developed small talk to define us by what we do for money and propose we turn that around into finding out the interesting side of people, be it their work or other pursuits.
There are people who do all kinds of interesting things for work, like deep sea welding or hot air balloon piloting. Similarly, there are some very interesting people who do less interesting work, like working at a call center, but have hobbies they are passionate about like roller derby or ice fishing that speak more to who they are than work.
If you happen to meet someone in the first category you are likely to have an interesting conversation because their work is interesting. But if you ask this question to the call center agent, you haven’t gotten to the essence of the person and may likely miss the opportunity to find out they hold the Guinness Book of World Records for being part of the base of the world’s largest human pyramid.
Sometimes work can reflect values and interests, but often work is the means to a lifestyle to pursue one’s interests and values. What if instead you opened small talk with some questions that evoke an interesting conversation that would get you to know a little bit more of that person.
How about starting a conversation with “what’s most the beautiful place you’ve ever been?” “What do you do for fun?” “Do you play an instrument?” “What’s a good book you recently read?” Or “What’s your favorite sport or game?”
Speaking of sports, these new people I met were basketball fans and we watched the end of March Madness together. As UConn swept the men’s title, our hosts educated us about a much beloved piece of NCAA Championship tradition that has cultlike following. “One Shining Moment” is a video reel of tournament highlights put to a song written by David Barret played after each championship game since 1987.
Some consider the tournament unfinished until the video is played. It’s a snapshot of the tournament’s best and worst moments showcasing the blood, sweat and tears with unbelievable shots, injuries, shirtless fans, victories and losses in an attempt to capture the waves of emotions from the madness of the month.
Perhaps the next time you meet someone new, ask them “what’s your shining moment?” as a starter instead of what they do. It’s likely to make for a much livelier conversation.