It’s the question we always hear whenever we are at an event or social gathering. Once we have broken the ice and found out the other person’s name, what is the default first question of the ‘conversation’?
Our first question to a complete stranger is to find out what they do during the day to earn money to pay their rent/mortgage/bills. Maybe we like our job, we might even love it and maybe the other person in the conversation does, but is that really the best we can do? Wouldn’t we want to know more about them that might even be more interesting?
Our job is only a part of who we are
It does not have to be who we are. It doesn’t have to define us. The thing is if we do ask the question ‘What do you do?’, what kind of responses do we get?
‘I’m a sales manager for Name Of A Big Brand with a team of 50 people based in Name Of A Big City and soon, I’m up for promotion to director where I could manage more people and blah blah…’
If you’re really lucky, they might then go on to explain the minutiae of their daily routine, including telling you about personal characteristics of some of the individuals in their team and their sales targets. Not very exciting.
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? And yes, this did happen to me and that’s why I was motivated to look into alternative ways to handle similar social situations other than ‘I think somebody over there is calling me, Sorry, gotta go…’
Some people love their job, whereas others perhaps less so. Asking ‘What do you do?’ forces people in the latter group to say things like ‘I’m just a — insert job they don’t like’ and they clearly want to move the conversation on, so why not help them do that by removing the question entirely?
The best question to ask in social situations
I’ve found that asking a different question always initiates interesting conversation. What if we were to ask this instead?
How do you spend your time?
This is such an open question that it gives the other person the option to talk about their work if they want, but it also gives them the chance to talk about other things in their life that they might feel passionate about.
Subject matters could include anything from family, fishing, running, writing short stories, travelling, cooking or how much they love gardening.
In fact, a former manager of mine would often talk about his passion for buses. Yes, buses. When I first met him several years ago, I admit to thinking ‘What a geek and now I have to work with him!’
However, after a while, I learned that he was so into his passion that he had written three books on the subject and it was always fun listening to him talk about it with such a glint in his eye.
It’s so enjoyable spending time with people who are happy and passionate talking about something they love and the feeling is quite infectious. Even if that subject happens to be as boring (to me) as buses.
Social permission to be yourself
The truth is that it doesn’t matter what they’re talking about, their eyes (and let’s face it, ours) are far more likely to light up and be engaged if they are talking about something that they really believe in.
By asking ‘How do you spend your time?’, you’re also giving the other person a kind of social permission to not have to talk about their job as per social convention. You get something interesting and they do too. Everybody wins!
Let’s face it, if somebody says that they’re an accountant or another stereotypically dull job, we switch off unless we work in a similar field perhaps. However, it’s also important to remember that just because they’re an accountant doesn’t make them, the person, uninteresting.
Remember, we are not defined by our jobs. We are more than that. Our jobs are what we do. Not who we are.
In fact, one of my best friends is a finance director and is renowned for being the lif and soul of many a party. He tells me things about his work from time to time without much feeling, but when I see him play the saxophone, you can tell that he is communicating with his entire soul.
You feel enriched just being around that kind of positive energy.
I don’t care what you do. I want to know who you are
I accept that on first meeting somebody at a party, we may not want to know their entire life story. All I’m saying is that we could perhaps set the bar for the initial conversation a little higher than simply talking about our jobs.
Let’s focus on who the person is and not just on what they do for work.
When I meet people, I want to get to know the real person.
None of us are ‘just’ teachers, accountants, bankers, writers and cleaners, we are all much more than that. Much more.
So, tell me. How do you spend your time?
I’m Jason Newton and I spend my time writing songs, recording albums, teaching English and Spanish, coaching people to be more confident and writing here on Medium about personal development, travel and poetry. And most importantly, walking my dog and hanging around in our local village bar having coffee, waiting for inspiration.