23 Things to Ask Instead of “What Do You Do?”

by Rebecca A. Watson on February 21, 2016

in expat, facade, friends, judgment, life

After reading something a few years back, I made up a rule for myself. Whenever I met someone new, I would try to ask five questions about them before I asked what they did for a living.

Now, as easy as that might sound, it was actually harder than I thought it would be. It turned out that I sort of relied on that question to start conversation.

Kids are so much better at conversations.

I don’t remember having this problem as a kid.

It reminded me of a elementary school friend. She warned me that the first thing her dad would ask me is what my dad did. It was sort of a joke, but indeed he did ask. It didn’t dawn on me until later that many people use those answers to judge other people. Maybe not consciously, but it was happening.

I know this because for awhile, I didn’t know what I did. I’d moved to Freiburg with my husband. I wasn’t a student. I let go of all my marketing clients because I was without a work visa for the first six months. Suddenly when I met people, I was silently judging myself because I couldn’t answer the question to my satisfaction, which meant surely others were judging me as well. At least that’s the story I told myself.

What I should've said was I was busy breaking into all sorts of religious relics.

What I should’ve said was I was busy breaking into, erm I mean, exploring all sorts of religious relics.

Since then, I have become more conscious of getting to know who people are outside of their jobs. And because I’m a journalist, I’ve come up with a ton of questions to help me get there.

I usually don’t run down this list when I meet someone. Generally just a few are enough to get us into a good conversation that keeps us far away from occupation. Here are a few I thought I would share with you when you’re struggling for questions to ask someone when you first meet:

  1. How do you know (host of party)?
  2. If at a restaurant or bar, ask: Have you ever been here before?
  3. Or: So what do you think of this place?
  4. Or: What did you order? (Everyone likes to talk about food.)
  5. Or if at a house/dinner party: This (food they brought) is so good! What’s in it? or Where did you find it?
  6. So what are you interested in? or, What are some of your hobbies?
  7. How did you get into that?
  8. Did you grow up around here?
  9. If no, ask: Where did you grow up? What was that like?
  10. Or: How did you end up moving here?
  11. Or: How long have you been in this area then?
  12. If yes, ask: How have things changed since you were young?
  13. Or: What’s one of your favorite things to do in the area?
  14. Or: What’s something you’d like to see changed in the area?
  15. What’s one of your favorite spots to take visitors?
  16. Have you seen any good movies lately?
  17. What was the last great song you listened to?
  18. Do you have any pets?
  19. If yes: Pictures, names etc.
  20. What superpower would you choose: invisibility or flight? (John Hodgman conducts an informal survey.)
  21. Do you like to travel?
  22. If yes: What was one of your favorite travel days?
  23. If no: Have you always felt that way, or did something happen to turn you off traveling?

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with asking someone’s profession. I do however think there are a lot more interesting things about someone. Not everyone gets to earn money doing what they’re most passionate about, so I think it’s more interesting to know about that kind of thing first. And if they are doing what they love, it will come up in conversation organically.

Like the tulips in front of my neighbors house are already doing!

Like the tulips in front of my neighbors house are already doing!

So I challenge you with the challenge I gave myself: The next time you meet someone new, ask them five questions before you ask what they do.

(This whole post was really sparked by a thought-provoking TED talk, A kinder, gentler philosophy of success. I definitely recommend taking 17 minutes from your day to watch it.)

Photo credits: LovetoTakePhotos, Joquin Aranoa

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Barnes April 1, 2016 at 12:34 pm

This is perfect, I’ve become so bad at approaching people despite being really outgoing. I then just spout on about myself as the questions I’ve asked are dull enough to not warrant in-depth answers. Thank you!


Rebecca A. Watson April 10, 2016 at 6:12 pm

Hey Jon 🙂 I am so happy to help. I know that feeling…it’s why I put these out there. It’s been helpful for me and I thought others could benefit too. Happy you found them!


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