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July 7, 2014 1:00 PM   Subscribe

The loaded meaning behind 'What do you do?': [Deb] Fallows says the questions are meant to tease out socioeconomic status, political viewpoints, and cultural background. “You know that somebody’s kind of digging for information to put you into their world – how do you fit into my world?”

Deb Fallows in The Atlantic:
*So, Where Do You Live? What Do You Do? - "Many more of you reported other queries that you would be likely to say or hear in your own hometowns. So far, I would say that your suggestions fall into 3 different categories: social orientation, work, and neutral territory..."
*What We Mean When We Say Hello - "Last week I wrote about conversation starters that follow “Hello” and “How do you do.” Many dozens of you have written in and generously included your comments and interpretations of what you think people actually mean when they say something like “Where do you live?” or “Where are you from?”"

What You Do Is Not (Necessarily) Who You Are
Among the niceties and travails of meeting people for the first time, there’s no more loaded question than “What do you do?”... I have European friends who loathe the question because they think it’s coded language that only means one thing: How much money do you make? But that’s only part of it. It means that, and several other things... In its most innocuous version, the question means, do we have anything in common? Is what you do something interesting we could talk about? But given all of the other implications, it’s hard to feel like you’re not being assessed in a much larger way.
Americans love to ask people 'what do you do'? It's a habit we should break:
In the US, people are obsessed with work. Your job is your identity. But all that is changing in this economic funk

Unlearning How White People Ask Personal Questions
My question to my wife-to-be’s stepfather was at the level of content a simple conversation starter (albeit a completely failed one). But at the level of process, it was an expression of power. Kochman’s book sensitized me to middle class whites’ tendency to ask personal questions without first considering whether they have a right to know the personal details of someone else’s life. When we ask someone what they do for a living for example, we are also asking for at least partial information on their income, their status in the class hierarchy and their perceived importance in the world. Unbidden, that question can be quite an invasion. The presumption that one is entitled to such information is rarely made explicit, but that doesn’t prevent it from forcing other people to make a painful choice: Disclose something they want to keep secret or flatly refuse to answer (which oddly enough usually makes them, rather than the questioner, look rude).
What do you do versus where are you from?
We ask questions of those we have just met so that we can figure out who they are in relation to us. At least, that’s my theory. So when non-natives ask you, “what do you do”, how are they classifying you? Productive? Non-productive? Lazy, stupid, intelligent, desirable, not worthy…what? I suppose the criteria changes depending on who is doing the asking, but I am still taken aback when a truthful answer causes the asker to either withdraw or cozy up to the askee...

I’m not saying one way is better than the other, but one way is more familiar than the other, and draws me into the life of the person I’m meeting instead of making me feel like I’ve got to pass a test before I “get in”.
posted by flex (357 comments total) 102 users marked this as a favorite

 
As suggested in the Guardian article, I'm quite partial to the question, "What keeps you busy?"

It's open-ended enough to get people to talk about something that really matters to them (work, hobby, family) while not feeling so much like an inquisition.
posted by mochapickle at 1:10 PM on July 7 [55 favorites]


I list my 3 avocations as strangling small animals, masturbating, and golf.





THANK YOU MONTY PYTHON!
posted by Mister_A at 1:13 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


This is dreadful behavior though, and I don't think I've ever done it, because I'm awesome.
posted by Mister_A at 1:14 PM on July 7


Reminds me of being in college in the Boston area, and having someone point out that there, everyone asks, "Where did you/do you go to school?" while in New York, people ask, "So, what do you do?" and in D.C. people ask "Where do you work?" In general, people on the East Coast used to also directly ask something I am never asked here in Seattle, i.e. religion/ethnicity.

In Boston, school was a big predictor of social/economic success, while in NY, occupation was the indicator, and in D.C., access to power was the indicator. And back in the day, people divvied themselves up on the East Coast by religion/ethnicity.

I wonder how much all that has changed. I am rarely asked any of these questions when I meet new people these days -- the focus tends up front to be on shared interests.
posted by bearwife at 1:15 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I list my 3 avocations as strangling small animals, masturbating, and golf.

Those are all the same thing.
posted by srboisvert at 1:16 PM on July 7 [61 favorites]


I don't know why people attribute nefarious causes to such a simple question. You're asking a person about the single thing that occupies the majority of their waking hours. It is one of the absolutely least weird questions you could ask someone.
posted by the jam at 1:17 PM on July 7 [92 favorites]


The "where do you go to church" thing is interesting to me, because it just seems so epically private and inappropriate. I know that it doesn't play that way in some parts of the US, but I really just can't wrap my head around the idea that it's anyone else's business. The Chicago-style "what parish are you from," on the other hand, is a way of asking where you live, and that's not as intrusive to me. On the other hand, in Chicago where you live can also be a way of getting at ethnicity and class.

Where I live, people generally ask where you live. You also pretty quickly get around to something about where your families are from, which is a way of figuring out if your aunt knows the other person's cousin. I can't play that game, because I'm not from this state, and I'm actually not even sure I know how the question gets broached.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:17 PM on July 7


I'm from Texas and these lines of inquiry among Texans are most often people just trying to find out if they have something in common with you so they can be nicer. Not pesky/inquisitive other than in a good-faith sense. If you're offended by someone casually asking what you do, jeez, I don't know.
posted by resurrexit at 1:18 PM on July 7 [27 favorites]


I actually dislike "what keeps you busy" and "how do you spend your time" because they seem to me to be transparent workarounds for "what is your job", and they [mostly] elicit the same type of information, since in most instances, the people with jobs to boast about boast about their jobs and the rest of us talk about something, anything else. I notice this particularly because I have a lot of degrees and a secretarial gig - people routinely expect me to have a proper middle class job and I'm constantly negotiating this type of conversation. (Actually, usually I just tell people that I'm a secretary - working class people don't care, middle class people are profoundly discomfited and become either astonished or patronizing.)

I much prefer conversation starters of the "So how do you know Joe?" or "What are your feelings about barbeque" variety.
posted by Frowner at 1:19 PM on July 7 [25 favorites]


I just have to say that when I attended a froufrou party on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (the richest part of the city), my husband got "So, what do you do?" as the first question. Not a single person asked me what my job was. Even when we were standing together.
posted by Liesl at 1:19 PM on July 7 [16 favorites]


Where I'm from we always ask "What question do you ask someone you just met?"
posted by mullacc at 1:19 PM on July 7 [92 favorites]


In the parts of the country where they ask where you go to church, they often don't conceive at all of the possibility that there are people who don't, at least people outside of New York or San Francisco or Atlanta or whatever sewer of iniquity they think that happens in.
posted by thelonius at 1:19 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


“You know that somebody’s kind of digging for information to put you into their world – how do you fit into my world?”

And some people are simply trying to make conversation. If you have just met, they need to find some place to start. It's only nefarious if, beneath the civil exterior, they are really, deeply assholes.
posted by Michele in California at 1:20 PM on July 7 [26 favorites]


In LA there's always "You're a [California] native?" Native or no, they'll tell you where they're from and how they got to LA, which can give insights into "what they do." And they might be flattered you took them for a native. This generally works unless the person being asked is clearly not native-born American.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:21 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I like the suggestion to instead ask "What do you like to do?" Everyone will have an interesting answer and want to continue the conversation, whereas really, who wants to talk about their job in a social setting? Especially if you hate yours, or can't find one.
posted by HotToddy at 1:21 PM on July 7 [10 favorites]


So just to throw this out there - When you introduce people who don't know each other always try and give them some connecting information - even if it is just how you personally got to know each of them but preferably something you know they have in common - along with the names. People just need a handhold so they don't fall into the abyss of social awkwardness.
posted by srboisvert at 1:21 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]


How dare you. What gives you the right to express interest in my life. I am impotent with rage. This should not be allowed. This is uncalled for.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:21 PM on July 7 [47 favorites]


I've lived in Texas most of my life and I've honestly never been asked where I go to church. But maybe that's because I'm Chinese and people just assume I'm a heathen? (Now that I think about it, I have been asked if I was Buddhist.)
posted by kmz at 1:22 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


"So, what are your cultural signifiers?"
posted by gwint at 1:22 PM on July 7 [32 favorites]


You should have tried going to my university in the early/mid-'90s. People in first year would regularly ask me what my high school average was; this gave them an opportunity to tell you that theirs was 95% or above. It didn't take long for me to figure out that most of these kids were from the more affluent areas of large Canadian cities, where the high schools were greasing the wheels so everyone there could get into the "good" schools. The valedictorians must be graduating with 118% or so these days.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:22 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I'm from Texas and these lines of inquiry among Texans are most often people just trying to find out if they have something in common with you so they can be nicer. Not pesky/inquisitive other than in a good-faith sense. If you're offended by someone casually asking what you do, jeez, I don't know.

Try living in DC, where it's the default conversation opener. It's most definitely used as pecking-order determinant, either based on who you work for or who you know.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:22 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


Honestly, what I really want to ask people I meet is "so, like, what's your deal?" but that sounds kind of aggro. But what I truly want to know about someone is just what their deal is, however they conceptualize that.
posted by threeants at 1:22 PM on July 7 [59 favorites]


In the parts of the country where they ask where you go to church, they often don't conceive at all of the possibility that there are people who don't

At a book sale, a fellow volunteer handed me a case containing the Bible on cassette, with the words: "You should take this. Unless you don't have a cassette player? Or maybe this isn't your version?"

Which meant that I could at least honestly answer that no, I haven't had a cassette player for years.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:23 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


I list my 3 avocations as strangling small animals, masturbating, and golf.
This is dreadful behavior though, and I don't think I've ever done it, because I'm awesome.


I assume you're referring to golf.

(studiously avoiding any "choking the chicken" jokes)
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:23 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


I am impotent with rage.

Best possible answer to "what do you do?"
posted by The World Famous at 1:24 PM on July 7 [51 favorites]


> I actually dislike "what keeps you busy" and "how do you spend your time" because they seem to me to be transparent workarounds for "what is your job", and they [mostly] elicit the same type of information, since in most instances, the people with jobs to boast about boast about their jobs and the rest of us talk about something, anything else.

I don't know if this helps, but I say this, and I ask because I genuinely do have an interest. I don't want to talk about barbecue. My resume is bonkers, so I don't like to talk about my job.

Western Tennessee: "Where do you go to church?" and "Are you married?"
Anywhere I meet senior citizens: "Are you in school?" Because to 60+ year olds, anyone pushing 40 looks like they're still in college.
posted by mochapickle at 1:24 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


As for the content of this FPP, if strangers I deem sufficiently obnoxious ask me what I do for a living I tell them "I used to be a librarian, but I'm retired." I'm 40.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:25 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


And some people are simply trying to make conversation. If you have just met, they need to find some place to start. It's only nefarious if, beneath the civil exterior, they are really, deeply assholes.

I have a really, really different experience - again, mostly because my job and demeanor are at odds. I look and sound like...oh, a mid-career nonprofit administrator, or possibly someone with a stable community college teaching gig, or a late-start graduate student. People generally assume that I have, like, an advanced degree and the life that goes with it. So when they ask what I do, or how I spend my time, they're already expecting that we'll be able to bond over middle/upper-middle-class stuff. And they have a shitload of ideas about working class people - mostly that we don't have much education, can't sling fancy words, dress in certain ways, speak in certain ways, etc.

Before they find out what I do, I am generally a potential friend, romantic partner or at least conversational partner for the evening. After? If they're educated people, they stop listening to me - sometimes I can get that back if I drop enough of the correct academic language into the conversation, or mention some particular journal or conference. If they're rich lefties, they come over all patronizing, like I'm a talking dog (not whether I do it well, but that I do it at all, etc).

People are absolutely trying to judge when they ask about your work - they're trying to match their preconceptions up with who you actually are.
posted by Frowner at 1:26 PM on July 7 [60 favorites]


How dare you. What gives you the right to express interest in my life. I am impotent with rage. This should not be allowed. This is uncalled for.

Would you believe, the other day, some impertinent ass actually asked me for my name.
posted by like_a_friend at 1:26 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


Ugh, "what do you do?" feels like such a beartrap to me. For example, since people seeking out professional work are supposed to be ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES!!!, when someone asks me this I don't usually feel comfortable giving the honest answer of "I work in retail because I still need to eat and not be homeless even though I haven't found full-time work in my field." I need them to think of me as a professional, not a wage slave. But it makes me mad because I hate the shame around working in the service industry. I hate that I can't put those jobs on my 'real' resume, because I'm proud that I've supported myself financially through grad school, internships, freelance underemployment, and an endless job search.
posted by threeants at 1:26 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


I really really hated this question when I was unemployed and depressed. Lived in fear of it. Much better to not talk to people than to have to admit what a complete and utter failure in life I was.

Now it's okay-ish, but mostly because my circumstances have changed and thus I feel I am a more legitimate human being.

Which is still pretty messed up.

I don't know if I am for or against the question. Probably some cultural work needs to be done so that "I don't" is an okay answer.
posted by curious nu at 1:27 PM on July 7 [22 favorites]


"How do you do?" followed by hiw they know X how they came to Y too old fashioned?
posted by The Whelk at 1:27 PM on July 7


I don't know why people attribute nefarious causes to such a simple question. You're asking a person about the single thing that occupies the majority of their waking hours. It is one of the absolutely least weird questions you could ask someone.

When I was maybe twenty, it was pointed out to me by my mom's oldest friend that asking someone I'd only just met what they "do" was not a cool question.

Why?

"Because you're seeking to categorize them before you've come to know them."

Too harsh a condemnation. Maybe. But it's stuck with me. I almost never ask someone what they "do". They inevitably bring it up, and if they don't, well that's their business.

As for my personal answer to the question, it's always the same. "As little as possible."
posted by philip-random at 1:27 PM on July 7 [14 favorites]


Honestly, what I really want to ask people I meet is "so, like, what's your deal?" but that sounds kind of aggro. But what I truly want to know about someone is just what their deal is, however they conceptualize that.

I tend to ask people "What are you all about?" in as friendly a way as possible.

(this is free-form, go nuts)
posted by overeducated_alligator at 1:27 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


This is probably my insecurity showing, but the "How do you spend your time?" / "What do you like to do?" type of question seem like a polite way of saying "Prove to me you're not as boring as I think you are."
posted by mullacc at 1:27 PM on July 7 [34 favorites]


most often people just trying to find out if they have something in common with you so they can be nicer

It is not unusual that if the person being asked is a minority and the person doing the asking is white, then they are not in fact asking to find a way to be nicer. It can often be a way of signifying that the questioner does not believe the questioned belongs wherever the questioning is taking place.

It is possible that you have never experienced this firsthand or witnessed it happening, but that doesn't mean it doesn't actually happen. For people to prefer that this not happen to them is not some kind of hideous social faux pas or a sign of disordered and/or antisocial thinking.
posted by elizardbits at 1:28 PM on July 7 [34 favorites]


Both "what do you do?" and "where are you from?" are very loaded questions that will cause quite a few people offense.

The former, as the post discusses, combines both the American presumption that one's job/career is a person's single most definitive characteristic and is effectively a query about class. Sure, in its most benign it's an unselfish attempt to ask a person about something that is presumably both important and interesting to themselves. But not everyone, and certainly not at all times in their lives, finds work very interesting and wants to discuss it with strangers and, not infrequently, people have jobs they specifically dislike discussing (or disclosing) to strangers. And, at worst, it's an opportunity for a stranger to stereotype you on the basis of your work and to invoke all the class and status stuff that one's work implies.

The latter seems like an entirely innocuous, even quite friendly and considerate question to people who are accustomed to feeling like they belong to and are welcome in the community in which they are embedded. But not everyone has this privilege. Many people are frequently seen as out-group by the people around them — even when they've existed in a community their entire lives. For all such people, "where are you from?" is a coded (and sometimes quite explicit and hostile) message of "I think you don't belong here".

And the unfortunate thing about these two questions and about personal questions in general is that they're not necessary. If you genuinely want to better know someone, or genuinely wish to make them feel at ease by signaling that you're interested in who they are and what they have to say, all you need to do is listen. Well, you need to actively listen and to present the various social conversational signals that indicate receptiveness and interest. If you do, people will talk to you. And it's a truism that most people, to varying degrees and with various amounts of circumspection, like to talk about themselves. At the very least, everyone likes to talk about the things they are most interested in. It's not that hard to provide opportunities for people to feel comfortable opening up. Direct questions that implicitly raise problematic issues like class and belonging are among the worst tools for this purpose.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:28 PM on July 7 [15 favorites]


I much prefer conversation starters of the "So how do you know Joe?" or "What are your feelings about barbeque" variety.

A friend of mine who grew up nearly without family hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for his friends and acquaintances every year. I went some years ago and was standing in his fifteenth-floor balcony, admiring the view of downtown. One of his other friends ambled out and diffidently asked, "So, er, how do you know Sean?"

I tried a jest: "We met in prison."

The guy apparently failed to catch it as a joke. "Oh... can I ask what you were in prison for?"

Lifting a line from Steven Wright, I looked thoughtfully at the ground far below. "I threw a guy off a balcony." Dude did not speak to me for the rest of the evening.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:28 PM on July 7 [153 favorites]


I much prefer conversation starters of the "So how do you know Joe?" or "What are your feelings about barbeque" variety.

"So how do you know Joe?" is just about perfect. It starts conversation, allows the two of you to understand how you relate socially, but isn't about status or power. I had lots of people at my house on Friday who I didn't know. My wife has lots of friends. A few people asked me how I knew her and I got to say, "Oh, we're actually married. I live here."
posted by Area Man at 1:29 PM on July 7 [28 favorites]


i mean i of course personally refuse to answer any sort of intrusive questions from anyone to whom i have not been formally presented at court but emmv
posted by elizardbits at 1:29 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


And the unfortunate thing about these two questions and about personal questions in general is that they're not necessary. If you genuinely want to better know someone, or genuinely wish to make them feel at ease by signaling that you're interested in who they are and what they have to say, all you need to do is listen.

Well, but you can't just walk up to somebody and start listening to them without saying a word. Because that would be insane behavior. You have to say SOMETHING.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:31 PM on July 7 [23 favorites]


"so, what do you do?"

"drugs, mostly"
posted by threeants at 1:31 PM on July 7 [19 favorites]


I'm going to try elizardbits' way.
posted by curious nu at 1:31 PM on July 7


"dishes"
posted by threeants at 1:31 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"What the fuck?" works well in most situations.
posted by bondcliff at 1:31 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


For real though I mostly just ask new people "so, nice to meet you, what's up?" But nobody ever seems to know how to answer that, so maybe that's just as dickish?
posted by like_a_friend at 1:32 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Try living in DC, where it's the default conversation opener.

For REAL. I don't mind, because my answer is fun and novel and outside the usual pecking-order stuff, but all the jokes are true: it's what you will be asked here, by everyone, all the time.
posted by troika at 1:32 PM on July 7


As for my personal answer to the question, it's always the same. "As little as possible."

Ah, the Chinatown gambit.
posted by clockzero at 1:32 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


"sex. I do a whole lot of sex"
posted by threeants at 1:32 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


I tend to ask "Do you live close by" if I meet someone in my own city (Milwaukee). If they live in a faraway suburb, we'll talk about commutes and traffic, if they live in the city, we'll talk about our respective neighborhoods. If they're not from here, we'll talk about wherever they're from.

I'm prone to have geography on the brain, though.
posted by desjardins at 1:32 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


New Orleans is the world capitol of "Where did you go to high school?" I'm 50 years old and I am regularly asked this. BY PEOPLE MY OWN AGE.

Anyway, if you were ever looking for the answer to the question "What could possibly be lamer than still rooting for your college football team 25 years after you graduate," I have an answer.
posted by localroger at 1:33 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]


Also, I find it's much more common here to be asked "Where do you work" than "what do you do."
posted by desjardins at 1:33 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


The last time I was at a speed dating event (lol kill me) I spoke to maybe five people who just talked about work, and so I resolved to ask the next person I talked to "hey, tell me something about yourself that's not job-related!" She looked at me all confused and said that between work and gym and commuting, who has time for, like, hobbies and stuff? And there was absolutely nowhere to go from there.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:33 PM on July 7 [29 favorites]


Great post! Thanks, flex.

I've spent my entire working life in an industry that my political cohort finds uniquely repellent, so this seemingly innocent conversation-starter is a landmine for me. If I say, "Eh, I work in an office," which is true, they'll respond, "What kind of office?" Then I have to hem and haw and try to decide if I should just out with it or continue obfuscating my line of employ so they aren't moved to call me a hypocritical war profiteer and stomp off in a huff. If someone asks what I do specifically, as in 'what's your job title,' I shrug and make vague typing motions: "Office monkey."

"Where did you go to school?" is just as tricky because I didn't graduate high school and I'm sick of being told that I sound like I went to college. "How's your family?" is out because I don't have one. And I wouldn't want to ask anyone any questions that I can't or wouldn't want to answer. God, I hate small talk.

That's why my go-to introductory question is, "Who did you vote for in the 2004 Democratic primaries?" (The correct answer is, of course, Howard Dean.)
posted by divined by radio at 1:34 PM on July 7 [10 favorites]


In my twenties I used to dislike being asked "what do you do" because I didn't like my job. And my dad, cool as ever, said "well, don't answer with your job, answer with whatever you like to do. Do you play music? Tell them you're a musician!"

And then I realized that the more I defined myself that way to others, the more I believed it myself. Good job, Dad.
posted by scrowdid at 1:34 PM on July 7 [76 favorites]


localroger my friend from the fl panhandle handles getting that question elsewhere in the US by saying "it was destroyed by a hurricane actually"
posted by elizardbits at 1:35 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I wanna start asking "What's wrong with you?" when I first meet people.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:35 PM on July 7 [24 favorites]


"What are your feelings about barbeque"

Geeze, are you _trying_ to start feuds?
posted by kmz at 1:35 PM on July 7 [20 favorites]


I list my 3 avocations as strangling small animals, masturbating, and golf.

As per, of all people, Robert Heinlein:

... we started filling out the same old forms-age, sex, occupation, place of birth, purpose of visit, means of transportation, race, permanent residence, marital status, et cetera ad nauseam. I was tempted to emulate a friend of mine who for years has been putting down his occupation as "necrophilist" without once having it questioned.
posted by gurple at 1:37 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


localroger is right that people in New Orleans will ask about high schools even into middle age. When I get to duck out of that conversation because I've only been in the city for six years, I am both overjoyed that I left that behind when I left my hometown, and aware that not being able to be triangulated in that way leaves me as more of a wildcard in their eyes.
posted by umbú at 1:37 PM on July 7


I try not to go to parties where people ask me "what do you do" so they can look down on me (or envy me, though that's unlikely).

My job is hard to describe, like so many white-collar jobs..or even like factory jobs. I'm the white-collar equivalent of the guy whose specialty is cleaning the Number 3 gear assembly. It's important that somebody do it, but nobody outside my profession is going to get it. But I don't take offense when people ask me about it. It never occurred to me that this was an intrusive question, since my response to whatever someone tells me is invariably "Wow, what is that like?" or "Cool" or some variant. Other people's jobs are interesting. Even shit jobs. If they say "But I hate my job," then we can talk about what they'd rather be doing; ideally I might know something or someone that could help them with that goal and I pass it along. I really like when I can do that.

I have certainly felt class-based judgement but why would I want to talk to someone who has decided my education/job/income makes me unworthy of their time? I mean, what could an asshole like that say that I would want to hear?

But having said all that, I have no problem with trying an alternate gambit like "How do you know Mary?" or "did you grow up here?" or something if people really are feeling harassed by job-based questions.
posted by emjaybee at 1:38 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


"Your mom."
"Excuse me?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said who. I'm an accountant."
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:38 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]


Serious question: is "where did you go to high school?" the precursor question to the person rattling off a list of acquaintances who went to that high school to see if you know any of them? I feel like these questions work that way where I currently live. The point is to establish mutual acquaintances, because people feel all secure and connected when it turns out that they know some of the same people. It's not that they actually care where you went to high school.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:39 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I ask about TV but that's actually a terrible inescapable trap because it's easy to talk about yet tells you absolutely nothing about the other person
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:39 PM on July 7


Here are some ice-breakers I've learned through the years:

I notice you are black. I think black people are excellent, don't you?
Are those breasts? I have a funny story about breasts.
Do you know George Takei? I believe he, like you, is Asian.

I could go on, but believe me, if you deploy one of these sure-fire conversation starters, your interlocutor will stare at you, wide-eyed with disbelief at your conversational puissance, and will soon mutter appreciatively and move to the other side of the room, where he or she will gesticulate wildly in your direction to an acquaintance, clearly singing the praises of your skilled intercourse. Shortly thereafter, you will be escorted from the premises, presumably to keep you safe from the impending mad rush of exiting party-goers.
posted by Mister_A at 1:39 PM on July 7 [68 favorites]


And here I thought asking "What do you do?" Instead of "What do you do for a living?" Was a way to politely give someone an out to talk about a hobby or something they really like to spend their time doing if they aren't the sort of person that defines themselves by their job. Because seriously, if your job is just a job, I don't really care or want to hear much about it either.

I guess "So what do you like doing?" is something that better communicates that intent, though.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:40 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I used to tell people I was a bartender in Queens cause I don't like talking about my "job" which is mostly staring into space wearing a Star Trek robe inbetween bouts of panic-induced typing but then I started to meet more people who lived in queens and they wanted like, names.
posted by The Whelk at 1:40 PM on July 7 [16 favorites]


I usually ask people "what are you about?" or "what is your life about?". Sometimes it throws people off-guard and they may something like "That's a mighty big question! What does that mean?" and I say, "It means whatever you want it to mean. No wrong answers."
This either leads to:
a) good, insightful conversations about hobbies, family, dreams, passions,etc.
b) awkward, stilted mumblings, quickly cut short by the other party's sudden need for a fresh drink or a loo-trip.
posted by chara at 1:40 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"What is best in life?"

I'd never have the nerve to try it, but the answers would be fascinating. Other than the Conan the Barbarian quotes.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:41 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]


This conversation highlights for me how introductions are always a negotiation of interpersonal space. There's no neutral, perfect way to do it. The line many are recommending, "How do you know X?" has often made me (qua introvert and person who avoids social events more than others in my friend sphere) get a vibe of, "I'm not certain whether you belong here -- please justify your presence and position in the social hierarchy."

Every question or statement is an action, and as such, you are acting upon someone. You cannot know (absent already knowing the person!) how the other person is experiencing that. Thus, to me, the relevant issue is not "what is the best conversational opener?" but rather "how can I muster enough grace and empathy with this particular person to make us both feel more at ease and make this social situation a little better connected, relationally speaking?" This is hard. Finding a clever introductory line may not make it easier. It might trick you into thinking you've solved the problem -- which you may have, in the modal case. But I suspect there will be a person who experiences your perfect line as nefarious, and you might not even know it. YMMV.
posted by mister-o at 1:42 PM on July 7 [32 favorites]


For the record, being surprised by beauty and wonder is best in life.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:42 PM on July 7 [17 favorites]


Btw, I don't think anyone here is accusing "what do you do"ers of any kind of malintent. (At least I'm not.) It's just one of those frustrating/weird cultural things.
posted by threeants at 1:42 PM on July 7


I don't know why people attribute nefarious causes to such a simple question. You're asking a person about the single thing that occupies the majority of their waking hours. It is one of the absolutely least weird questions you could ask someone.

It often is a very nefarious question and is a way to rank people.

I was taught in my French language classes that (in France) asking a stranger’s occupation was the height of rudeness, up there with asking someone how much money they make and if they cheat on their spouse. If it were any of your business, you’d already know.

And as provided in the Unlearning How White People Ask Personal Questions link, it can often put people on the spot especially if they are un- or under-employed.

I don’t ask people what they do or where they went to school. I start with current events and go from there, movies, sports, books, hobbies, etc. Usually, during the conversation or at a future point, they share their occupation or school.
posted by shoesietart at 1:42 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


Frowner, I am sorry for your experience.

I have spent most of my adult life in circumstances where it is tough to answer such questions. "Military wife and homeschooling mom" worked decently for a lot of years as a means to give casual acquaintances a concept of me in a nutshell so they could try to relate. I am currently homeless, I do a little freelance work and I run several websites. I am also getting myself well when the world tells me that cannot be done. That last is an answer that is a huge can of worms to try to give anyone but it is the thing that takes most of my time. IRL, "I do freelance work" is often the safe answer even though it is a tiny portion of my income and a tiny portion of my identity. Online, "I run some websites" sometimes works or sometimes various other answers. I think I have a bright future. I think anyone who has the potential to be a real friend or romantic partner is someone who first and foremost has to have the ability to understand me as a complex human being, not some pigeon-holed Job Title.

I can assure you, if I am asking a question like that, it is purely intended to start conversation. But I mostly do not ask questions of that sort. I mostly meet people online in forums where folks have some hope of getting to know each other based on something more substantive than current job title.

It would maybe be kind of convenient to remarry so I can fall back on "I'm Mrs. So-and-so" as an identifier while continuing to do things that matter to me that most of the world doesn't seem to really understand (or, in some cases, believe).
posted by Michele in California at 1:42 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


When I tell people what I do for a living they get a look like UGH MATH COOTIES and edge away.
posted by winna at 1:43 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"What do you do?"
"I panic in social situations."
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:43 PM on July 7 [109 favorites]


So what have you been up to lately?
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:44 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]


Well yeah, it's pretty standard to load up on a few current event ice breakers ( keep it civil, nothing too politiclal/religious, etc) to prime the pump at social situations.
posted by The Whelk at 1:45 PM on July 7


After having a shitty answer to this question ("I have a shitty job I hate") to having a notshitty answer to this question ("PhD student at famous prestigious place") my reaction when being asked this question went from self-loathing to 'please dont think im a snobby rich privledged fuck' and 'stop paying attention to me'.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:46 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


what's your favorite animal?
posted by likeatoaster at 1:46 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


So what have you been up to lately?

I think Greg_Ace has got it.
posted by umbú at 1:46 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


Honestly I feel like it's OK to talk about that stuff—once you've learned a bit of the other stuff. I do not believe my job defines me or my worth, but it does reflect some of my talents and inclinations. But really, the first thing I want to know is, 'are you an enjoyable person to talk with?' Maybe I should ask that!
posted by Mister_A at 1:46 PM on July 7


The correct question is, "So what you like to know about me?" This neatly sidesteps all problems and we get to talk about our favourite subject! Clearly it is objectively the best.
posted by vanar sena at 1:47 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Do you believe that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, or that the Son proceeds from Him?
posted by General Tonic at 1:47 PM on July 7 [46 favorites]


what's your favorite animal?

After seeing the movie "Elf" my father answered the phone for the rest of his life with "[dad's name] speaking, what's your favorite color?"
posted by like_a_friend at 1:47 PM on July 7 [24 favorites]


Try living in DC, where it's the default conversation opener.

For REAL. I don't mind, because my answer is fun and novel, but all the jokes are true: it's what you will be asked here, by everyone.


I once had a dream about asking someone what they do and then having a conversation about how all people in DC ask that question; it's like conversational muscle memory at this point.

That said, I've never used it, nor felt like it was being used on me, to put people in any kind of hierarchy. I spend a lot of my time working, so it's fine to ask me about that. When I was unemployed, I told people that, and I never felt judged for that, although I can see how longterm unemployment would make that sit differently. I ask it because 1) you've got to make conversation and 2) people might do interesting things for a living. If someone's response makes it clear that their job is irrelevant to them as a person, I'm not going to keep asking them about it (even you, guy who worked at Lastpass but clearly didn't care two cents about passwords).

I strongly prefer "where are you from/what do you do" because they're easy and don't require me to figure out what animal I would be on the fly. I still make some effort to avoid this question, because not everyone feels that way.

On Saturday I (while trying to avoid asking this question), noticed that the person I was talking to mentioned that he needed a movie from Netflix for something he was writing, so I asked "are you a writer?" and he said "not for money." Ten minutes later or so, not knowing what else to say, I asked him "So what do you do...FOR MONEY." It was very smooth and I give everyone permission to use it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:49 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]




"Reaction time is a factor in this so please pay attention. Answer as quickly as you can. You're in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down and see a tortoise..."
posted by figurant at 1:55 PM on July 7 [19 favorites]


"Are you broken the way I'm broken? Do you hurt the way I hurt?" Anyone who buys into the conversation after that is a keeper, and anyone who doesn't isn't worth the time.
posted by fatbird at 1:55 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


Recently in a conversation, someone dropped "so what trips are you taking this year?"

I felt like I had been punched in the face. In my social circle, having the vacation time + hundreds of dollars laying around to go on a trip for fun is rare.

I did not know how to respond without coming off as unappreciative of their conversation, so I just made up vacation plans on the spot.

A week later, another person who was in that conversation told me how they thought it was really cool that I was going to X for the summer, and they were glad that I spoke up because they can't answer a question like that. Turns out the only person at the table who was comfortable with the question was the one who asked it.
posted by tofu_crouton at 1:57 PM on July 7 [27 favorites]


You see this would be helped by my REPEATED suggestion that all social events have Legos available.
posted by The Whelk at 1:57 PM on July 7 [41 favorites]


I really do not understand people who are prickly about "What do you do?" but think it's OK to drop "What are you all about?" or "What's best in life?" on people. Social gatherings and conversations should be about making people feel comfortable and getting to know them. Not putting them on the spot and making them feel painfully awkward.

If you don't want to ask about work, fine. But may I gently suggest that many people will feel like a complete asshole attempting to answer your oh-so-clever non-traditional questions?
posted by peep at 1:58 PM on July 7 [39 favorites]


Rarely do people ask me what I do although my husband is asked frequently.
posted by waving at 1:59 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Frowner: People generally assume that I have, like, an advanced degree and the life that goes with it. [...] Before they find out what I do, I am generally a potential friend, romantic partner or at least conversational partner for the evening. After? If they're educated people, they stop listening to me - sometimes I can get that back if I drop enough of the correct academic language into the conversation, or mention some particular journal or conference. If they're rich lefties, they come over all patronizing, like I'm a talking dog (not whether I do it well, but that I do it at all, etc).

Try "I'm on Social Security Disability for major depressive disorder." People flee.
posted by FrauMaschine at 2:01 PM on July 7 [32 favorites]


Maybe I'm bitter because I was once asked, "So . . . what's your story?" by a super social extrovert, and I literally just stared at her, hemming and hawing. I had no idea what to say. I've never felt more awkward in a social situation, which is not normally a problem I have.
posted by peep at 2:01 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


If you don't want to ask about work, fine. But may I gently suggest that many people will feel like a complete asshole attempting to answer your oh-so-clever non-traditional questions?

I used to have a coworker who used "So what's your passion?" In my case, it just forced me to meditate on the echoing emptiness in my life that I was trying to paper over with sarcasm and resume lines. But I suspect that "What's your favorite animal" would have done that too.
posted by gsteff at 2:03 PM on July 7 [21 favorites]


After having a shitty answer to this question ("I have a shitty job I hate") to having a notshitty answer to this question ("PhD student at famous prestigious place") my reaction when being asked this question went from self-loathing to 'please dont think im a snobby rich privledged fuck' and 'stop paying attention to me'.

Also a PhD student here, and I usually am just subjected to a baffled look until I awkwardly change the subject to television to prove that I'm an actual human being who can hold a conversation. Honestly very few of my friends and none of my relatives understand what I do, which is fine with the people who are cool but makes meeting new people kind of a crapshoot. Don't go into academia thinking it'll help your social anxiety, kids.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:03 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


In Boston it is "HOW do you get to work". People are constantly comparing their commutes.
posted by waving at 2:03 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


"So do you like... stuff?"
posted by entropicamericana at 2:04 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]


Un homme tout simplement, un respirateur
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:05 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"Well, but you can't just walk up to somebody and start listening to them without saying a word. Because that would be insane behavior. You have to say SOMETHING."

Usually there are topics available that are appropriate to the situation in which you're meeting someone, don't you think?

Anyway, there's arguably a weird inversion involved in these two questions and others which are comparable.

They're the most benign (and most appropriate) when they are the least revealing — that is, when the people involved are most likely to share the same demographics. In that context, the information is more like an increase in precision than anything else because the homogenous social environment is already quite revealing.

In contrast, when the social context is one where the group is much more varied, these questions are (on average) much more revealing because the revealed characteristics weren't already revealed by the social context. But aside from the issues about whether people want to reveal that much personal information to strangers who are, in such contexts, more likely to be unlike themselves, it's the case that it's in these more socially heterogeneous environments where this information is most heavily freighted with issues of class and social identity and, this being the case, most likely to invoke problematic issues of privilege and exclusion.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:05 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


So I like my job quite a bit but it's not remotely interesting to talk about: I fill out paperwork and talk about filling out paperwork for eight to ten hours a day. It's not even particularly interesting paperwork; I just happen to have a wholly unexciting job and I am 100% happy with that because I am -- or I try to be -- one of those "work to live" people who desires little more from my vocation than a paycheck, insurance and a relatively pleasant environment in which to spend a good portion of my day.

But, socially, when you ask someone what they do, it's rude to just hear it out and not ask a follow-up question. Because that's not how small talk works even if the person just described something you probably have no interest in knowing about. But as I've found out, it's also alienating to people to reply with something like "my job is boring to talk about" because now I am breaking the intricate rules of small talk. So I briefly describe my job and now we're in the purgatory of both having to pretend my job is somehow interesting.

I do not miss retail even a little, but whenever I am meeting strangers, I very much do miss the social cachet of "I run a punk store" or "I work in a sex shop."
posted by griphus at 2:05 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


This really is a no-win question. I've recently been asked things like "So, how do you fit into the world?" in lieu of the job-version and it really can come across very easily - intended or not - as a very snobby kind of thing in its own right: As though I'm some kind of component piece with a purpose, as opposed to a living person who doesn't necessarily have a place to fit in but just a mammal trying to get by from day to day like all the other mammals.

You know what? From now on I"m just going to answer with "Being a mammal" and see how that goes.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:06 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


Do you know George Takei? I believe he, like you, is Asian.

OK but for real tho I would LOVE it if someone asked me this at a party. Also consider: Yoko Ono, Yuri Kochiyama

I have a thing for elderly Japanese American badasses
posted by sunset in snow country at 2:07 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"I use my privilege to the fullest."
posted by zippy at 2:08 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Also literally the easiest time I had meeting a stranger was at a pig roast when we both started going for the parts everyone else ignored.

If only "which offal did you grow up eating" worked as an icebreaker when not standing in front of a pig carcass.
posted by griphus at 2:10 PM on July 7 [35 favorites]


I've recently been asked things like "So, how do you fit into the world?"

Wow, this is truly awful. Worst option yet. I would probably set myself on fire and run screaming from the room if I felt even the slightest amount of pressure to answer a question like this.
posted by dialetheia at 2:10 PM on July 7 [26 favorites]


the only logical response is to lay facedown weeping in the dirt while occasionally murmuring passages from being and nothingness
posted by elizardbits at 2:12 PM on July 7 [15 favorites]


TELL ME ABOUT YOU.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:12 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


Un homme tout simplement, un respirateur

"A very simple man, a breather"??
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:13 PM on July 7


Some of these options seem more designed to break the ice between the other person and the horrifying reality of their lives than anything else.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:14 PM on July 7 [19 favorites]


I have occasionally asked new people "Tell me a secret?" and, hey, now I know a bunch of hilarious secrets.
posted by troika at 2:15 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


In Boston it is "HOW do you get to work". People are constantly comparing their commutes.

Hah, I live in Boston and have never heard this but I love the idea. Plus, for me I feel like commute mode is one of the strongest predictors for having things in common with someone.
posted by threeants at 2:15 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Maybe I should start carrying my résumé everywhere.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:16 PM on July 7


Here are the two responses I use all the time. I don't have many friends.

"What might you be able to do?"

"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."

Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

"Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and
what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not
do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call
itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express
myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as
I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use--silence,
exile, and cunning."

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
posted by crazylegs at 2:16 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


It's decided then, all social interaction will take place in complete silence with everyone ordering drinks via touchscreens , to be delivered by drones, while everyone stares into thier preferred glowing rectangle.
posted by The Whelk at 2:17 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


I wonder if "what do you do?" will be a part of the Voight-Kampff test in the future.

Like if they stutter a bit and say "uh I work in an office, I guess" they're fine. If they answer quickly and succinctly with their job and title, they're a fucking replicant.
posted by griphus at 2:17 PM on July 7 [16 favorites]


This thread and the Social Services thread have got me musing now on how much of our efforts go toward applying linguistic and policy solutions to the fundamental problem, which is that human beings are seriously appalling creatures.
posted by like_a_friend at 2:17 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


I will say "What do you do?" if I am forced into asking a direct question because I am in the young-children phase and "Where do you work?" is awkward for stay-at-home-parents but "Are you at home with the kids?" sounds judgy.

My usual go-to now that I live in a small town is, "Did you grow up around here?" unless it is obviously inapplicable, which has the dual benefit of signaling that I DID NOT GROW UP AROUND HERE or I would not be asking because I'd already know if they had, and it is therefore a friendly outsider question and not an in-group sorting mechanism.

Sometimes you HAVE to ask because your new conversational acquaintance is mid-story and you're like, "SHIT he assumes I have background information to this story that I do not have and if I don't ask NOW, it's going to be one of those situations where in five years I still have no idea what his job is because by the time I worked up the nerve to ask it was too late and had become awkward that I didn't already know ...."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:18 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


In some situations I can use parental icebreakers like "so, which one is your's?" or "what grade is Jack in?" They aren't particularly interesting, but can get conversation moving. Most parents like to talk about their kids.
posted by Area Man at 2:19 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I'M DOING STUFF LORI. THINGS.
posted by elizardbits at 2:20 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


I am now responding by saying I am the Elector of Saxony, chosen by God to rule over His people.
posted by The Whelk at 2:20 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


It's decided then, all social interaction will take place in complete silence with everyone ordering drinks via touchscreens , to be delivered by drones, while everyone stares into thier preferred glowing rectangle.

Eh, I doubt if you'll have to order the drinks, the algorithms will probably do a better job.
posted by gsteff at 2:21 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


By the way, I have no idea what my brother-in-law does, I didn't ask enough nosy questions before he joined the family and then at a certain point it became too awkward to ask and I have to just nod along when he talks about work and even if I look at his linked-in page his job title is incomprehensible to me and I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE DOES except I'm pretty sure he sits at a desk to do it, and I definitely know he uses a computer sometimes.

One year I will drink too much at Christmas and when he's mid-story I will confess, "I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS STORY BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOUR JOB IS."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:26 PM on July 7 [26 favorites]


Which would you prefer to have: theophany or theonomy? There is only one right answer.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:26 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I'm new to the Silicon Valley, but from talking with friends here, it seems as though wealth/status/capitalist ambition is more important than anything else for many people here. One of my single friends told me that he's approached women at bars, and before "Hello" or anything else, the first words he's greeted with are "What do you do?" In situations like that, it couldn't be more obvious that you're immediately being sized up by your job and income. It says an awful lot about the asker and his/her priorities in life. It's rarely an innocent question. If someone did that to me I'd walk away without another word.
posted by naju at 2:27 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Given the number of landmines that you're going to hit no matter what in asking folks about themselves, maybe we should just jump right in. "So, do you think religion is a good thing, totally useless, or responsible for all the evil in the world?"
posted by emjaybee at 2:27 PM on July 7 [15 favorites]


Can I commend the British approach of talking about the weather until some better topic comes up? Admittedly in Califormia you might need a different tactic.
posted by epo at 2:31 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


The American version of the weather seems to be to talk about sports. "So, did you see that [insert sportsball team here] game yesterday? Some game, right?" Sadly, that is my cue to announce that I hate sports and everything to do with sports, and that makes people back away slowly.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:33 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


It's only nefarious if, beneath the civil exterior, they are really, deeply assholes.

Which they mostly are. The last time I found myself having to ask a sort of related question to break the ice, I just said, "So what'd you get up to today?"
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:34 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


> Eh, I doubt if you'll have to order the drinks, the algorithms will probably do a better job.

Once you've had a couple, you'll do better on the questions and answers.
posted by jfuller at 2:35 PM on July 7


...while everyone stares into thier preferred glowing rectangle.

...and the right answer when someone asks you what you do is to give them a Let Me Google That For You link.
posted by Coventry at 2:36 PM on July 7


I list my 3 avocations as strangling small animals, masturbating, and golf.

Wetting the bed, starting fires, torturing small animals.
posted by bukvich at 2:37 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Yesterday: "what do you do?" I answer. Thought from asker, "oh, good occupation." Next question, "where do you work?" I answer. Thought from asker, "oh, good place." Next question, "where did you go to school?" I answer, "not-Harvard." Wrong answer. Asker loses interest.

I felt a bit like I was in that McLaughlin Group parody, "what did you have for breakfast?" Reply: "Toast?" "Wrong!"
posted by persona au gratin at 2:39 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


That's actually useful information, in that it suggests you've not yet become a serial killer.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:40 PM on July 7


What. is your name?
What. is your quest?
What. is your favorite color?
posted by jfuller at 2:42 PM on July 7 [16 favorites]


"what do you want on your tombstone?"
posted by The Whelk at 2:43 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Given the number of landmines that you're going to hit no matter what in asking folks about themselves, maybe we should just jump right in. "So, do you think religion is a good thing, totally useless, or responsible for all the evil in the world?"

"Nice to meet you. Your thoughts on gentrification?? Also let's have some real talk about privilege."
posted by threeants at 2:45 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I prefer the Town Talk icebreaker:

Sex with furniture, what do you think?
posted by dr_dank at 2:46 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I live in a city that's mostly people-from-somewhere-else, so asking fluent English speakers regardless of accent "Oh, did you grow up here?" is a safe bet, otherwise the weather is always worthy of comment. It's always raining or about to rain; one can see Mt. Rainier, or one can't.

People generally ask me about my tie/bowtie since what they are really afraid to ask is whether I'm a boy or a girl.

I was on a specialty dating site for a while, where multiple dates asked me about my income in the first 10 minutes. My answer was "Only enough to split our tab" and then I would leave.
posted by Dreidl at 2:47 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


"I'm a securities broker by day. At night I'm a journeywoman of the deathconsciousness. It's a hobby but it's starting to get serious."
posted by naju at 2:49 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


I do a lot of ghostwriting. I tell people I'm a professional liar. It confuses people long enough for me to get away. Like squid ink.
posted by dejah420 at 2:50 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


A few years ago at a wedding a college friend asked me "so, what are you doing these days?" And I responded with "nothing at all, really" because that's simply the truth in the terms in which he asked the question. I'm disabled, I haven't worked in years.

But he then turned on the full force of his personality and charm (which is considerable) and followed up with, "oh, but I know you — I'm sure you've got something big going on!" He seemed completely sincere, not ironic.

To which I was basically speechless. At the time (and, weirdly, periodically since then when I recall this) I was plunged into a self-examination and reflection on our acquaintance. Did I truly impress him that much? If so, how did that happen? (Our group of closely aged alums that occasionally hung out together all knew around 2000 or so that I had been one of the lucky dotcom jackpot winners, so maybe that's what he had in mind; especially since he, too, worked in computing.)

And this is all because of the peculiar circumstances of it — he's one of Those People. There were a few of them I knew in college. Not just high achieving, but high achieving coupled with living amazing lives doing amazing things. The kind of person who, in his case, found his way into apprenticing into a niche-but-elite vocation and working his way up to internationally respected status as a young man ... before he began college.

So I'm thinking, wait, am I right in understanding that this guy, of all people, seems to hold me in high esteem? But if that's the case, what does it say about me that now, in my forties, I have to answer his question with "nothing at all, really"? That I'm not working at all or even have an ambitious hobby and he doesn't seem to actually believe that's my true answer? I'm left feeling paradoxically quite flattered and like a total loser.

In summary, "nothing at all, really" isn't a very good answer to that question.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:50 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


Christ, it's just small talk.
posted by jpe at 2:53 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


Wow, I use the "What do you do?" or "What do you like to do?" question a lot, sort of blindly. I love my job and would gladly prattle about it for ages to whoever cares to listen. But if someone else answers with a hobby instead, I'm not at all discomfited. But I feel awful to think that people might assume I'm asking "How much money do you make?" when really I'm asking, "What do you care about?"

Time to re-examine all social interactions I've ever had...
posted by chatongriffes at 2:53 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I've variously had the following problems with "what do you do?"

Unemployment. It's depressing and I don't want to talk about it.

Underemployment or boring work. It's boring and sometimes humiliating and I don't want to talk about it.

Employment that is only interesting to me. I'd normally say "computers" or something, which was usually mostly true, but could never figure out how to describe my actual work without people zoning out. I've literally had people walk away from me while I was talking. I could never find the balance between descriptiveness and boringness. You don't want to talk to me about that at a party.

I just really almost never want to talk about my work regardless of my situation. Is that so weird?

I didn't know that it was actually the default for people to enjoy talking about their work when they're not at work.

I'll just cop that I am a giant asocial jerk, though. My most dreaded question ever is "What are you doing?" and I have a whole bunch of ideas for that one. "Whatever I want to do" "REGULAR THINGS THAT ARE NORMAL" or "Oh, just trying to go about my day unmolested!" (I only actually say those things to people who are in on the joke.)

So maybe my new (fake) answer to "What do you do?" is "Undercover vice. Or I WAS, anyway, before you made me."

I know I'm really bad at small talk, and I do feel sorry for people who have to watch me try to do it. But please feel a little sorry for me, too, because I really don't want to talk about it.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:54 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


I like to use "Come here often?". But only in the bathroom.

Also, the other standard DC question is "where are you from?", which I don't love, but like more than the job question.
posted by inigo2 at 2:54 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I think the next time I'm asked that question I'm going to answer "I am SUPER funny on the Internet." Even though the real answer is "I post on Metafilter while neglecting my children."
posted by KathrynT at 2:54 PM on July 7 [34 favorites]


I often ask, "Are you happy?" No one has been offended, as least as far as I can tell.
posted by Wet Spot at 2:55 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


"So what deep seated insecurities would you like to obsesses over internally for the next few minutes?"
posted by The Whelk at 2:56 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


My job is hard to describe, like so many white-collar jobs..or even like factory jobs. I'm the white-collar equivalent of the guy whose specialty is cleaning the Number 3 gear assembly. It's important that somebody do it, but nobody outside my profession is going to get it.
Sure. But sometimes, you just don't want to be one of those guys that's in his office until twelve o'clock at night worrying about the WENUS.
You see this would be helped by my REPEATED suggestion that all social events have Legos available.
On the one hand, this might get me to drag the family out to a Metafilter meetup for the first time ever. On the other hand, I feel slightly anxious that this plan could perversely lead to more intrusive scrutiny of some of us, not less.
posted by roystgnr at 2:57 PM on July 7


localroger my friend from the fl panhandle handles getting that question elsewhere in the US by saying "it was destroyed by a hurricane actually"

Ah but that doesn't get you off in NOLA. My high school WAS destroyed by hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt it in a totally different neighborhood but I'm still Holy Cross Class of '81.
posted by localroger at 2:57 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


I often ask, "Are you happy?" No one has been offended, as least as far as I can tell.

They probably weren't expressing offense because they were too busy suddenly spiraling deeply and rapidly into a dark night of the soul
posted by threeants at 2:59 PM on July 7 [62 favorites]


"Nice to meet you. Your thoughts on gentrification?? Also let's have some real talk about privilege."

I live in a gentrifying area, and I never know whether the response to "where do you live?" "Bed-Stuy" is going to be "ah, cool," or "isn't that kind of... ghetto," or "you're part of the problem, whitey!"
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:01 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


What, no "What's your major?"
posted by BWA at 3:02 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Un homme tout simplement, un respirateur

abonné au gaz

This conversation highlights for me how introductions are always a negotiation of interpersonal space. There's no neutral, perfect way to do it. The line many are recommending, "How do you know X?" has often made me (qua introvert and person who avoids social events more than others in my friend sphere) get a vibe of, "I'm not certain whether you belong here -- please justify your presence and position in the social hierarchy."

So much this.

There is literally no question that will not be awkward or revealing for some people to answer.

I might quite innocently ask someone where they were planning on going on holiday this summer, how they know the host, whether they grew up around here, what they've been reading, etc.

All of those questions give away information that some people would prefer not to divulge.
posted by atrazine at 3:02 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I often ask, "Are you happy?" No one has been offended, as least as far as I can tell.

A good friend asked me that in a letter about eight years ago. I'm still not quite sure of the answer, so I've never written back.
posted by mochapickle at 3:04 PM on July 7 [12 favorites]


The only real point of being famous is that no one ever asks you what you do for a living.
posted by The Whelk at 3:07 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"Do you party?"
posted by naju at 3:10 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


For all such people, "where are you from?" is a coded (and sometimes quite explicit and hostile) message of "I think you don't belong here".

As is the implicit "I belong here."

People who ask "where are you from?" are never satisfied with my responses because it wasn't really the question they were asking.
posted by Doktor Zed at 3:10 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]



Both "what do you do?" and "where are you from?" are very loaded questions that will cause quite a few people offense.

Nope. As someone ambiguously brown who does not look like the stereotype of the actual kind of brown I actually am, I am actually super annoyed at the "what are you?" "where are you FROM" questions, and very comfortable with "what do you do" questions, because my job is something I chose, and also people are unlikely to argue with me that that is not actually my job, or I look like my job is X, or. People usually take at face value that I do what I do, and then when I talk about it I sound like a person who does what I do. Also, I'm single, and I don't know exactly why, yet "why are you single" is a question people often feel comfortable asking, along with "you must love the party life!" Talking about my job is my favorite way of interacting with strangers. I can answer "what is an interactive producer in advertising" or "how did you come into this field" much easier than I can answer "But you don't LOOK INDIAN are you sure that's what you are?" or "Why are you single you don't SEEM like you SHOULD BE my partner and child are everything but I guess you really like the party life" (I'm not kidding, "party life" has come up quite often).

Also, I found the "questions white people ask" link offensive because it seemed like "don't ask nonwhite people what their job is! Don't you know they don't really have jobs?"

Seriously, just ask me about my job. It's the only way sometimes to actually break out of the box.
posted by sweetkid at 3:15 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


localroger: My dad (Jesuit HS, '55, full scholarship) told me that whenever he expressed interest in a girl, his mother would ask "Who's her mother?" in order to place the new girlfriend's family in a social context. Dad left NO after college and married a Northerner.
posted by virago at 3:15 PM on July 7


Americans often use those questions in an oddly non-sequitur way. Like, we're making small talk about the buffet or weather and there is a small pause
Deep breath: "so...what do you do?"
And I'm thinkjng, "huh, what does that have to do with anything?"
posted by Omnomnom at 3:17 PM on July 7




It's like they can't wait for the subject to come up naturally, they're being efficient.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:20 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


i like "what brings you here" "how did you find yourself here now?" which can be taken as lightly or seriously as the respondent desires.
posted by eustatic at 3:21 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


From now on I"m just going to answer with "Being a mammal" and see how that goes.

I took the liberty of checking your profile and it says you're a cis-male, so I have to point out you're pretty much a failure at secreting milk from your abdomen, too.
posted by ambrosen at 3:22 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Success Story

This has never actually happened
posted by The Whelk at 3:23 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I tell people I'm a professional liar.

I once had a whole interesting conversation with this guy about his job, amazingly enough even in the same industry as me, only to be told after the get-together by my friends the hosts that he's a pathological liar and had made it all up. IIRC he asked me what I did, then crafted his own response to match.

There was this M. Night Shyalaman moment where I re-ran the whole conversation in my mind and realized that he had actually been quite skillfully vague in answering even technical questions from me and hence had managed to convince me that he was a neckbeard-brother without knowing anything about computers. I think he must have kept a very close watch on when I started to look confused or skeptical and smoothly changed the tack of what we were chatting about to prevent me from getting too suspicious.

Dude should be an ISIS agent and infiltrate places and stuff. (I suppose either real-world or cartoon-world ISIS would do.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:24 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


Every time I hear about assholes with their "Where are your from?" bullshit I'm so deeply embarrassed for my country. For the record, if I ever ask you where you're from, I just want to know whatever you want to tell me. Same thing with "What do you do?" I'm just curious. Tell me stuff. My job is also kind of hard to explain so I just tell people an easy to understand analog.
posted by bleep at 3:24 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Some that I like ...

"Should you take one box or two?"

"What would you do if you had a time machine?" Followed quickly by, "Do you think you can change the past?"

"What do you think about zombies?"

"When Kirk steps into the transporter and someone who looks and thinks like Kirk appears on a planet a little while later, is it right to say that the two are the same person?"

"Is free will compatible with determinism?"

"Would you say that a person living in the real world and a person living in a subjectively-identical simulation have the same evidence for their empirical claims?"
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:24 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Actually, my answer to a lot of these questions would be "dogs." It's what's best in life, it's what I like to do, it's what keeps me busy, it's probably how I know the host, it's what I've been up to lately, it's my favorite animal, it's what my deal is . . .
posted by HotToddy at 3:25 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


So much worse than "What do you do?" is when someone says "No no no, I don't mean for work -- what do you do?" My work takes up a lot of my time and energy and is what I chose to do because I am interested in it, so I am annoyed when that is diminished. And my more personal identity would be likely to get me beaten up or worse where I grew up, so I'm generally not willing to discuss it with people I just met.

So the non-work questions are fraught as well. I don't have a solution, other than to drink heavily and avoid other people.
posted by fader at 3:26 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


"All of it"
posted by clockzero at 3:27 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: drink heavily and avoid other people.
posted by The Whelk at 3:28 PM on July 7 [12 favorites]


I used to tell exciting lies and highly recommend it.

Now I say I'm am artist, which works okay.

"Nanny" gets a lot of nasty assumptions and condescension, sorry to say.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:29 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


"So what deep seated insecurities would you like to obsess over internally for the next few minutes?" I too have a complex job which is hard to explain and which people tend to judge, and I'm introverted, so for awhile when asked what I did I'd say, "I spend a lot of time sweating and making mistakes." This sometimes made people laugh and deflected the conversation onto something else.

At a small networking event where people would be familiar with my profession, I was introduced into a group of people on a first name basis only; I was asked this question right away with the addition of who do you work for? I replied, "I work for X as a Y," and then, out of pure habit, added, "So I spend a lot of time sweating and making mistakes."

Turned out one of the people in the group was the COO of X. Whoopsie daisy. So yeah, for the next few minutes? Why not while trying to sleep late at night for the rest of my life.
posted by barchan at 3:29 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


"No what is it you Do"

"tolerate dull questions from gits who think they're too clever to observe standard social niceties ."
posted by The Whelk at 3:30 PM on July 7 [9 favorites]


Also don't ask questions. Just say interesting stuff until they think of interesting things to say in return. Much better.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:31 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


So much worse than "What do you do?" is when someone says "No no no, I don't mean for work -- what do you do?" My work takes up a lot of my time and energy and is what I chose to do because I am interested in it, so I am annoyed when that is diminished.

Me, too. I like to talk about what I do. I don't mind talking about hobbies, either, but I think it's weird when people insist that answering with what your job is is a bad answer, it's like when people proselytize about veganism or something.


Every time I hear about assholes with their "Where are your from?" bullshit I'm so deeply embarrassed for my country. For the record, if I ever ask you where you're from, I just want to know whatever you want to tell me.


Also, just a note in case it wasn't clear from my earlier comment, I'm from America but people still ask where I'm from. Also, being from America is how I'm socialized to ask people what they do.
posted by sweetkid at 3:31 PM on July 7


This thread is interesting in seeing where peoples insecurities lie. I don't mind the "What do you do for a living?" question since I have a decent enough middle class job that is neither overly impressive nor embarrassingly menial, so I look at this question as an innocuous conversation starter. My job requires somewhat frequent travel, so that can at least lead to some conversation continuing follow up discussion.

The "What do you like to do in your free time? What are your passions/hobbies/interests" type questioning, though, just makes my skin crawl, since it forces me to confront the fact that I've reached middle age without ever developing anything resembling an interesting hobby beyond watching too much TV, following a few specific sports franchises, reading/posting to Metafilter and professional wrestling. When people ask this type of question they always seem to expect an answer of the "Ride motorcycles", "I have a sailboat I take out on weekends", "I'm an avid paraglider", "I run marathons", "I like to go rock climbing", "I play guitar in a Pink Floyd cover band" type of answer and the inevitable look of disappointment on their face when I give my far less impressive response always makes me feel like a bore.
posted by The Gooch at 3:32 PM on July 7 [10 favorites]


I'm an Elvis impersonator impersonator.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:36 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


See, I'm from Rhode Island, and we have to ask all these intrusive questions because no social interaction with a stranger is complete in RI until you have discovered someone you have in common. Case in point - my husband has a co-worker who goes to our new church. Turns out her husband had my mom for a high school English teacher! I wasn't gonna find that out asking "what makes you tick" at the parish wine tasting.
posted by Biblio at 3:37 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


Also, just a note in case it wasn't clear from my earlier comment, I'm from America but people still ask where I'm from.

I know, and I just find that so incredibly mind-bogglingly rude that people do that that I feel like I have to apologize for those people.
posted by bleep at 3:39 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


"So what do you do?"

"Oh, you know. A little plundering, a little voyaging. Occasional construction work. Communing with the dead, pissing off gods, drinking wine, fucking around.

And telling tall tales."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:39 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]



In my experience getting asked, or at least asked near the beginning of a conversation with a stranger, what I do or where I work is so uncommon that it seems jarring and out of place. The only time I can recall asking or even contemplate asking this straight off are at specific industry type mixer events. I'm from Canada so maybe it really is more an American social thing.

Right now I do sorta wish it was more common because it looks like I just got my first client in my own business I'm starting up and when I'm feeling cheeky (which is a lot of the time) I'll honestly be able to reply with, "People hire me and pay me to tell them what to do."
posted by Jalliah at 3:42 PM on July 7


"Paly or Gunn?" As a non-native living in Palo Alto I have no idea what information the answer to this question provides as both high schools seem just as tony to me, but it's the first thing people who grew up here ask one another.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:44 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Jonathan Livengood: "What do you think about zombies?"

You use questions about the fundamental nature of consciousness as icebreakers? That's bold. I suspect that for 99% of the population that leads to an interesting conversation, but for me I'd either quickly get aggro or I'd sink into existential depression.
posted by TypographicalError at 3:47 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


"What do you like to do?" It's really easy folks.
posted by vapidave at 3:47 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I like "what do you do?" within an American context because it doesn't have to be personal. One can answer simply and move the conversation in a different direction, to the commute or weather or what have you. So at times in my life when I haven't been happy with my job I've found it pretty easy to give a simple answer and then do an even simpler redirect. "I work at SmiggitySoo Corp, downtown. Hey, I just found that there's a public right of way through the high rise. Did you know about those downtown?"

The "are you happy?" or "what are you about?" seem far more intrusive and also like someone is erring on the side of clever rather than trying to make smooth conversation, which certainly doesn't make me want to take the conversation further.

Speaking of awkward, at a party recently a man asked my husband how he knew the hosts. He knew the hosts because a decade earlier he had some shortish-term sexual liaison with the hosts' roommate, who is now the man's wife. My husband figured that if the man was asking he had no idea, so he just said that he knew them all back then after college.
posted by stowaway at 3:51 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


If you ever wonder why Ask is so full of people wondering why they can’t make/don’t have friends, just peruse this thread.

“What do you do?”
“HOW DARE YOU JUDGE ME ABOUT MY JOB THIS IS JUST PATRIARCHAL CAPITALISM AT ITS WORST AND FURTHERMORE…”

Later:
“Dear Mefi, why can’t I make any friends?”

I actually started following sports because it makes a good neutral topic and following a couple sports casually is enough to segue into further conversation.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:57 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


Speaking of awkward, at a party recently a man asked my husband how he knew the hosts. He knew the hosts because a decade earlier he had some shortish-term sexual liaison with the hosts' roommate, who is now the man's wife. My husband figured that if the man was asking he had no idea, so he just said that he knew them all back then after college.

Hah. Yeah, maybe this is just me being a giant ball of social terror, but "how do you know so-and-so" always strikes me as fraughter than people think. I experience vicarious anticipatory mortification imagining folks having to think of some sort of cover answer for the horrifyingly embarrassing truth of how they met the person. Yes, that's right, my own real social anxieties are not enough; I have to put myself through the imagined anxiety of others as well.
posted by threeants at 3:57 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


my business cards say:
shin-kicker
cross-stitcher
queen bee
holistic detective
supreme commander, imperial fleet

I think that about covers it. I get asked what I do all the damn time.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 3:57 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


I don't mind "what do you do" at all, and I prefer it to pretty much every single alternative that's been proposed here.

I'm an introvert, and shy to boot (not the same thing), and also guarded with personal information until I know you better. "What do you do" is an easy question for me to answer, because all it requires is disclosing something that's basically already "public" information. Even when I was jobless, it was an okay question to answer -- I just said "I'm in between jobs right now."

Ask me where I 'fit into the world,' and that's when I'll start suspecting you of trying to judge me and my idea of my proper place. Ask me what I've been up to, and I'll feel you're being too familiar. (What do you mean, 'what have I been up to.' Like, since the last time I saw you? I've never met you before. Why are you acting like you know me? You're a creep.) Ask me what I like to do and I'll feel like we're on a first date and I have to give you a summary of my hobbies just to prove that I have some. Ask me to tell you a little about myself and I'll feel like I'm at a job interview and will suddenly realize that I need to go get more dip or refill my glass.

All of those questions feel far more judge-y and intrusive to me than "What do you do." I like an ice-breaker that provides a reason for us to start talking at each other, but that doesn't require me to reveal anything very private or contemplative or whatever.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:58 PM on July 7 [22 favorites]


I never ask anybody anything like this. I just roll wherever the conversation is headed.

But I have a job akin to griphus's. I tell people what I do and they say "Oh," halfheartedly. And then move as far away as they can from talking to me about it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:59 PM on July 7


"how do you know so-and-so"

Yeah, for me I don't mind this at all, but for the most part my answer to this question is 1) through years of making friends of friends of friends at lots of parties and it all traces back to one college friend I'm not even friends with anymore, so not sure how interesting that is and 2) work, which leads back to "what do you do" anyway.
posted by sweetkid at 4:00 PM on July 7


basically any question about one's actual self seems terrifyingly fraught and problematic to me. conversations should be strictly limited to comments about material objects, natural phenomena, and mathematical paradoxes
posted by threeants at 4:01 PM on July 7 [33 favorites]


where do you fit in the world?

So what happens when I say nowhere and both I and my interlocutor descend into a shame spiral of fact-based depression?

Hopefully it's at a party with an open bar.
posted by winna at 4:01 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


In grad school, it's always "so what's your research about?" even though everybody hates that question and adopts an identical dead stare into the middle distance when it's their turn to answer.

basically any question about one's actual self seems terrifyingly fraught and problematic to me. conversations should be limited to comments about material objects, natural phenomena, and mathematical paradoxes

You're probably being sarcastic, but that sounds literally perfect to me as long as animals are covered under natural phenomena. "So, met any cute puppies lately?"
posted by dialetheia at 4:04 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


"What are you in for?"
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:05 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


While living in Silicon Valley, I was asked, "What's your passion?" I suspect that I was supposed to answer with something about my startup that was going to change the world. However, at the time, I was interested in joining the Foreign Service, so my response was, "I'm really interested in international relations and public diplomacy."

My new acquaintance had no real response after that.

I found it deeply and overly personal to be asked this of someone I had just met all of a minute ago.
posted by so much modern time at 4:08 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


One time a friend brought one of her friends to our weekly trivia game. The fellow asked me questions like it was a damn job interview, and, because I was just the right amount of baked to be polite and apathetic, I was giving answers, but they were mostly bullshit and/or snark. After trying unsuccessfully to get me to reveal what I do, he asked me all exasperated if I did anything other than get high and play trivia.

I said, "Sure. I get high and do lots of things."

The point of all this is that I hate that Dale Carnegie chap with the fires of a thousand suns. Stop interrogating me about myself! You will neither win my friendship, nor influence me.
posted by palindromic at 4:09 PM on July 7 [20 favorites]


You're probably being sarcastic, but that sounds literally perfect to me as long as animals are covered under natural phenomena. "So, met any cute puppies lately?"

"Do you think there's a cute puppy in this box? You're not allowed to open it."
posted by inigo2 at 4:12 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Lol, General Tonic. I must really be an asshole because on those occasions when a newly introduced person brings up religion, I actually do ask: "So, what's your take on the filioque?"
posted by CincyBlues at 4:17 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


ambrosen: "From now on I"m just going to answer with "Being a mammal" and see how that goes. ... I took the liberty of checking your profile and it says you're a cis-male, so I have to point out you're pretty much a failure at secreting milk from your abdomen, too."

When I was pregnant and people asked, "How are you feeling?" I'd say, "Grossly mammalian."

Only cool people continue the conversation past that point.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:20 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


Despise talking about my job when I'm not getting paid to do so. I barely tolerate talking about it at work, where they pay me to be.

Ghostride The Whip: "I actually started following sports because it makes a good neutral topic and following a couple sports casually is enough to segue into further conversation."

Did you see the ludicrous display last night?
posted by Sphinx at 4:23 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I actually started following sports because it makes a good neutral topic and following a couple sports casually is enough to segue into further conversation.

I wish. In my circles in NYC people get really grar-y about being asked if they like sports. See also the 'I hate sportsball' comments on Metafilter. Quick way for people to just crap on something you like and shut down the conversation for no reason.

"Yea it was rainy this weekend but good chance to catch up on Wimbledon/World Cup!"

"Ugh I hate sportsball of any kind, I can't wait until World Cup is over. Oh wait, tennis is the one with the racquets and the clapping, back and forth back and forth right? What's up with that?"

"Um..." (now you have made the topic terrible.)

And then there's the opposite...

"I love the NFL! The Patriots are my team."

"Come on, you're a woman. You just think Tom Brady is hot."
posted by sweetkid at 4:32 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


I don't mind "what do you do" at all, and I prefer it to pretty much every single alternative that's been proposed here.

I'm an introvert, and shy to boot (not the same thing), and also guarded with personal information until I know you better. "What do you do" is an easy question for me to answer, because all it requires is disclosing something that's basically already "public" information. Even when I was jobless, it was an okay question to answer -- I just said "I'm in between jobs right now."


I agree with this completely. I'm an introvert with pretty bad social anxiety, and some of the suggestions in this thread seem absolutely horrible to me. "What's your story?" "What are you about?" Too broad and too personal and too intimidating. And the only answer I can think of to "Are you happy?" is "That's none of your business."
posted by betweenthebars at 4:40 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


Yeah, maybe this is just me being a giant ball of social terror, but "how do you know so-and-so" always strikes me as fraughter than people think. I experience vicarious anticipatory mortification imagining folks having to think of some sort of cover answer for the horrifyingly embarrassing truth of how they met the person.

I met my current group of girlfriends on meetup.com, so there's always the potential for awkwardness when someone asks us that (none of us really cares, but you can tell sometimes that the asker feels embarrassed for us). A while back one girl in the group posted the following Facebook status: "I was just sitting by the window and stretching and a woman in the building across the way thought I was waving at her and waved back, so I had to awkwardly stretch-wave so she wouldn't feel bad. Is this how adults make friends?" I told her that from now on when people asked how the two of us met, that would be what I would tell them. I've mostly stuck to it.
posted by sunset in snow country at 4:42 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Who knew there were so many social land mines waiting to be stepped on? I say this as an outgoing person, who enjoys meeting new people and making conversation. Granted, my usual opener usually involves a comment about the beverages ("Have you tried the punch? I'm curious to know what gives it that vibrant green colour.") or the appetizers ("These mini falafels are delicious! Do you know who brought them?"), which can be easily directed to job-neutral subjects... unless you're in the food service or food colouring industry, I suppose.
posted by gox3r at 4:43 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Just because you, personally, aren't upset by one of these questions doesn't mean that other people also aren't and that their concerns are invalid. There are people right here explaining why it bothers them.

My previous anecdote aside (which bothered me because of what made the exchange unusual), I don't find either "where are you from?" or "what do you do?" to be personally bothersome questions to be asked. Even though I don't work, I'm mostly impervious to social pressure about that sort of thing and my self-esteem isn't threatened by people knowing I don't work.

But the previous discussion here in a thread about the "where are you from?" question was a real eye-opener for me because although I generally don't ask it myself (as I wrote earlier, I find it easier and more comfortable to let people offer such details on their own initiative), I am unusually interested in knowing where people grew up and I'd never thought of that question as anything other than benign.

Reading explanations for why many people don't like the question was educational and, first of all, even if I didn't understand the objection I have some obligation to just believe someone when they say they don't like it rather than to dismiss their concerns because I don't share them. But, second of all, people explained why they feel the way they do about this and it became pretty clear that my blindness to the problems related to "where are you from?" had a lot to do with my privilege. Where I've lived, people don't see me as an outsider by default. But many others don't have that privilege and, for them, "where are you from?" carries a lot of messaging that I'm completely insulated from. That's how privilege works.

A lot of people have explained that they don't like "what do you do?" And it's obvious that especially in the US one's job is a strong class marker and therefore carries a bunch of implications that involve privilege. Whether the question personally bothers me or not (it doesn't), and whether it invokes other people's privileges against me or not (it doesn't), it's clear that this isn't true for all other people and I should take their concerns seriously. If it doesn't bother me at all, even to the point that I find the objection absurd, then given that a bunch of people feel differently is a very strong clue for me to take a step back and consider why this is the case and not to double-down on assertions why they're being ridiculous and oversensitive.

I find that I'm quite put out by the examples in this thread of people who get pretty worked up when it's an issue that affects them, that they are sensitive to, and who (rightly) expect to be listened to but, in this particular case, are dismissive. The real effort of these sorts of things isn't in convincing other people that you're rightly offended, but in making yourself listen to other people when they say they are offended.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:44 PM on July 7 [10 favorites]


I recently took up a hobby which, whenever it comes up in conversation, leads to a barrage of questions. This is convenient because it gives me something to talk about, but it also makes me feel like I'm monopolizing the conversation, even though they asked. And it doesn't really reveal all that much about me personally. I've actually started avoiding the topic in situations where I want to make a genuine connection with the new person I'm talking to, like on a date.

So, basically, all the people in this thread who hate being asked personal questions should really take up beekeeping.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:46 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


Just because you, personally, aren't upset by one of these questions doesn't mean that other people also aren't and that their concerns are invalid. There are people right here explaining why it bothers them.

So, what DO you say? Every idea thrown out by someone in this thread as a better alternative has then been identified by someone else as actually a horrible idea. I'm not being sarcastic here, I am genuinely curious- what do you think people should say in these situations?
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:48 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


Whatever you intend to say, just be sure to have some sticks and stones handy in case it doesn't work.
posted by General Tonic at 4:51 PM on July 7


So, basically, all the people in this thread who hate being asked personal questions should really take up beekeeping.

See also: Mushroom hunting.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:51 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"You ask me, 'what do I do'. Are you a professional interviewer?"
"Uhhhh...No, I'm just a guest at this party like you...."
"You are neither. You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill".
posted by thelonius at 4:51 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


"What's your story?" "What are you about?" Too broad and too personal and too intimidating.

I got over my hatred of "what's your story?" by realising that telling the first story that comes to mind and telling it how I tell stories normally gives a pretty good idea of who I am. I normally say how the first time I was asked that question, I was 18 and pretty awkward. The asker immediately realised the nicest thing for everyone was to tell his story. Which is why I, born in 1977, will normally answer "what's your story?" by describing being evacuated at Dunkirk from the perspective of a 5 year old.
posted by ambrosen at 4:56 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


If I am at a party it is because I have been told to be there. If it was by my boss, that will certainly mean the function is work-related and I am there to stay close to her and act as technical backup. If it was by my wife, she will have drilled me thoroughly on the way to the party concerning why we are going, who the hosts and likely guests are, and what I may/may not say and to whom I may/may not say it.

Parties like that are fairly easy to deal with. Both cases relieve me of having to dredge up topics of conversation with total strangers. If I somehow did get trapped in such a situation I would be hoping someone would say "Penny for your thoughts" so I could say "Hell is other people."

During the years when I was often actually in such situations, having no wife or boss yet but still feeling obliged to show up in hopes of meeting someone, I concluded that there are neither any good questions nor any good answers.
posted by jfuller at 4:57 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


This is so strange to me. I consider what I do to be pretty public information. But my hobbies? That's personal and person, we just met. And if someone asked me some of these questions I wouldn't even know how to answer. They would take days to answer, or are just too deep for me to talk about with a stranger or acquaintenance.

Am I the only person who loves my job and happily talks about it? I don't know, I assume people are genuine until they change my mind. I've never felt judged when asked what do I do even though it's a low status job.
posted by Aranquis at 4:58 PM on July 7


I am genuinely curious- what do you think people should say in these situations?

I stare at them with the piercing gaze of an emotionless sociopath until they become visibly nervous and then I show them cute photos of my dog

I do this in order to help them more fully understand the fundamental dichotomy of mankind and human nature
posted by elizardbits at 5:02 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


This was a massive mental adjustment for me, moving from Boston to the UK. In Boston I worked in the tech industry, and most of my friends/acquaintances/people I meet at parties do too, so "what do you do?" naturally leads into "I work on this geeky tech! Let's talk nerdy things about our geeky tech and be friends!" conversations and I really really enjoy that. Sure, there's also some degree of startup-pride around Boston that leads people to either ask or answer this question in a braggy way, and it's undoubtedly socioeconomically correlated as well, but it's, like... how I made friends with a bunch of other introverts.

Then I moved to England, where asking someone what they do for a living in a first-small-talk conversation is akin to asking whether they stand or sit to wipe, and even though I knew that I'd still occasionally slip up now and again and get a terribly affronted response (including one of my husband's friends who straight out just replied "Ugh, I forgot how direct Americans are"). I got really really good at talking about the weather and figuring out how to deflect conversations about whichever pop culture icon I had no cultural reference for was doing in his pedophile rape scandal trial or whatever.

Aranquis, you're not alone -- I absolutely love my job (and my hobbies, such as they are, are directly related to the thing I get paid to work on anyway) and would talk about it all the time. I completely understand why it's not a great question to ask, but for me, my work IS my passion, my hobby, my whatever, and I'm going to come across as a far less interesting person if all I can tell you in response to your questioning is what I think of this weather we're having or where I went to high school or what I think of the local sportsball team.
posted by olinerd at 5:02 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


> I do this in order to help them more fully understand the fundamental dichotomy of mankind and human nature

Could you maybe try your superpowers out in Ivan?
posted by jfuller at 5:05 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Similarly to showbiz_liz's beekeeping, unicycling also works for the 'barrage of questions' hobby. But yeah, eventually, I don't want to be the center of attention. Pretty much immediately.

I had an ex who used to ask people "what's your story". Most of the time it came off as really aggressive; people had no idea how to respond and were generally pretty uncomfortable. Whenever I get asked that, I respond with "who says I have to have a story?"

I think the the atlantic articles get to the bottom of why people have these stock questions; if you are in a semi-predictable social environment, you ask the question that applies to the people around you. Of course any such question is unlikely to apply to 100% of the people around you. (E.g. I'm a researcher; if I'm at a social work event, the question is often "what are you working on these days?" I used to loathe it when I didn't have an answer, and everyone expected I did. Now I have too many answers and sort of forget there are people who might not like the question).

That's the problem-- any stock question that's sufficiently specific won't apply to some chunk of the people present (or will be rude to them). But any generic question puts the burden on the answerer to figure out what the heck you meant. I guess we're left with the weather (ugh).
posted by nat at 5:08 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Not as an opener, but after talking to someone for a while I will ask "Are you from here?" or "Did you grow up here?" But while I was living abroad sometimes people responded as if it was embarrassing to be living in their home city.

I try to avoid "What do you do?" unless the other person references their job. I will go with "What kinds of stuff do you do?" or "What do you do in your free time?" and assume that people who respond to those questions with just "Nothing," or "It's boring," or "I don't ~have free time~" must just not be interested in talking to me any more. Being too embarrassed to say "I've really just been watching this TV show" gets in the way of us bonding over Sherlock.
posted by wrabbit at 5:09 PM on July 7


This thread has taught me that people are more astonishingly rude than I thought and there really should be an uptick in Fancy Cannibal killings for them.
posted by The Whelk at 5:10 PM on July 7


"So what deep seated insecurities would you like to obsesses over internally for the next few minutes?"

That's my problem with "What have you been up to lately?" because the answer is nothing oh my god I have no life.

I don't mind "What do you do?" because it's sort of generic-question if you leave off the "for a job" part and allows for pretty much anything as an answer -- you know, if you're in Canada or the US, you're probably going to be asked that, so you are sort of ready to answer it. (Obviously some people will be jerks about it, but people will be jerks about anything.)

I often ask "where are you from" because a lot of people moved here, but have tried to restrict that to people who look white because I know it can be fraught -- it's just generally a nice way to have a conversation, if you're also local we can talk about stuff from the city, if you're from elsewhere I can say stuff about the elsewhere. Still, I'd prefer to avoid offending people, so I try only to use it when it isn't a "you don't look like me therefore you are different" issue.
posted by jeather at 5:12 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"So, what DO you say? Every idea thrown out by someone in this thread as a better alternative has then been identified by someone else as actually a horrible idea. I'm not being sarcastic here, I am genuinely curious- what do you think people should say in these situations?"

Well, we're basically talking about situations that are where you need to "break the ice". As you say, it seems like pretty much any question that is aimed at eliciting some information about someone's life/personality is potentially a problem. (We should be clear, though, that all such questions aren't equally problematic. Those that very directly invoke privilege and class are probably the ones we should almost always avoid while others are probably less widely upsetting, or generally less upsetting in intensity, and so just being more mindful of this may suffice.)

And, obviously, while this isn't always true, it's usually true that getting to know someone, even briefly and casually, is, well, getting to know them. So it's natural that what we're looking for here is to connect to what people care about — which is often the things most important to them. I don't at all begrudge the impulse; I think that's a core part of good conversation and just being empathic and caring about other people.

But I don't think that it's necessary to just jump right away to that sort of thing, especially as an initial gambit. I keep thinking of a comparison to sex that you can probably guess at. Jumping right to the heart of it, to what's likely to be most personal and sensitive, is exactly the wrong-way-round to do things.

As I responded earlier, I think that in most cases there are small, immediate topics implicit right there in the social context within the exchange this is happening that are not personal, but are natural and available. The examples you ask for are as numerous as there are particular social situations. Even just thinking about this in terms of explicitly asking a question seems to me to be both weirdly artificial and clumsy. My sense is that the people who actually are comfortable talking will do so if you make a space for them to.

I'd be interested in hearing what, say, mental health therapists think about this. I mean, obviously, often therapists will ask quite direct questions. But, on the other hand, a lot of people in therapy are put-off by direct questions and, anyway, in general there's kind of an art to providing conversational space that's easy for the client to fill. My sense is that it involves fewer direct questions than it does ambiguous affirmations and encouragements and just an active posture of conversational interest.

So I think that, usually, there are more natural and subtle ways to enter into a new conversation than a generic question. And, once begun, it becomes progressively easier to provide someone encouragement to express themselves. As they do, they will reveal indirectly quite a bit about themselves and then, later, more directly personal questions will be far more likely to be received in the spirit of sincere, non-judgmental interest than as inappropriately probing/judging.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:15 PM on July 7




I often ask "where are you from" because a lot of people moved here, but have tried to restrict that to people who look white because I know it can be fraught -- it's just generally a nice way to have a conversation, if you're also local we can talk about stuff from the city, if you're from elsewhere I can say stuff about the elsewhere.


It's not the "where are you from" that's offensive for nonwhite people (in my experience, other nonwhite people may vary) it's the refusal to accept an American state as the answer despite my obvious American accent.
posted by sweetkid at 5:17 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


Yeah, DC, so of course "what do you do?" I like to follow up with, "Do you like it?" Kind of dickish, but frequently leads to really interesting conversation.
posted by atomicstone at 5:17 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


So "Who the fuck do you think you are?" and "Do you know who I am?" are right out.
posted by vibrotronica at 5:21 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


It's not the "where are you from" that's offensive for nonwhite people (in my experience, other nonwhite people may vary) it's the refusal to accept an American state as the answer despite my obvious American accent.

I know some people who find the entire thing offensive -- just the question itself, probably because of a million people who have refused to accept anything but "Far away country my ancestors moved from generations ago" as an answer -- so I try to avoid it just in case.
posted by jeather at 5:24 PM on July 7


In that case you should probably avoid it for anyone, not just people who don't look white to you.
posted by sweetkid at 5:27 PM on July 7


I never understood why people hate talking about the weather. It's ideal chitchat fodder. Everyone has an opinion on it. It leads naturally into talk about things you might like, such as going outside and hiking, flowers or trees, complaining about rude people splashing you with their cars, skiing or swimming or whatnot.

And though someone will be along shortly to tell me I am wrong, there is no one who finds talking about the weather actually offensive.
posted by winna at 5:27 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Since I am technically a housewife, when asked what I do I just say "I don't work". It totally kills the conversation and I no longer have to take questions.
posted by waitangi at 5:27 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


It's not the "where are you from" that's offensive for nonwhite people (in my experience, other nonwhite people may vary) it's the refusal to accept an American state as the answer despite my obvious American accent.

Uggh, that sucks, sweetkid. Amazed by how many people have been born in barns and/or raised by wolves. So: You should ask these awful people where they were born (followup: "So, that's in a barn? Wow.") or who raised them (followup: "So your parents are wolves? Wow.").
posted by mochapickle at 5:28 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


It depends on the person and situation -if I can get away with a snarky answer I'll use it, but it's often work/clients.
posted by sweetkid at 5:29 PM on July 7


As an attempt to build a conversation out of nothing, I think "What do you do?" is kind of limiting: a whole lot of jobs make for boring conversations. I've heard "What're you up to today?" used to good effect as a generic cold-opener.
posted by 23skidoo at 5:30 PM on July 7


Possibly. I don't avoid it for a single person if I'm asking a whole group, and often there's a way to ask it a bit later in the conversation, it's just not a first question kind of thing if I figure it could cause offense. I'll think about this more.
posted by jeather at 5:31 PM on July 7


"So, who do you like in this go 'round - Israel or Palestine?"
posted by desjardins at 5:31 PM on July 7 [14 favorites]


"I know some people who find the entire thing offensive -- just the question itself, probably because of a million people who have refused to accept anything but 'Far away country my ancestors moved from generations ago' as an answer -- so I try to avoid it just in case."

That other thread from the last couple of years was really interesting — I ought to link to it, but I don't have a clue about how to search for it.

But sweetkid was pretty outspoken in it, if I recall correctly, but there was quite a bit of diversity in the particular reasons why different people object to that question. There were people who just felt that it implies "I think you don't belong here" independently of the "unwilling to accept a US state" sort of followup sweetkid describes. Some people expressed just a deep dislike of feeling like they're being stereotyped on the basis of where they are "from". Some people hate the question because they don't have a good answer for it and that (most) other people do, and that the questioner expects there to be a good answer to the question, reveals a sort of privilege they lack. And there were other reasons.

Maybe someone will want to claim that some of these objections are valid and some are not valid. I'm pretty disinclined to believe myself to be qualified to decide that sweetkid's dislike of the question is valid but person_x's is not. More to the point, there were a lot of objections. Contrary to mine and other people's intuition, there are a lot of people who really dislike being asked where they're from.

And so I don't really need to decide which concerns are valid and which are not, if that's even possible. What I can do is simply avoid asking the damn question.

All of this applies to "what do you do?"
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:34 PM on July 7


"Do you smell that or is it just me?"
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:35 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]



And though someone will be along shortly to tell me I am wrong, there is no one who finds talking about the weather actually offensive


Ha, I doubt anyone finds it offensive and think it's good chitchat fodder as you say. I just think it's odd that people get so ANGRY about it like someone's in control and we could sway their decision with a lobby group. It's very "Old man yells at cloud" to me.
posted by sweetkid at 5:35 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Me, I write angry letters to Al Roker.

I had to stop delivering them in person on account of the restraining order.
posted by winna at 5:37 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"So Whelk, what do you do?"

"Sometimes people pay me a paltry sum to make jokes on the Internet but mostly I just skim off the largess of my immersive privilege and good luck."
posted by The Whelk at 5:41 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


And so I don't really need to decide which concerns are valid and which are not, if that's even possible. What I can do is simply avoid asking the damn question.

The problem is that every question has these concerns. I try to use the ones that, in my social circles, are considered the most generic and can be answered in different levels of detail -- what do you do/how do you know [person we know in common] -- because they are questions people typically can answer without angst even though not everyone can. I don't even particularly like "what do you do?" as a question, but it seems to (in my social circles) have the least connotations. If there were a perfect solution, that would be great.
posted by jeather at 5:46 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I love a good summertime rant about the godawful heat, it is one of the surefire ways to endear someone to me, this shared loathing of scorching weather and oppressive humidity.

Conversely someone who says OH I LOVE IT is dead to me for all time
posted by elizardbits at 5:46 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


230 comments in and no Fight Club reference? Pshaw.
posted by Token Meme at 5:51 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]



Conversely someone who says OH I LOVE IT is dead to me for all time


I assume they also love being put in a hot dryer with 50 sweaty socks, a three day dead trout and a wet diaper.
posted by sweetkid at 6:00 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


also beer vom you forgot the beer vom
posted by elizardbits at 6:02 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


It's like we're at a party right now
posted by sweetkid at 6:04 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"What was the last thing you complained about?"
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:14 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


Conversely someone who says OH I LOVE IT is dead to me for all time

I enliven every winter party by explaining that I actually love the snow and cold.
posted by Area Man at 6:15 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


I come from a land of the ice and snow.
posted by The Whelk at 6:16 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


230 comments in and no Fight Club reference? Pshaw.

We're following the rules, unlike somebody here.
posted by The World Famous at 6:16 PM on July 7 [21 favorites]


"What was the last thing you complained about?"

What's the last thing you loathed with every fiber of your being?
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:17 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


My father used to bust out "I bet you can't name the eight states that border Missouri."

Me, I prefer "What do you like to do in your free time?"
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:20 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


After we have exhausted 6 degrees of Rhode Island and gotten around to what I do, I then have the pleasure of listening to people basically telling me how my line of work is a throwback to the past that will surely not last much longer. Folks, I'm a Librarian, not Edison's personal wax cylinder maker. But noooo, people just love to tell me how nobody uses the library anymore. When I tell them I had 30 people at storytime that morning it upsets them, because it is very important to their narrative that Kindles are destroying the library! So nobody actually wants to hear what I do, after all.
posted by Biblio at 6:23 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


"What's the last thing you loathed with every fiber of your being?"

What's the last thing you hated so much you started crying, and your crying became so intense and violent that you started choking and did a sick on yourself?
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:24 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Easily the new summer pants at J. Crew.
posted by The Whelk at 6:26 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


I usually just run up to people and yell "IDENTIFY YOURSELF!" at the top of my lungs.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 6:27 PM on July 7 [12 favorites]


Ugh, I hate these questions, too. (Although not as much as the "Where you from? No, I mean, like, what ethnicity are you?" questions lobbed at vaguely brown / is-she-or-isn't-she-white people like myself.)

Some of the nicest conversations I've had started with sincere compliments. Random people are always telling me my glasses are neat. Other queers compliment my awesome shoes and sometimes my haircut (and also this is a nice way of saying hey, I'm one of you, too, maybe that's something we can talk about or at least pleasantly acknowledge). People at work say "Oh hey, you're the person who did that really good presentation on best practices for naming files!" The tone of these questions is just so much sweeter and less aggressive and invasive than "What do you do?"

I mean, don't throw out some lame "I like your shirt" if you don't mean it, but there are other, kinder ways to connect with people than potentially uncomfortable, loaded questions.
posted by Munching Langolier at 6:29 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


I always open, in every context, with "whaddaya say we get the hell outta here?"

Not really
posted by The World Famous at 6:30 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Dennis : "What I object to, is that you automatically treat me like an inferior!" - MP and the Holy Grail.
posted by storybored at 6:33 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I just go with "who are you?" And I'm quite happy to take whatever the response is, but, honestly, it totally flummoxes people. It would totally flummox me. You, know... I haven't been invited to a lot of parties lately.
posted by atomicstone at 6:34 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Do you think all humans are capable of evil? {/Landry Clarke}
posted by Spathe Cadet at 6:35 PM on July 7


After browsing through this thread, it is obvious that all possible opening gambits in conversation could potentially offend anybody. So we can all either sit in silence together like a Quaker meeting so no one get offended or, god forbid, ask a question about some aspects of the other person's life in the hope of getting to know them better.
posted by Pantalaimon at 6:36 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Most of the clever and many of the standard openers really shouldn't be openers. They're not small talk, they're personal questions that someone you don't know might find intrusive or insulting.

Weather and food and your immediate surroundings/circumstances can all be good topics for small talk. "That sure is a slow wind," "Have you tried these blue things?" and "This pattern in the wood looks like a butt" or a sincere compliment about something non-sexual could all be small talk. Yes, they're usually kind of boring things to talk about, but that's the point. You're just greeting and acknowledging a fellow human and letting them know that you are not trying to fight them right now.

Asking someone pointed questions about their job, hopes and dreams, emotional state, family status, ethnicity, genitals, or whatever is a good sight beyond small talk. Not that it's totally off limits, but as an opener? Yow.

You work up to things like that. You chat about simple, largely uncontroversial and impersonal topics, feel around a little and maybe find some common interests, and you work up, reciprocally and consensually, to the hairy personal stuff.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:39 PM on July 7 [9 favorites]


I enliven every winter party by explaining that I actually love the snow and cold.

I also do this. I complain when we don't get our normal allotment of snow.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:39 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


This thread is a great reminder of how incredibly difficult and contradictory it is to socialize. "Don't ask me about myself, I don't know you! Don't tell me about yourself! TMI." I really don't understand how people make friends like this.
posted by bleep at 6:40 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


I really don't understand how people make friends like this.

Mostly, we type at them rather than talk at them!
posted by mudpuppie at 6:45 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"So we can all either sit in silence together like a Quaker meeting so no one get offended or, god forbid, ask a question about some aspects of the other person's life in the hope of getting to know them better."

I'm pretty sure there are other possibilities.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:46 PM on July 7


I mean yeah, some people are just offended that you're even talking to them. I've been to some parties where couples were there and only wanted to talk to each other and the host, and walking up to them got the weirdest response, like just saying "hi."

Personally "what do you do" doesn't bother me for reasons I explained upthread, but I am careful about asking other people that question and am not critical of the other person's response, which I think is pretty key.


This thread is a great reminder of how incredibly difficult and contradictory it is to socialize. "Don't ask me about myself, I don't know you! Don't tell me about yourself! TMI." I really don't understand how people make friends like this.


The most recent friend I made was a few weeks ago, and I brought up that I noticed via mutual friend's Facebook that new friend and I work in the same field. We then talked for a few hours about it.

That's definitely not the only way to make friends, and I don't think the question is mandatory in any conversation. But I do think it's annoying when people swerve to "what's your passion" or "how do you occupy your days" because that seems the same to me as "what do you do."

I think "I'm a musician, but I work in a restaurant/as an administrator to pay the bills" is a fine response to "what do you do" and I'll have more questions about the music than the administrating ( I have a million friends/acquantances who have this story, so that answer is pretty common in my experience).
posted by sweetkid at 6:49 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"I'm your new doctor. I hope you aren't allergic to licorice."
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:51 PM on July 7


I've spent my entire working life in an industry that my political cohort finds uniquely repellent, so this seemingly innocent conversation-starter is a landmine for me.

There with you, sort of. My job title sounds like something much more conservative than it is, so I started making the mistake of just saying "Oh, I work for the government - it's not interesting" (which is true) ...which then led people to start guessing that I work for one of the clandestine services, and basically there is no win here.

Also: when living in DC, as has been stated many times upthread, one may get to experience the joys of someone hearing your response and either walking away without a word or turning not-so-subtly to check their BlackBerry instead of engaging further in conversation. Sometimes this city is the worst.
posted by psoas at 6:51 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Annnnnnnd nothing's wrong with the Julie Klausner approach: How was your week?
posted by psoas at 6:54 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?"
posted by kyrademon at 6:56 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Well, but you can't just walk up to somebody and start listening to them without saying a word.

OKAY BUT what if you walk up to someone and place a boombox and some cardboard on the floor in front of them and immediately start dancing to electric boogie
posted by elizardbits at 6:56 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


What do you do?

I'm the Doctor.
posted by The World Famous at 7:04 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Wow, there is a lot of paranoia going on in the interpretation of this question. Do you really think everyone you meet isn't preoccupied by various levels of social anxiety and angst about how they are being perceived, or wondering whether they've just asked a dumb question that has offended you, or if wondering if they've got spinach in their teeth, or trying to work out where the bathroom is? Do you honestly think most people are absent all insecurity and are singularly bent on defining and categorizing complete strangers they're trying to have awkward small talk with? You are not important enough to displace all the selfish thoughts people have, man. You really aren't. Barring the 4% who are sociopaths and maybe are doing this in social situations, the rest of us are just trying to make it through as cleanly and smoothly as possible without saying anything that will make us bury our faces in our pillows in the wee hours of the morning.

I don't know about DC parties, maybe that's some kind of networking event where the constant evaluation makes sense, but shit. At most actual social gatherings, I really don't think anyone's trying to play gotcha.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:40 PM on July 7 [15 favorites]


My favorite answer to this question was from a young Russian woman I met in my old apartment building in Xiamen, China:

"I drink beer. But that is not my profession."

Works for me!
posted by lumensimus at 7:47 PM on July 7 [16 favorites]


Space Coyote: ""Paly or Gunn?" As a non-native living in Palo Alto I have no idea what information the answer to this question provides as both high schools seem just as tony to me, but it's the first thing people who grew up here ask one another."

I grew up in Palo Alto (would've gone to Gunn except for living with the other parent during high school) and am not sure what the answer implies. At a rough guess, based on decades-old impressions, Paly is tonier than Gunn?

Good thing I no longer live there and don't generally socialize with Palo Altans other than my family, I guess.
posted by Lexica at 7:52 PM on July 7


It's not the "where are you from" that's offensive for nonwhite people (in my experience, other nonwhite people may vary) it's the refusal to accept an American state as the answer despite my obvious American accent.

"No, where are you really from?" Ick.

I don't know if it is still done, but I remember phonebooks in a couple European countries listing professions after a person's name ("Doe, John, Lawyer"), so it can at times be even more public than a small talk question. (I don't know how the long term unemployed were handled, maybe just conspicuously left blank?)

It's a question that I hated when I was un- or oddly-employed, and is great at the moment because I have a job that's socially acceptable and easy to discuss -- unless you are sure the person wants to discuss this, don't ask. There are better questions, but please never those cheesy "So, what's your passion?" ones, those are awful.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:54 PM on July 7


I have a pretty cool job, and I generally don't mind talking about it, but the last few times I've had airplane small talk - what do you do? Oh, I'm anthropologist, I study primate behavior - turned into the other person getting angry at me about evolution. "So tell me, do scientists really still think humans came from monkeys?" Or "Ah, you're one of those evolutionists."

Now I just ask where people are headed, say that sounds cool, and then start reading a nice, non-controversial book. Or fall asleep.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:04 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"where do you summer?" - if the person has an answer for this question, or is, indeed, even familiar with using 'summer' as a verb, then you know what you need to know, which is that you will be OK with eating them first when the party descends into cannibalism, as they tend to do.

"so what's your story?"- if they have an answer to this, and it doesn't involve, say, a talking horse and an enchanted gym-bag, you should say "I do not want to hear about your Personal Brand, you glib douchenozzle!" and then stab them lightly in the ass with a shrimp fork as you walk away. Also, put them on your list of Potential Foodstuffs.

"so what did you do this weekend?" If they don't say "play video games, masturbate and cry, like always," accuse them of lying and walk away before they can respond.

"what do you do?" If they start talking about their job, interrupt them with "Jesus christ that's boring, can you not tell I"m just trying to make small talk, you insufferable narcissist!" Down your drink, and then theirs, and then sink to the floor, quietly sobbing.

"what would you say to a friendly little fuck?" - I'm pretty sure this one only works if you're actually a Little Person, so I've never been able to try it out but it seems like a pretty good bet.

Small talk is impossible. Big talk is not a whole lot better. God invented Booze and Television for a reason, people.
posted by hap_hazard at 8:07 PM on July 7 [20 favorites]


I've found some significant variations in icebreaker questions around Australia, which link to stereotypical obsessions ... but it really seems to work in getting conversation going with strangers.

Common in Melbourne: "So, who do you follow?" leads to discussion about sport.
Common in Sydney: "So where do you live?" leads to discussion about Sydney real estate.
Common in Brisbane: "Do you know many people (at this event)?" because Brisbane has something about *everyone* being only a degree of separation apart.
Common in Canberra: "So, where do you work?" allows easy networking.
Common in Alice Springs: "So, where are you from?" because most people aren't from Alice Springs.
Common in Darwin: "Fuckin' hot, eh?"
posted by jjderooy at 8:10 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"What are your feelings about barbeque"

Geeze, are you _trying_ to start feuds?


Don't you mean he's trying to start foods?

Ok I'll leave
posted by obliterati at 8:27 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


This thread is a great reminder of how incredibly difficult and contradictory it is to socialize. "Don't ask me about myself, I don't know you! Don't tell me about yourself! TMI." I really don't understand how people make friends like this.

People all over the world socialize and meet new people without asking personal and prying questions. But they are not American.
posted by shoesietart at 8:29 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


"Wow, this weather we're having, huh?" also works for Melbourne year-round.

I am very tired of explaining where I'm from (because it's complicated), but given my accent I understand it's an easy topic. I ask everyone "Are you from around here?" regardless of accents or skin color, because I'm so very obviously not that they can reasonably assume I'm not making assumptions.

I ask all adults "Do you work outside the home?" and hope it gives people an out if they find "do you work" presumptuous or intrusive.

Strangers: you people are exhausting, because I just don't believe you're all friends I haven't met yet.
posted by gingerest at 8:33 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I usually just run up to people and yell "IDENTIFY YOURSELF!" at the top of my lungs.

Hey, good idea! From now on, I'm going to walk up to people and in my best Jamaican accent say, "My name is John Parker...identify yaself, nah?"
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:40 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Better than "what do you do?" is "What line of work are you in?" That way people who are in fact unemployed have an out to actually answer honestly without resorting to a lie.

Interestingly, in Japan and much of East Asia (and perhaps other parts of the world), often the first question after asking someone's name is "How old are you?" This is a crucial aspect of interaction for most situations--if someone is significantly younger or older than you, then your behavior must reflect that junior/senior dynamic. So age is a big deal.
posted by zardoz at 8:41 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


People all over the world socialize and meet new people without asking personal and prying questions. But they are not American.

My experience with people from other countries is that they will ask very personal and prying questions, much more personal than what my job is.
posted by sweetkid at 8:50 PM on July 7 [12 favorites]


Can't you just ask people what they'd like to talk about?

Or is that too vague and/or the social equivalent of breaking the third wall?
posted by Davenhill at 9:06 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"I ask all adults "Do you work outside the home?" and hope it gives people an out if they find "do you work" presumptuous or intrusive."

No, no I don't, Judgy McJudgerson.

When people ask me that I say, "Oh, no, I'm just at home with my kids right now," listen to their condescending platitudes about it, and let them find out the rest from the newspaper.

I'm a serial killer.

I'm not a serial killer.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:06 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


People all over the world socialize and meet new people without asking personal and prying questions. But they are not American.

“Have you eaten your rice today?”
posted by XMLicious at 9:12 PM on July 7


It's hard to get better than "what do you do?", really. Because "do" doesn't actually mean "do for money," or "do with most of your time," or whatever. You can pretty much answer it however you like. I don't mind telling people I'm a librarian, but I'd be equally happy saying, "I like to write fiction. It's my favourite thing in the world!" Actually sometimes I think I'd rather say that. When I tell people I'm a librarian they assume I have something to do with buying or sorting books, which I don't. If they want to talk about books, I'd rather mention the writing.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:14 PM on July 7


The answer is, "Tell me about yourself." Then whomever can tell you whatever they think is most important about themselves and you'll have learned something about them without grilling them on social signifiers.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:18 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Before giving a snarky answer to a common question, please consider that some of us come from backgrounds of profound social anxiety and we're desperately clinging to mainstream social scripts for dear life.
posted by Skwirl at 9:24 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


Hey, if you say "No, I don't work outside the home, I HAVE KIDS YOU MONSTER" I can ask about your kids, see.
posted by gingerest at 9:26 PM on July 7


Before giving a snarky answer to a common question, please consider that some of us come from backgrounds of profound social anxiety and we're desperately clinging to mainstream social scripts for dear life.

I should have bought one of these years ago: Ask me about my crippling shyness!
posted by mochapickle at 9:32 PM on July 7


I should have bought one of these years ago: Ask me about my crippling shyness!

(Asks in a laid-back friendly manner while waving a casual hand toward shirtal aphorism): So how's that workin' out for ya?
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:51 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Can't you just ask people what they'd like to talk about?

Scene: A smallish apartment. Tastefully appointed. There is Ikea furniture in evidence, sure, but there is also tasteful artwork hanging on the walls. Like, real art. Probably not mass-produced, and probably not bought at the starving artists' sale that the local Holiday Inn hosts once a month. So this is probably a tasteful party, you decide, with tasteful people. There are probably cool people here who could be your friends. You ought to make friends. You need more friends.

Two people hover around the hors d'oeuvres -- hesitant, but expectant.

P1: Hi.
P2: Oh, hi.
P1: They're almost out of Ranch dip.
P2: Yeah, I saw that. Too bad.
P1: Yeah.
[...]

Note: At this point, both P1 and P2 are coming to the realization that they are in an awkward social situation. Both P1 and P2 mentally run through their options. They both then frantically scan the room for people they know who can rescue them from this situation. They don't know many people to begin with, and the people they DO know are otherwise engaged. Backs turned. Attentions non-attentive. They need more friends. So, on to plan C.

P2: Hey, so. Um, what do you want to talk about?
P1 [internal dialogue]: Who the fuck is this person I'm just standing here with the baby carrots why do they assume I *want* to talk to them and why didn't I just stay home with my library book?

Scene: Later that evening, P1 reclines in a bath with her Kindle and grouses to herself about having been dragged to that party. P2 bangs the heel of his palm against his temple a few times -- gently -- and chides himself for having asked such a stupid question, because she was kinda cute, and surely there was a better way to start the conversation than the presumptuous "What do you want to talk about."

As these emotions are reconciled and the regrets grow roots, a thin film forms on the Ranch dip. The baby carrots scab over.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:54 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


(Shrugs shoulders... Mutters into shoes): It's uh. Um.
posted by mochapickle at 9:54 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


My husband grew up in a very well to do area and he and his friends all went to the top private school in our city. When I first met his friends, the question they would ask was what school I went to, as it was a big social signifier. I remember meeting the wife of one of his friends. She reeled off three questions like an interrogator, what suburb did I grow up in, (a working class one) what did my father do for a living (he wasn't a doctor like hers, just a lowly engineer) and what school did I go to? (Private but not a top one) Clearly my answers proved I was no one worth talking to as she immediately blanked me, turned around and walked off. She's never bothered speaking to me since, I for one am relieved.
posted by Jubey at 10:01 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Threads like these make me feel like I have superpowers by the way.
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


As a Los Angeles alternative, especially moving through creative worlds where how people make their money rarely has much to do with what their passion in life is, I tend to favor, "So what's your deal?" I'm not sure it quite gets the idea across, but it feels a little less buttoned up than "What do you do?"
posted by Sara C. at 10:10 PM on July 7


gingerest: "Hey, if you say "No, I don't work outside the home, I HAVE KIDS YOU MONSTER" I can ask about your kids, see."

No, but really, I say it in my nicest, most pleasant tones, "Oh, I'm just at home with my kids right now," and then deflect the conversation to my husband's very interesting job. As I have been summarily dismissed for NOT working outside the home, I shall spend the evening as a very pleasant housewife.

When the rest of it comes to you, later on, any awkwardness you feel is up to you. Or, in the case that I am now crushing your Fortune 500 company's dreams, your bad research in not figuring out who I was and why I was at that event relating to your company's desired building permit. I can't help myself. All these dudes in their 50s and 60s who really WANT to condescend to me and overlook me, so I just pleasantly smile and help them to do so, and then they're shocked -- SHOCKED -- when that turned out to be bad idea. So much backpedaling!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:32 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"Does this look infected to you?"
posted by maxwelton at 10:49 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


...isn't the right thing to say after that " oh! How many do you have?" or am I horribly misguided?
posted by The Whelk at 10:49 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


But I'm trying not to dismiss you by saying you work! Inside the home! You matter! As do other people who work from home or who are at home but don't work! And I really would ask about your kids. Or your home office. Or your dogs or your recent homelessness or whatever your response was. With great interest.
posted by gingerest at 10:52 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I'm just trying to make the smoothest possible transition so we can complain about the cheese the host has put out, like seriously Brie and cheddar what it is this 1973?
posted by The Whelk at 10:56 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"What do you want to talk about?" as an opener feels like such a cop out. Like, "I can't figure out what to talk about right now, but I want to talk to you, so why don't you take care of the whole topic problem? Woohoo, it's your problem now!" Toss that hot potato right into someone else's hands, why don't you!

I actually love small talk. But I don't tend to go with "what do you do" or "what do you want to talk about." I take small talk as an opportunity to talk about whatever has struck my fancy at any given moment, since no one else seems to know what to say. I can't resist an audience, captive or otherwise. At worst, at the end of the evening you can talk to other guests about what a weirdo I am. You're welcome.
posted by Hildegarde at 10:59 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


How about: "Read anything good lately?"

(where you're okay putting off people who don't read)

posted by Davenhill at 11:40 PM on July 7


Don't you glom onto one minor (complimentary) aspect of the person and ask about that? Like, they have pretty earrings, so you say "Those are gorgeous, my sister would love them so much, where are they from?" or they are awkwardly carrying a plate of canapes and you say "Are the crab ones spicy? I'd love to try them, but I thought they might have chili. What else would you recommend?", whilst not really caring about earrings or crab canapes, but having broken the ice by asking for some benign advice or opinion, so they are all "oh this person is interested in my thoughts". Note that this only works if you actually like people, which I do.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:45 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


I use "What are you into?"



Ha ha, that's a total lie, I have never initiated a conversation in my entire life.
posted by rifflesby at 12:14 AM on July 8 [7 favorites]


Several years ago, I had the insight—projecting completely from my own experiences, natch—that a lot of social pressure and feelings of inadequacy result from (mostly) unintentional repetition of small-talk questions.

In the spirit of do unto others..., I decided that it was better to avoid certain words and phrases altogether, rather than inadvertently risk adding to a sense of "piling on," for someone, say, who has been asked three times that week what they do, when they're unemployed. Or for someone who hasn't had a date in a year and is decidedly and unhappily not married, and feeling bad about it because all their childhood girlfriends or their mother and their aunt or everybody at work, etc., etc.

Since that decision, my guiding principle is always to give folks an "out." That means, I don't ask about jobs or hobbies, for all the reasons mentioned above. Instead I ask about "metier," in a voice that's as purposefully warm as possible. Metier is great because it's not as hardcore as passion, doesn't assume the initiative of hobby, doesn't presume employment. It's basically a word whose meaning is clear enough to be understood, but vague enough so as not to be undermining. And if you say it just so, well, hopefully it doesn't sound pretentious.

Mates, marriages, kids, schools are similar pressure points, so I try to never assume, and in most cases don't ask. But if I do slip and ask, or if curiosity gets the better of me, I make a big point to, again, through tone or manner, provide an out—even going so far as to say, "Don't feel you have to talk about X," in a joky way if it looks as though I may have inadvertently tread upon some toes, and then changing the subject.

This works really well. And I say that as sensitive semi-introvert, whose idea of a good party is a long-form conversation with someone new.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:34 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


I don't know why people attribute nefarious causes to such a simple question. You're asking a person about the single thing that occupies the majority of their waking hours. It is one of the absolutely least weird questions you could ask someone.

Yeah, not only is the imputation of nefarious motives implausible, it's untestable as well.

Well, anyway, it's hard to test, and not tested here. It's just an interpretation, and the authors can project their own obsessions and prejudices onto others--a favorite activity of some.

I like how race gets in there, too.

I mean...white people...amirite?

I tend to ask people "what do you do in life?" That's a kind of jokey attempt to let them know that they can tell me anything about themselves that they like. Is that intrusive? No, it is not. Not to normal people. Of course for people devoted to moral micromanagement of others, down to how they chit-chat with others, I'm sure it's some kind of genocide. If you want to push this batty moral fanaticism all the way, you probably shouldn't even be speaking to anyone without their explicit consent. And since explicit consent must be given verbally in some form, you should never speak to anyone.

Oh, brave new world...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:23 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


"Full time dreamer" is my response.

I have a friend who does cartoons for the New Yorker. I'm going to show him this thread, he ought to be set for a couple months at least.
posted by chaz at 3:46 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


If there is such a thing as the objectively right conversation-starter, I would argue that it's whatever people expect to be the conversation starter in whatever context you're in. That way, the person you're asking probably has a prepared answer, and you probably have experience in moving from that answer into a more personal, less ritualized conversation.

I grew up in Washington, DC, and the Culturally Accepted Starting Question (CASQ?) was indeed "What do you do?" In my experience, though, there was never anything nefarious behind it. It's just that people who work in government or allied fields tend to be passionate about their jobs, and to spend lots of time doing it, so they'd generally be able to give you an interesting answer that would lead to an interesting discussion.

I spent seven years in Los Angeles, and the CASQ there seems to be, "What are you working on?" By asking it, you're complementing the other person by assuming they are a creative person with an interesting current project, and you give them the option of discussing paid work or unpaid work, as they choose.

When I moved to the UK, I was warned that it was really rude to ask what people do, so I have avoided doing it. (Although British people do often ask me it; either the stigma about asking it has disappeared, or they just figure it's OK to ask me because I'm American.)
posted by yankeefog at 3:46 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


I think just like showering daily, or eating fast food, the American "what do you do" has been adopted in Europe, at least among a certain group of white-collar types.

It's interesting to try to determine exactly who the stigma behind "what do you do" in England was designed to protect. A UK friend claims it's because it's an absurd question to ask someone of the upper-crust, as they don't "do" anything, and is dictated from above, not below. Most manners in England do seem to derive from lofty stations, so this may be true but I've never really investigated it. From the French perspective, they love to complain about the American obsession with work, and yet the type of questions I've gotten in French social settings are very clearly designed to tease out my class/upbringing. Europe is definitely the only place where I've been asked my father's profession. Since Americans are largely clueless when it comes to class (in specific terms), the work question may often be trying to achieve the same ends.

I think overall Yankeefrog is right, context is important and the prepared response is a way to break the ice, not really get a great convo started. At a children's gathering you might ask if the person has any more kids. At a MeFi meetup, you may ask their handle, or perhaps when they joined the site. At a small party at the home of a friend, asking where you met the friend doesn't seem to be rude to me, even if the answer is "I just tagged along with Terrence, who went to High School". Asking people where they're from can potentially lead to a great conversation, but it's probably best to tread lightly unless you've already established some common ground, as anyone "nicht von hier" usually has more negative than positive associations with that question.
posted by cell divide at 4:03 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


The idea that "talking about the weather" in the UK is in any way neutral is ridiculous. British people are absolutely obsessed with class, in ways that no North American here is likely prepared for. The British absolutely 100% essentialize every person by social class, and find it inconceivable that someone might not live their entire life in absolute conformity to stereotype; if they don't, they are merely presumed to be self-deluded about what their class background actually is. As soon as a Brit opens their mouth to talk about the weather, they reveal their social class through accent and dialect. That is why the British talk about the weather. A middle-class person asking this question, for example, is trying to find out whether they're talking to a fellow human being, or a creature more akin to an animal (working-class people aren't looked upon as conscious or aware in the same way).

Canada isn't as class-ridden as the UK, but prefers to encode social hierarchy by ethnicity. That's why it's the height of bad manners to ask a fellow Canadian "where are you from originally?" since the malintent behind the question is so transparent.

It still isn't a breach of etiquette in North America OR the UK to ask someone what their occupation is (even though that might reveal their social class), any more than it is a breach of Canadian etiquette to ask someone their name (even though that might reveal their ethnicity). According to etiquette, people are supposed to have just enough faith in each other to get through a few minutes of small talk without presumption of ill-intent - and there's nothing wrong with having a modestly noble vision of humanity.

When I was younger, and hadn't learned about etiquette, I was still trying to please everybody. Someone told me they hated it when someone said "excuse me" because it was just a polite way of saying "get out of my way". And that's true, "excuse me" is just a polite way of saying "get out of my way", but the point is, it's a polite way of saying it. But, people-pleaser that I was, I resolved never to be so bossy and presumptuous again, and perfected the art of slipping in between and around people without touching them, or else waiting for them to move.

Of course, that was offensive too. I got snapped at a few times: "Why didn't you just ask me to move?" but I was expecting that. Then one day I was in a newsagent, and I spied a magazine I wanted on an upper shelf. There was just room for me to slip in between two people without brushing against either one, and so I did so, retrieving my magazine in a way I thought was rather deft if I say it myself. Except that the magazines underneath were propped at an angle, and started to cascade off the shelf. Equally deftly (I thought) I put a hand up to stop them and pushed them back up on the shelf. Not once did I brush or graze against either of the individuals from the crowd who were on either side of me.

But one of them was offended. "Why didn't you say excuse me? Why didn't you say excuse me? If you want to get in between two people that's what you say."

"I'm sorry about that."

"If you want to reach something and somebody is standing in front of it, you ask them to help you."

"As I said, I'm very sorry."

"You're so rude. I could have just helped."

"I do apologize. I'll do better next time."

I was used to verbal abuse at the time, being in the grip of a terrible job and no options (and having spent the better part of my adult life in that situation, after a childhood also spent in the incorrect pigeonhole too). But given that I had banned the phrase "excuse me" from my vocabulary with the specific intent to avoid getting yelled at, it really brought home to me what a hostile world I was living in, and how low was my status within it.

After that I learned about etiquette, which told me not only what phrases I could emit with the least risk of giving offense, but also the phrases to which it was reasonable for me to take offense. Making a utilitarian decision to try to please and be pleased by the greatest number with the greatest possible frequency, I made my Aspie way thenceforth through the world with a measure of confidence that I had at least tried my best. If my best required me to say "excuse me", then I would say it, and damn the torpedoes.
posted by tel3path at 5:19 AM on July 8 [15 favorites]


St. Louis is also a "Where did you go to high school?" town. They're really asking if you are Catholic and how much money your family has.
posted by almostmanda at 5:26 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]



How about: "Read anything good lately?"


(where you're okay putting off people who don't read)


The area where I live has only about a 40% literacy rate, and families who haven't attended school in five generations. So I actually wouldn't ask this question in or near my neighbourhood, at least not of a white person I didn't know.

I was blissfully unaware of this statistic when I was at school, and permanently baffled that I couldn't make friends by talking about what books I was reading. It was presumed that I was showing off. You would think that, by virtue of being in school, the other kids I was talking to couldn't have been among the families that hadn't been to school in five generations, and they most certainly could read, but reading books for pleasure was still considered brainiacal and "posh".
posted by tel3path at 5:40 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


I grew up in Washington, DC, and the Culturally Accepted Starting Question (CASQ?) was indeed "What do you do?" In my experience, though, there was never anything nefarious behind it. It's just that people who work in government or allied fields tend to be passionate about their jobs, and to spend lots of time doing it, so they'd generally be able to give you an interesting answer that would lead to an interesting discussion.
I think that is actually only true of people with high-status jobs in government and allied fields. DC is a pretty class-segregated town, and those kind of people probably don't often have social dealings with less-high-status folks, but if you said that you worked as a secretary at the Department of the Interior or a janitor a the World Bank, it would in fact be an invitation to remind you that you're a low-status person who didn't belong at that particular social gathering.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:59 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Don't you glom onto one minor (complimentary) aspect of the person and ask about that?

A lot of people try to do this, but not very well. So they take something like "Wow, you are so tall!" or "I love your accent!" and then latch onto it like a rabid pit bull and yay, there goes the conversation.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


I'm living near NYC (on LI actually) and I work in kitchens. A question I hear a lot from co-workers, Latinos mostly, What country are you from?

Er. United States... I grew up in California, so that works sometimes. But usually people want to know your family's origin. My lineage is Northern European mutt, some German, Sweedish, and Irish. That's the answer they're looking for.

Also, having moved from the West to the East coast, the question I most often hear from older adults is, where does your father/mother live? I'm somewhat standoffish about too much detail (though the question might be innocent enough, Where are your kids?). I say CA. They press. I say the Bay Area. They press. I say, I'll tell you what! I'll give you their Frack'n address, but then you have to send them a nice Hallmark Card--They'll like that.
posted by xtian at 6:16 AM on July 8


I ran into another one of my least favorite conversation starters yesterday. It's so innocent though; no one would know what a mind field it is for me in particular.

I live in a college town and I look (to the unobservant) 10 years younger than I am. This means that the default conversation starter is "what's your major" or "what do you study?" or "what are you going to school for?" If I answer truthfully that I'm not in school, this leads to questions about my age and the next thing I know, I'm having a 15 minute conversation with a stranger about my age and appearance and life path and health and it's gross.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:16 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


If my best required me to say "excuse me", then I would say it, and damn the torpedoes.

At some point you've got to not give a damn and value your self-preservation over the possibility of minorly offending someone. There are people who will still take umbrage with you when you are at your most courteous and you must remember: that is on them.
posted by psoas at 6:48 AM on July 8 [11 favorites]


I think that is actually only true of people with high-status jobs in government and allied fields.

That's a very fair point. DC is a complicated city with a lot of fascinating, thriving subcultures within it, and as you say, they don't always mix. I shouldn't say "Washington, DC" when I really mean "the very specific subculture within DC that I grew up in."

I would guess that "What do you do?" is not the Culturally Accepted Starting Question within, say, punk rock DC, or working class DC. But I stand by my belief that, within the specific subculture I grew up in (middle class or above, often with a direct or indirect connection to government), it was generally asked with the intention of making a human connection, rather than insulting or excluding.
posted by yankeefog at 7:00 AM on July 8


When I was younger, and hadn't learned about etiquette, I was still trying to please everybody. Someone told me they hated it when someone said "excuse me" because it was just a polite way of saying "get out of my way". And that's true, "excuse me" is just a polite way of saying "get out of my way", but the point is, it's a polite way of saying it. But, people-pleaser that I was, I resolved never to be so bossy and presumptuous again, and perfected the art of slipping in between and around people without touching them, or else waiting for them to move.

This is like my entire history of social interactions - "hear slightly idiosyncratic 'rule' for not offending people, try to square it with all the other rules for not offending people, develop exceedingly inconvenient workaround, some kind of ructions ensue".

It is very difficult because the rules for not offending people often contradict each other. This is why I hate parties. I mean, I love novels about parties.
posted by Frowner at 7:19 AM on July 8 [6 favorites]


But seriously, I recommend becoming a mosquito scientist, because everyone wants to complain scientifically about mosquitoes during the summer.

"Ooh, look, this one was an Aedes aegypti! Note the bands on the legs!"

"What can I catch from that?"

I am the summer party champion.
posted by palindromic at 7:24 AM on July 8 [15 favorites]


In Los Angeles, the best opening line is (get your pens ready):

"How was the traffic getting here?"

You will never need to open your mouth again and you will be surrounded by a spirited discussion of traffic on various freeways and canyon roads for the next 45 minutes or so.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:35 AM on July 8 [5 favorites]


That is why the British talk about the weather.

Or because it's something that has a huge impact on whether you can do a whole bunch of common activities, affects how easy it is to get around, often changes greatly and unpredictably from hour to hour, and might well be the main determinant of people's moods. That's how it is here in Ireland anyway. And how it generally is in Britain too.

Obviously class is a big deal there but I don't think the British (and do you mean British? When Welsh people talk about the weather are they sizing each other up?) are as obsessed with class to the exclusion of everything else as you make out.
posted by kersplunk at 7:44 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]




In L.A. the easiest thing is, "So how was the traffic getting here?"
posted by Room 641-A at 8:20 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


If you want to effectively stun-gun Brits over a certain age and social class just bring up gardening and they'll talk amongst themselves happily about it til the end of time.
posted by The Whelk at 8:35 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


"How's it going?"

Sometimes when I'm feeling secure I try to engage the person sitting next to me on the bus by pretending that we've known each other for years, but don't talk often. This town (Calgary) has a reputation for being a rural oasis of friendliness, which is true in a superficial way if you're an avuncular old guy. Which I am, sort of. Anyway, results are mixed. People with jobs who are more or less my age (especially women) are fine with it, men less so. Hipsters and working guys with hardhats and tattoos either give me the cold shoulder or engage in dudebro colloquialisms until we get to their stop. Maybe if I had some cigarettes or pot to share things would go better?
posted by sneebler at 8:36 AM on July 8


I live in the Pacific Northwest and recently joined a pretty hot regional bluegrass band as fiddler. At every festival and out of town show we've played since I've joined I've had at least one person come up to me after each set and ask if I'm Jewish ("yes, ish"). Actually, what they ask is usually more like this:
  • "You know, you look just like that man from Fiddler on the Roof!" ("Tevye!")
  • "What nationality are you?" ("Uh... American?")
  • "I never saw a New York Jew play fiddle like that!" ("Well I'm from Portland so... I guess you still haven't?"
The first few times it was more bemusing and fun to be exotic than anything else but it's still happening and to be honest is getting kind of weird/old.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 10:48 AM on July 8 [5 favorites]


"What do you think about zombies?"

My husband once got on like a house afire with the president of our college at a dinner party, because the president mentioned he was working on a disaster preparedness plan for campus, and my husband has Opinions. Part of the reason the conversation was so successful was that my husband managed not to let slip that his Opinions arose from fantasizing about a zombie apocalypse.
posted by BrashTech at 10:50 AM on July 8 [7 favorites]


> ...isn't the right thing to say after that " oh! How many do you have?" or am I horribly misguided

That is the right thing to say! The wrong thing to say is "Oh," and to walk away in search of people with more interesting jobs.

Source: the last two block parties I've been to.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:00 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this illustrates one of the biggest cultural shifts we encountered moving from Washington DC to Santa Fe.

In the former, the only reason people in our general social sphere lived there was because of work, so naturally that's the first question you ask someone new. (That, and the fact that many of the major employers--government, non-profits, development, etc--kind of overlapped in various ways.)

In the latter, probably over half the population couldn't even answer the question. So you ask about mountain biking/skiing. Which does get dull.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:09 PM on July 8


When I moved to the UK, I was warned that it was really rude to ask what people do, so I have avoided doing it.

I'm somewhat intrigued by this, because I certainly hold back a little from making it the first question I ask someone, but it's quite often the first question someone asks me. I suspect what might make it sound rude coming from an American is that American politeness requires the questioner to phrase as if they really want to know the answer, whereas the British person will ask in a more discursive sounding way. At least, that's how it seems to me.
posted by ambrosen at 12:17 PM on July 8


I think at a certain level both participants in a getting-to-know-you conversation have to understand two things:

1. Almost any small talk question you ask could potentially cause some sort of offense to somebody in some way. Avoiding obvious asshole topics is good (Where do you go to chuch? Oy), but all in all overthinking whether "What do you do?" or "Where did you grow up?" is pointless.

2. If you find yourself on the receiving end of an icebreaker question that rubs you the wrong way, understand that the person asking probably didn't mean to hurt your feelings. YMMV if it's "No, where are you REALLY from?" or "Where do you summer?", but the basics are fair game.

I grew up just outside of New Orleans. For about three years, I could not answer "So are you from New York originally, or...?" questions without having to have a prolonged conversation about Hurricane Katrina with a total stranger. There is no way in hell that the person asking that question could possibly have divined that I was from southern Louisiana and "where are you from?" was a weightier topic than they meant it to be.

I think presuming that someone asking you a conversational icebreaker is doing so with the intent to judge you based on class, race, religion, whatever is kind of messed up, to be honest.
posted by Sara C. at 12:53 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


"Well, anyway, it's hard to test, and not tested here. It's just an interpretation, and the authors can project their own obsessions and prejudices onto others--a favorite activity of some."

Yeah, about that...
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:13 PM on July 8


For worker bees in DC, "the where do you work" question is just to see if there's an easy go-to topic. Govvies can always bond with govvies -- I have little in common with someone doing military work but boy-oh can we bond about how awful procurement is or the sequester or the last time our pay wasn't frozen. Likewise, the overlap with gov and NGO work is easy to bridge. That covers a huge percentage of conversations.

No no, the loaded question is: "where do you live?" Virginia or Maryland? Ugh. Whatever.

Anacostia? Some tactless person might follow up with a comment about safety or crime.

But any DC resident can bond with any other DC resident about all kinds of stuff: Neighborhoods, city council, voting rights, public transportation, tourist hate, and gawdawful humidity just to name a few...

"Where are you originally from," is a bit dicey because born-and-raised Washingtonians can get huffy, but that can be off-set because they have the strongest and most insightful opinions about the topics above.
posted by Skwirl at 2:52 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


I have a cat.
posted by zennie at 3:50 PM on July 8


Pics please zennie. You know the rule.
posted by tel3path at 4:07 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


It seems I grew up hearing all the middle class people ask each other, "So, what do you do?" And hearing everyone else ask each other, "where do you live?"

I also grew up being asked, "where are you from?" What they actually meant was, "you're not black but you're kind of brown and you speak English, so what are you?"

Now, living in DC, I just tend to ask, "are you from around here?"

cat
posted by zennie at 4:19 PM on July 8 [8 favorites]


I still remember the bloggers meet-up I went to in 2001 or so where everyone in attendance was in either IT or publishing. I had several conversations that began with someone telling me they regularly read and enjoyed my blog, followed by mutual admiration and small talk. Then they asked me what I did. 'I work in a wine shop,' I answered. Each time I was asked, my reply was met with raised eyebrow and/or the word 'oh' uttered with disappointed puzzlement.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 4:47 PM on July 8


WHich is insane cause the correct response is " can you get me a case of Montrchet at wholesale price?"
posted by The Whelk at 4:53 PM on July 8 [4 favorites]


Canada isn't as class-ridden as the UK, but prefers to encode social hierarchy by ethnicity. That's why it's the height of bad manners to ask a fellow Canadian "where are you from originally?" since the malintent behind the question is so transparent.

This isn't really my experience. Every single person I deal with on a regular basis is an immigrant or one step removed from being one, and the question about where we/our folks are from comes up pretty fast, one way or another. I recognize that the question can be asked in such a way that can make someone feel like they are being judged as not really belonging. There is that thing where people look at the colour of someone's skin and assume they're fresh off the boat. That is undeniably rude and racist.

But practically everyone here is immigrant, or is related to a few. This is a predominantly immigrant nation. More than half of the population of Toronto was born outside of Canada. Our major immigration boom is still ongoing, so it's odd to act as if we're not (almost) all immigrants. Pretending everyone is from here is like...being "colourblind", or something. I don't think I've ever met a Canadian with Canadian roots longer than, say, two generations. Everyone I spoke to so far today is at least first generation. Yesterday I bought a couch from a woman who gave me the most interesting Iraqi turn of phrase ("You only stretch out to the length as your blanket") and asked me about the ethnic origins of my surname (it's Ukrainian).

Not to say that Canadians aren't racist. We surely are. And there are certainly assholes who will ask questions like that because they think all hijabis literally just arrived and can't possibly be real Canadians or understand what we're all about. But questions about ethnic origin get asked all the time in casual, business, and formal conversations without being "the height of bad manners," and without trying to rank people by ethnicity. Perhaps I live in an academic bubble of multiculturalist pride, but lots of Canadians love to chat about their ethnic origins. Go ahead: ask me about my Baltic German mother!
posted by Hildegarde at 5:35 PM on July 8


I think 'How Do You Do' needs to make a come back.

The oddest icebreaker question I've gotten was 'what was the happiest day of your life?'
posted by bq at 9:36 PM on July 8


Common in Melbourne: "So, who do you follow?" leads to discussion about sport.

Yeah, on the first day of literally every job I've had in Melbourne, I've been interrogated about my AFL allegiances while being shown around the workplace. It seems to be a thing. So I'd have an answer, I decided to support Geelong (just because I liked the team name, to be honest.)
posted by lwb at 7:22 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Thane of Cawdor!
posted by Mister_A at 9:37 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Late to the thread but oh well.

Socializing is so much easier if you're a smoker. You're pretty much forced to make small talk with whoever is outside with you or you stand around awkwardly. Even if it's just small talk about cigarettes. For all the bad that cigarettes do to me, I feel that they have really helped me develop great social skills.

The best conversations I've had with strangers have been those that want to get a cigarette from me. In return for the cigarette, I require payment in the form of an embarrassing story. Its really fun. I encourage everyone to take up smoking just so that they can use this line.
posted by LizBoBiz at 10:02 AM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Sure thing!
posted by How the runs scored at 10:30 AM on July 11


Maybe I'm the only one, but when someone has the guts to ask me a curious/oddball question without even knowing me, I have this irresistible urge to keep the conversation flowing. Oddballs are so much more interesting than yet another "How about this weather?"
posted by TaylorHannigan at 12:06 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


not so much oddball, but I have a friend who tends to open with, "So what kind of car do you drive?" Which he claims never fails to go somewhere interesting. If the person's passionate about their car, then there's that. Or maybe they don't drive. That's also interesting. And so on.
posted by philip-random at 7:25 AM on July 14


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