“So tell me, what do you do?”
Next to: “Where do you come from?” or “Where do you live?”, that’s one of the most frequent questions that Jon and I get on our Nomadic Journey.
But, as Troy Anderson points out in his witty piece for Slate Magazine, it’s also a conversation killer. Take a look at this extract from Anderson’s article and you’ll see what I mean.
“As I say—as the Encyclopédie Moderne said—“Conversation is not a regular attack on any particular point, but a ramble at hazard through a spacious garden.”)* “What do you do?” is not a great question. We all resort to it, granted, and it is no longer widely considered crass and vulgar, but it’s a bit dull, and it has a way of taking the bloom off the roses in the garden. “What do you do?” points toward an old sin of American talk. One throughline of Stephen Miller’s 2006 book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art concerns the dreariness of talking about work. In the middle, Miller studies Charles Dickens’ remark that the U.S. “is a place where the pleasures of conversations are rare, mainly because the ‘love of trade’ makes Americans narrowly self-interested” and also quotes Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville’s road-trip buddy, noting that “American men are occupied with but one single thing, their business.” Near the end, Miller observes that American advice on conversation has frequently proceeded from the careerist example of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Carnegie thinks of conversation as instrumental. The title of the book is misleading. The book is not about winning friends.”
To win a friend—or, at the very least, to gather data that will enrich your appreciation of the human comedy—you should ask something like “What are you excited about?”—which is nice and wide and cheerful. Just thinking about tomorrow clears away the cobwebs.”
Read How to Rescue a Boring Conversation – Alternatives to the deadly “What do you do?” by Troy Anderson on Slate.