The next time you’re at a networking event or cocktail party, try changing the conversation starter, says blogger Kate Sitarz. You may be surprised where the conversation goes!
Ever since I moved overseas, I’ve noticed friends have asked me variations on the same question: What are you even doing over there? Do you even have a job?
And every time I hear it, I feel judged.
They’re asking a simple question and one that’s often a go-to conversation starter with strangers. We’ve come to define ourselves based on our occupations, and our success on the one-two punch of a job title and the number of zeroes in the accompanying salary.
But to find contentment we have to figure out our own definition of success—and change how we talk about ourselves.
I’ve tried changing how I respond to “what do you do,” guiding the conversation away from a one-word occupational answer toward what I do in my spare time. Too often when I’m part of a larger group conversation and the question comes up, people tout long lists of degrees and high-profile jobs, as if sharing their resume is the only way to convey their intelligence.
I found myself playing into this same conditioned response. My immediate reaction was to give the “I write for X, Y, and Z companies” because it’s fast and easy.
But I wanted a better solution.
So, I started changing the conversation from “what do you do?” to “tell me about yourself” with mixed results: It leaves the answer wide open, and also allows more than a one-word answer. However, in my experience, open-ended questions can throw people off: They’ll rack their brain for where to start (and often fall back on the “here’s what I do for a living” answer).
I also like to ask, “Where are you from?” As someone who loves to travel, I’m fascinated about where people come from, how they grew up, favorite things to do in their hometown. Anytime I’ve asked this, it’s opened up the conversation. That single question and its answer, whatever it may be, gives me a slew of ideas for follow-up questions that organically lead to other topics.
And maybe the conversation eventually touches on what we do to earn a paycheck. But if it does, it’s only one blip on the conversation radar.
Changing the conversation also helps start or strengthen friendships. What I admire in friends and acquaintances usually has nothing to do with their occupation (though sometimes those same attributes help in their chosen field). The answer to “What do you do?” can easily lead to quick judgments as people instantly get filed away into the appropriate stereotype box.
Case in point: As a writer, I’m asked constantly, “Oh, do you have one of those mommy blogs?” My livelihood often gets dismissed as a hobby. For my husband, mentioning he’s in the military has been a conversation ender: As one person told him before walking away, it means he shoots guns, is fiercely conservative, isn’t culturally sensitive, and joined because he couldn’t get into college. (None of those things are true.)
Just as these assumptions are wrong, our assumptions for any other profession are likely wrong, too. At the very least, conjectures never give us the full story—nor do they consider the other Grownup’s own definition of success.
So at your next cocktail party or work dinner, test out a few alternative conversation starters. Use my suggestions or your own—and see if you then get to know people (and vice versa) for their ideas, interests, and opinions with (hopefully) fewer preconceived notions. Give conversations a chance to get off the ground without letting a job title sum up who you are—or the people you meet. If nothing else, you’ll have a successful dialogue.
Kate Sitarz is a freelance writer living in Germany. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Travel!, The Huffington Post, and USAToday, among other outlets.
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