Cue the scene.
I'm standing in a big house party, feeling eerily like I'm in an episode of Animal House, red solo cups in hand, loud music, glittery females and dapper gentlemen draped over surfaces. My toes point inwards and my hips clench together a bit. My insides are crawling. Apparently my inner Extrovert refused to come out, and I feel as though I've been dumped in the noisiest, strangest, most over-stimulating environment with a whole bunch of people leering at me with bright, shiny grins plastered on their faces.
Excuse me, I mumble, and head awkwardly to the bathroom. I sit on the toilet, seat down, and put my hands in my head. Breathe, I remind myself. The slight muffling of the noise outside lets my brain modestly unscramble. I look at my face in the mirror for a while, not sure what I'm doing here.
I wash my hands under warm water, mostly because the methodical rhythm of washing my hands feels soothing, as does the warm water. It feels good to be doing something, perhaps if only to add some semblance of control. Otherwise, I'd be in a bathroom, well, hiding.
I'm not sure how much time passes, but my reverie is broken by a sharp jab on the bathroom door, someone yelling, asking if I'm okay in here. (Of course I'm okay. I'm GREAT. I'd rather be here than there!) Oops. I guess I should leave the locked cabin and find a way to meander through the throngs of people.
Outside, I walk slowly towards a corner and lean with my back against a wall. I tilt my elbow up and the wine glass forward, indulging in the slow stupor and slight buzz of red wine, sips washing over my body like a gentle release, a hum of relaxation taking over. The people around me start to look like various characters in a movie, typical postures and motions mirrored across many bodies; the human dance of flirtation and introduction a choreography of it's own. I like this. I like watching, I like thinking.
And, oh, Hey there. The man stumbles into me with some champagne and his two friends look over, bemused. I smile briefly and we chat, exchanging pleasantries, my mind not quite fully focused, but able to engage. The dull roar has subsided. Fortunately for me, my counterpart is buzzed enough to not notice that I'm not entirely paying attention. I count the number of questions we chitter-chatter over. The perfectly-tousled-hair on the left stops, takes a breath, pauses and then turns to me abruptly in the midst of our monotone chatter.
SO, he exhales, jutting out his hip.
What do you do?
He peers critically over me from his glasses, his arms crossed in front of him, his body still half facing his friend. Everything about his body language implies that this will be a one-snap judgment, information to bolster his already-formed opinion of me.
I've crafted so many responses to this query and I'm fairly deft at answering it—it's a game of sorts, a social dance of tongues, a tit-for-tat information exchange. Yet somewhere along with my Extrovert, I also left my willingness to banter with stupidity at home.
We — I suppose "we" being my introvert and extrovert, and whatever other personalities I hold captive within my mind — have a certain rule for people who ask that question within the first two minutes. I like to call it a game, in my mind: how many questions does it take to ask this question? Sometimes I giggle at the predictability of both human stance as well as human conversation, because we follow so religiously the cultural norms of our social spheres and upbringing; only lately has it become more routine to ask gentler, more interesting questions of our fellow humans.
Oh lordy, THAT question. The pervasive question. Everyone asks it. It's either "What do you do?" or "Where are you from?" It seems as though you can walk up to anyone, press play, and the question comes out.
First, though: it's not an entirely terrible question.
To be fair, we ask these questions because we want to find out more information about the people around us. We want to know their stories, what makes them who they are, why they are sitting here, how they got here, and how we might be entangled in our mutual life plays.
In some regards, I love this question — if not because it's a challenge to summarize yourself simply (a task that is psychologically painful, because we're always more complicated that two sentences can hold), and also, because it's an opportunity to tell a short and interesting story.It's often best to begin simply.
Again, this is because of psychology: we can't remember too many rambles, so for the sake of your audience, begin with a phrase that's short and sweet. If they can't remember what you've said, they're going to opt for more polite chitter, likely out of fear of embarrassing themselves in front of you.
A noun works very well, particularly one that's familiar to others (Swimmer, writer, . Choose your two nouns, three if you're feeling fancy. You're doing this not for yourself, but for the person across from you—tell them enough of a hook, and then pause. The trick is to find something simple that people can hook on to, and also a way to explain yourself in as few words as possible. Make it something that people can remember:
I'm a swimmer and a writer.
I swim long distances in the open water, and I teach a writing class online as part of my own business.
When I'm feeling cheeky, I like to tell people that I do handstands and yoga, skipping my own career route in lieu of the activities I adore doing on weekends. Sometimes people get flummoxed and flustered and say, no, I mean, what do you do? — as though the answers I gave weren't sufficient.
There are so many ways to begin:
I eat sandwiches. I’m an uncle. I draw diagrams of movement and exercise. I run long distances. I read an excessive amount of books. I stalk twitter. I make friends online. I stare awkwardly into silences. You get the picture.
Digging deeper: what's beneath the question.
Is “what do you do?” a bad question to ask?
I love the topic of this question, but despite my poking at it, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad question.
Let’s look at the heart of why we ask it, and also, where it comes from. First, we ask the question because we want some way to find out — to hear — the stories of other people. Most of the time, we're all craving stories. We want to connect with other people and find common shared experiences that tell us whether or not we can understand them, become friends with them, get along with them, etc.
Second, the reason that we predominantly ask the question “What do you do?” — comes from a century of focusing solely on work and security as our livelihood. For the last several decades (or more specifically, 1930 - 1960) it was very important that you find a stable job and you keep it. Pair that with a burgeoning corporate structure and a society embracing larger and larger businesses (and benefits, and corporate institutions), and the easiest and quickest way to figure out who someone was — was by asking what they did for a living.
We realize (and most people know) that asking “what do you do?” as the only question to probe into someone’s fascinating, interesting, complex set of stories is very superficial. There’s a lot more.
It's time to ask better questions.We ask questions to begin a conversation. Guide the conversation with great questions.
Each of us can ASK more interesting questions and learn, once again, how to tell our stories to each other in a way that lets us connect. Because we’re human, and we’re curious, and we want to know what the other humans around us are, well, doing.
Where are you coming from? What are you working on? What lights you up these days? How's this event treating you? Are you enjoying yourself? Tell me about something you're working on. Do you have any good stories to share?
For the people who think it’s a terrible question to ask:
First: I think we owe it to ourselves to come up with several more interesting questions. Also, it's your responsibility to come up with more interesting responses, too, and not just flippantly reply. When someone asks what you do, you can respond with a thoughtful answer that dodges the underlying presumption of the question.
For example, I could answer:I’m a sister, I’m an aunt. I’m a swimmer. I’m a writer. I’m a designer. I go running. I’m building a number of projects.
The way you tell your story can bring into it a lot of layers without saying; “I work for this and this company or client …”
Sometimes, for clarity, I follow up with a slight teasing — “Oh, so you want to know who PAYS me? Well, that’s a different question.”
And if we unfold it a bit more, the question, “what do you do, (for a living)” is really asking you — “what are you valued for in this society?” Because money is one way of measuring things, that's a framework that people understand. People are asking: who finds you useful? And would they find you useful or helpful to them, too? With this reframe, you can begin to consider: what values do I hold, and what usefulness do I provide? Is there a way to share this story in a meaningful way that will let me connect with others?
It's all a chance for an experiment: try a split test.
There's no right answer to the question. You can have several different responses, letting go of the need for a memorized reply. When I head to conferences, I like to try on several different introductions—it's a way to split-test your description. The purpose of a great self-bio is to start a conversation, not end it, so your introduction should serve to open up the chatter around the table. Try a few on. How do people respond? Which ones garnered conversations (and people) you liked the best?
Because what you do, well, yes, that's where we'll begin. But that’s never enough - it starts to tell the story, but never fully explains who you are. The question is really the beginning.
So the question is, where do you start?
Back at the party, I paused to hold the gaze of the gentleman in front of me. I smiled at him, and—whether it was the event, my lack of a filter, or the glass of wine in my hand—I decide to engage.
"I enjoy dancing and moving," I replied. "Also, sometimes I quite enjoy being invisible at parties." I paused for a second, letting the confusion settle into his face, and then continued:
"But that's not what I do to get paid—at least, not entirely."
He was hooked. His feet adjusted so they faced mine. The jut in his hip softened.
"But there are a lot of stories in there. What about you? What brought you to this party?"
For more on how to talk about yourself and describe what you do—and why narratives can be a powerful source of inspiration for growing into your future self, check out my latest publication on 99U: "Answering the dreaded, 'So, What Do You Do?' question," published earlier this week.