“So, what do you do for a living?” That’s probably the most common question people use to open a conversation and make small talk.
It’s almost expected, as if we have to get that out the way in order to gain a proper understanding of that person.
Now sometimes we may enjoy telling others what we do, and we can relate information about ourselves with passion. It can be exciting to meet someone new.
However, other times we might meet a series of different people one after another at church, or at a party or some other networking event. They might each ask you the same question. After a while, it can begin to feel like you’re simply reliving Groundhog Day or that you’re taking part in a speed dating event. Because it’s such a standard question, you can become detached from the conversation. You could easily be playing a tape recording.
It’s not necessarily that you don’t like to talk about what you do. However, in this short space of time you’re expected to recount your life story to a total stranger whom you may not even speak to again. Or if you do speak to them again, it may be weeks or months until you do cross paths a second time. By that point, they’ll probably ask you the same question again: “so, what do you do?”
Our deepest desire is to connect with others. In one sense, we’d like to skip the small talk and make big talk.
Unfortunately, when we ask and answer this same question over and over, it’s hard to explain with the same enthusiasm we had with a previous person. It can eventually become a chore. If the other person senses our lack of enthusiasm, they can become bored too. As a result, there is no connection. The conversation remains completely on the surface instead of finding out what the other person really cares about or who they really are as a person.
There must be a better way both of dealing with this inevitable situation so that you don’t become disengaged, or discussing something different instead as a first question.
Below are 10 questions we could ask instead for better connection.
However, before giving you these alternatives, read on for why it doesn’t help us when we focus on what we do.
The problem of focusing on what you do
In the 2005 superhero movie Batman Begins, there’s a scene early on in the film where Katie Holmes’s character Rachel Dawes sees Bruce Wayne acting like an irresponsible playboy. Bruce tries to tell her it’s not who he is underneath. However, she responds that it doesn’t matter. It’s not who he is underneath, but what he does that defines him. Towards the end, when Batman is about to embark on a dangerous mission, Rachel asks him to tell her his real name. Cryptically, he references her earlier line saying: “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” At that point, she realises he is Bruce Wayne.
Unfortunately, many of us adopt this same way of thinking. When we focus too much on what we or others do, we can end up subscribing to this view as well. Our job can become the thing that defines us and gives us our sense of identity.
If we lose our jobs or are no longer able to do the things that gave us our identity, we can end up feeling at a loss. We may experience feelings of worthlessness or shame because we feel we are no longer important in the world’s eyes.
Try asking someone unemployed or homeless what they do for a living. Or see what it is like if you’re in that position. The conversation will probably be rather awkward.
What we do isn’t always who we are. In fact, it might not be indicative at all of the person we are underneath.
However, when we have to keep recounting to others what our job description is and saying this spiel over and over again, this is reinforcing in our minds that this is who we are. It also reinforces that this is what makes us important in the eyes of other people.
Asking others what they do can also lead to a comparison game. It can sometimes be a way of trying to eye up the other person’s social status to see where they fit and how we should treat them accordingly. If we think someone is higher or at least on the same standing as us on the social ladder, we might treat them with more respect and believe they are worth our time.
On the other hand, if we think their job or social status is not anything important, we can look down on them. We might be more dismissive and won’t give them the time of day.
Check out my post here on how to avoid the comparison trap.
Finding our identity in Christ
Acknowledgement and validation of our work is something we naturally desire. We want to feel special, loved and for others to see us as worthy in their eyes – not simply a nobody of no value whom others easily overlook. We think that these things we desire give our lives meaning and define who we are.
However, it’s not about what we do or who we are, but whose we are. Our value and importance comes by virtue of us belonging to Jesus and our identity in Christ.
In Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavour, he writes that “if you make any work the purpose of your life—even if that work is church ministry—you create an idol that rivals God.”
“In Psalm 65, verses 9–10 and Psalm 104, verse 30 we find God cultivating the ground by watering it through rain showers, and, through his Holy Spirit, “renewing the face of the ground.” However, in John 16, verses 8–11, the Holy Spirit is said to convict and convince people of sin and God’s judgment—which is something a preacher does. So here we have God’s Spirit both gardening and preaching the gospel. Both are God’s work. How can we say one kind of work is high and noble and the other low and debasing.”
“No everyday work lacks the dignity of being patterned after God’s own work, yet no business megadeal or public policy initiative is so lofty that it can transcend God’s patterns and limitations for work.”
We may not be in as prestigious a job as someone else, or we have less than our friends. However, our job is not a reflection of our true worth. Our worth comes from Jesus and who He says we are in Him. On the other hand, if we are better off than someone else, knowing that everyone is made in the image of God will prevent our egos inflating with pride.
Now, you’ve read this far. Great. It was important to understand why focusing on what we do is problematic.
But how can we ask better questions? I’ve brainstormed a few ideas and tried to narrow them down to 10 suggestions below:
10 QUESTIONS TO ASK FOR MORE MEANINGFUL CONVERSATIONS
Try asking some of the following questions to generate more meaningful conversation. You can use these whether you’re at a party, or at church, or even to stimulate conversation when you’re trying to elicit deeper responses. Here are 10 suggestions:
1. “What kinds of things are you passionate about?”
This helps us focus on the things that really matter to us. What we do for a living may not be the thing that really interests us. We may simply take a job to make ends meet. However, it may not be related at all to our passions or interests.
2. “What would you like to do before you die?”
Now this could sound somewhat ominous if you simply blurt out the question like that. However, what we’re talking about here is our hopes, dreams and life goals. But it can also include our bucket lists. It’s a great way to open up about what really matters deep down, as well as your successes and struggles in the area. This is related to #3 below.
3. “Do you have a dream? If so, have you managed to realise your dream yet?”
Many of us have hopes and dreams that we would like to see fulfilled. In some cases, some people have managed to see these become a reality. It’s fascinating to find out how they did it and how that changed them. For others, it seems to still be almost a fantasy. Talking about our dreams for our lives can help us talk about the things that truly matter to us.
4. “What things are important to you?”/ “What gives your life meaning?”
This is similar to what kinds of things are you passionate about. However, it’s slightly different. It’s not merely about your interests or hobbies. The things that are important to us may not be something we do for a pastime. It may be important for us to have a hope fulfilled or to feel a sense of security about something. It also helps us see what others place as the most important thing in their lives and what they treasure.
When we discover what gives someone else’s life meaning, we can also find out how they would feel if this thing were taken away. Would they feel their life were now meaningless? Are they seeking their happiness in the right place?
See also #5 and #10 below, both of which are related.
5. “What makes you happy?”/ “What makes you unhappy?”
Here, we can find out more about a person’s likes or dislikes. What brings a smile to their face? What puts a dampener on their mood? We can discover the source of someone’s happiness and whether they need this particular thing in order to be happy. It’s related also to #3 above.
6. “What have you been thinking about recently?”
This is more open ended. It can help draw people out who have had a lot on their mind, or have been contemplating a different path. Sometimes we only talk about what we’ve been doing. That doesn’t necessarily reflect what we’ve been thinking about inside.
We may not have been doing a lot in a particular week, at least in terms of what the world would consider to be exciting or worthy of reporting. If so, does that mean we have nothing to talk about? On the other hand, we may have been thinking about a lot of different things even if we haven’t been anywhere interesting. Sharing our thoughts shifts the focus off listing our accomplishments for the week and off comparing our social life with others.
7. “What is a defining moment of your life?”
This kind of question helps us know a person better. The obvious follow up question would be “why was that a defining moment in your life?” We can find out how it changed them as a person and set them on the path to where they are now. Or perhaps, we can uncover something that proved to be a blockage and defined them negatively. By discussing these things, we can help them analyse this and see how they can move forward.
8. “How did you come to faith in Christ?”/ “How did you become a Christian?”
For Christians, this is a good way of helping others understand our faith journey. We can talk about who we were before and the person we’ve become. Of course, for some people, their testimonies may not always be as dramatic as others. But it can still help to open up about more meaningful conversations.
9. “What has God been doing in your life recently?”
This can help shift the focus off ourselves and onto God. Sometimes we can become self absorbed or too introspective. We can also focus on the negative and how we feel that God may not be working in our lives. When we ask others this question, it forces them to dig deeper and examine their own personal journey. Maybe someone is going through a tough time, but we can help encourage them that God is the author and perfecter of our faith. He is constantly working to make us more Christ like and to develop our character.
10. “Have you received any answers to prayers or have any gone unanswered?”
This is connected with #9 above. God may have answered our prayers with blessings where we’ve seen a positive outcome. In other areas, we may feel that we’re still to experience a breakthrough. When prayers go unanswered, we can lose hope. Asking something like this can help us engage in a more meaningful discussion and break through the superficiality.
Although asking people “what do you do?” might seem like a necessary part of small talk when making introductions, it isn’t always the best way of connecting with others.
We don’t absolutely have to know what someone else does in order to respect or value them. Some of the above suggestions may help us know them better as a person.
>>> For a way to ask better questions in general, whatever situation you’re in, check out my post on Bloom’s taxonomy and how we can apply it to elicit more meaningful responses. The article is about using Bloom to jump-start your Bible study discussions, but you can use the same principle for any other context.
Do you find it boring when someone asks you this ritual question? Or do you find it boring asking people that question yourself?
What other questions could you ask people to connect more easily and on a deeper level? Do let me know some of the strategies you’ve tried and whether they’ve been successful or not.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.