There Are Better Ways to Start a Conversation Than ‘So What Do You Do?’

People are much more than how they earn a paycheck

Allie Volpe
Forge
Published in
3 min readJul 19, 2021

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Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

One of my favorite icebreakers is to ask a stranger to tell me the worst thing they’ve ever done. Most of the time my conversation partner is taken aback, stumped, or left profoundly uncomfortable as they mine the archives of their life searching for a suitable answer. It’s not so much that I’m dying to know everyone’s worst sins but it’s a shocking enough conversation starter that very quickly morphs into meaningful discussion. Discussion that doesn’t involve what we do for work.

Without fail, nearly every time I meet a new person, the question, “So what do you do for a living?” is broached. A perfectly adequate inquiry, the conversation starter is easy enough to answer and comes loaded with context and perhaps complaints; there are plenty of opportunities for follow-up questions, too.

But to tie our first impressions to our paychecks is limiting. People tend to make assumptions about us based on what we do for work, and may only associate us with our jobs — even when we have enriching lives and hobbies outside of the office. As the New York Times’ Lindsay Crouse posited on Twitter last month, “We need more ways to explain ‘who we are’ without saying what we do for work.”

In his book “Friendship In The Age of Loneliness,” Adam Smiley Poswolsky argues that by beginning a conversation through more interesting means besides “What do you do?” we can create more playful and meaningful interactions. Some of his icebreaker prompts include “What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on?” and “If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?” (No, he does not suggest “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” but that’s beside the point.)

By refusing to allow work to define us, we’re able to fully engage in a dialogue that feels more authentic to our true interests and desires. As we rack up party invitations and begin attending larger gatherings again, it’s worth giving our openers a refresh. Think about the facets of people’s lives that intrigue you: Their pets, their artistic endeavors, the media they’re consuming, their future plans. Keep some of these questions in your back pocket for the next wedding or cookout where you’ll interact with strangers. By avoiding stereotypical introductions, it shows our conversation partners we’re willing to take a genuine attempt at getting to know them.

While asking strangers “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” might be a little too bold, thinking outside of the box during the first conversation can lead to surprising revelations: A story about siblings, the divulging of a secret talent, a funny memory about a visit to a diner in the middle of the night. These quirky intros may not spark a lifelong friendship, but you’re sure to be remembered for the interesting ice breaker amid a sea of “So, what do you do for work?”

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Allie Volpe
Forge
Writer for

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.