So, what do you do? Ask better questions

Phil Castle

So, what do you do?

It’s the ubiquitous question most people ask when they meet someone — whether at a business conference, networking event or, especially this time of year, holiday gatherings.

It’s really just a polite way to start a conversation while trying to side step potential land mines that would blow up a rapport even before one developed. Imagine, for example, if you were to ask instead about political preferences or religious beliefs.

I can think of even worse ways to handle an introduction.

Me: Nice to meet you. So, what do you think of that guy standing over there by the punch bowl? Ugliest man ever?

Suddenly irate acquaintance with his hands balled into fists: That’s no man. That’s my wife.

It’s understandable why people want to ask the safe and socially acceptable question. One problem, though, with asking people what they do is the labels their answers sometimes evoke. Nobody says it out loud, but they might think it nonetheless.

I’m in sales. Oh, so you’re pushy.

I’m a lawyer. Then you’re arrogant and argumentative.

I’m an accountant. You mean boring bean counter?

I shudder to think of the labels that come to mind when I tell people I’m a journalist. Muckraker, anyone?

Hopefully, people either eschew these stereotypes or quickly move past them. But assumptions can erect needless barriers.

For those who prefer to actually get to know someone rather than pursue trivial chitchat — and I’d like to believe that’s most of us — there are better openers. And here’s the point: the end result could be relationships that enrich our personal and professional lives.

David Burkus — a college professor, speaker and author — raises that very point and others in his book titled “Friend of a Friend.”

Burkus cites research that shows people prefer and maintain stronger relationships involving “multiplex ties” —  things in common that include not only affiliations in social settings or work, but also shared interests in certain activities or philanthropic organizations, for example.

Consequently, starting a conversation about work sets boundaries that could curtail the discovery of the multiple commonalities that could turn mere acquaintances into business prospects or even close friends.

Burkus suggests other introductory questions, among them:

Where did you grow up? Here’s an invitation to get some background and perhaps even hear the tale of how someone got from the past to the present.

What do you do for fun? Here’s another invitation, this time to talk about something other than work, perhaps what could be a shared interest.

What excites you right now? This question could be about work or something else. A passion, accomplishment or family vacation. I cherished a friendship with a Grand Valley entrepreneur who used to greet me with a similar question: “So, what interesting things have you done today?”

Who’s your favorite superhero? This is a personal favorite of mine because of what I believe could be the insights the answers afford. Why does someone like a superhero? What powers or attributes do they wish they possessed themselves?
You might assume I admire Superman because he’s also a journalist. Actually, aren’t all journalists superheroes? But I liked Spider-Man when I was a kid. Now I kind of like the idea of the inventive entrepreneur who becomes Iron Man.
Actually, aren’t all entrepreneurs superheroes?

What’s the most important thing I should know about you? This question could come off as too forthright, but also allows for the broadest range of answers — and even more insightful ones. Here’s a related question I ask near the conclusion of my interviews to make sure I haven’t missed the obvious: Is there a question I should have asked, but didn’t?

By the way, if you’re asked at a holiday gathering about what you do, consider providing a more nuanced answer.

In addition to your title or job description, tell an anecdote about your work. Talk about how you help people, whether that’s customers or others. Focus on something about which you’re passionate. People like to be around enthusiastic people. Consider the conversation an opportunity to teach somebody about your profession or industry. Tell them something they don’t know.

Regardless of the questions or answers you provide, engage in the conversation. And I mean really engage. Don’t judge. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted. Don’t listen only with the intent to interject at the first opportunity your own story or offer unwanted advice.

So, what do you do?

You listen. You understand. You sympathize. You communicate. Who knows? It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at or 424-5133.