Stop Asking “What Do You Do!” Try This Instead.


Longtime blog readers know that I am ambivalent toward networking events. I explain my position in my course on networking for analysts. 

So a friend was surprised when I suggested we meet at a networking event last night. It was so close to the house, I thought, “why not?” Then I remembered why.

“Hi, I’m ______. What do you do?”

God, what a stupid question.

 A. Most people hate their job.

Why spend those valuable moments of your first impression asking someone to talk about something they hate? 

Notice that longtime friends normally don’t immediately talk about serious issues when they meet. They ease into it through shared interests and connections. Mirror what a friend would do — because networking is just making friends for the purpose of advancing your career. 

B. People “do” many things.

I am a graduate student, blogger, online course coach, and eBay vendor. I could weave this into a narrative for my “elevator pitch,” but people inevitably want the specifics. 

In the freelance economy, people will generate multiple sources of income. Some of these sources will be hard to extricate from everyday life. So what you “do” is too broad.

C. Didn’t your mama tell you not to ask that?

Are manners dead? I know these are young *professional* networking events, but I am quite certain I learned from the old movies that people only sheepishly asked about careers.

There’s something brash about starting with “What do you do?” It would be the dating equivalent of just going up to an attractive girl, telling her how beautiful she is, and asking for her number.

People want to be seen for more than their job, just like beautiful women want to be seen for more than their looks.

Mama told you this was rude for a reason.

So what’s the alternative?

Yes I know you came to a young professional networking event to advance your career. So if you want to feel it out for leads or collaborators, try this:

‘What kind of projects are you working on now?”

Notice this is much more open-ended and user-defined. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be about work. It could be about a hobby or creative endeavor (both of which could becomes sources of income.). 

It gets the person talking about what they want to talk about and what excites them rather than caging them into the job box.

Give it a try at your next networking event — that is, if you really need to go to one.

George J. Mount is the instructor of “Networking for Analysts,” now on Udemy.


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