What can replace the “what do you do” question at a party?
You go to a party, there’s loud music, you recognize a few familiar faces, there’s a bit of hugging and “how are you doing”. You go to the bar, try to get the attention of the bartender, and pour you a drink. Soon, you’re standing alone, no one’s talking to you. A stranger comes up to you and says, “hi I’m —”, “what do you do?”.
The problem with the “what do you do” question is that it typically leads to a generic, status-driven answer, rather than a personal, authentic one.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a UX designer at Facebook. What do you do?”
“Oh cool. I am an analyst at Goldman.”
“What do you do” is a lazy question that gets a lazy response. It is impersonal, and says nothing about what you have observed about this person or the party. Also, it can put someone on the defensive – if they’re not working, figuring things out, or building something that’s in too larval a stage to be exposed to strangers yet.
What people do is very interesting to me. But the problem is that this question is asked too early, right after someone introduces themselves. So the response that’s expected is short, generic, and status-driven. The response to “what do you do” is rarely, “I hate my job and my boss” or “I am working on ways for decentralized communities to build internal economies – it’s this weird futuristic world and I love it.” (I immediately gravitate to people who respond like this.)
It’s like asking someone “how are you doing” right after you meet them. They are hesitant to say anything else besides “doing well” because it would feel like oversharing. Imagine saying, “I’m annoyed because my dog took a giant poop on my bed before I got here, which is why I came late to the party.” I’d find that interesting but “how are you doing” rarely creates the conditions for someone to respond like that.
In my previous job, we used to do intro calls with firms who pitched to us and I would take notes during these calls. I ended up making a spreadsheet that tracked all the times the weather was brought up. The columns were: date of the call, did we speak about the weather (Y or N), and if we spoke about the weather was it about the weather being good or bad (G or B). I had about a hundred entries and people spoke about the weather about 60% of the time and around 80% of those times they spoke about the weather being bad. If the weather didn’t suck today, they spoke about how the weather sucked last week or that the weather was going to suck next week. From being unbearably hot to sweaty to rainy to cold to windy, there were many options to choose from, and they never failed to deliver.
I’m not arguing that we eliminate small talk but that we improve it. “What do you do” is small talk so it has to be replaced with small talk. The next line after “hey I’m Shreyas” can’t be “what’s the most meaningful thing that’s happened to you”.
I asked this question on Twitter and got 566 responses. Clearly, it touched a nerve.
Two characteristics of the best responses are that they are specific and open-ended. Specific in the sense that they are made possible by the moment, show you have paid attention, and couldn’t have been said to anyone in any setting. Open-ended in the sense that they can eventually lead to more than a yes-no response.
Here are some ideas:
- Your shirt is cool
- What are you drinking?
- Do you like the music?
- This party sucks
- How do you know [this person]?
If you’re feeling risky:
- Who do you hate here?
- WHAT YEAR IS IT?
- Who is your lord and personal saviour?
- Do you have a boyfriend?
I like parties and genuinely value connection with strangers. But the type of small talk we engage in shows how afraid we are of connection. Connection requires courage – walking up to a stranger, asking an attentive question, giving a specific compliment.