The Lamest Question

Picture this: you’re at a professional event, and you meet someone new. You extend your hand and introduce yourself. Next, you likely utter the lamest question known to man: what do you do?

Sound familiar? Don’t feel bad. The smart ass in me always wants to offer a reply like, “I help unicorns make magic” or “I run a luxury refuge for stray Siamese cats. We’re up to 4,000 residents. Let me show you all of their pictures!”

The question, “What do you do?” is a standard part of any introduction. But, it’s always struck me as lazy and a little rude. First, it’s so commonplace that it doesn’t make you a memorable conversationalist. Second, it’s no secret that many people mistake vocation for worth. Your job title and company become a proxy for how much money you make. Even worse, the person posing the question is often only doing it to tell you what he does. And, then you get to listen to him drone on about himself.

The point of networking is to make meaningful connections with people so you can achieve great things together. And, intuitively, we all know that there’s much more to someone than a job title. We just have to ask the right questions to learn more and build a foundation for connecting.

Salaam Coleman Smith, former President of Style Network, once gave me a great piece of career advice. She told me that, more than anything else, the ability to make people feel at ease determines career success. It’s a building block for fostering trust. Once you become an executive, your skill set and ability to do the nuts and bolts of the job is a given. But, the ability to make people feel at ease is a game changer.

As part of my attempt to make people feel at ease, I ask people high quality questions when I first meet them. These typically tell me something substantive about the person, and they give us both a springboard for more meaningful interaction. I often like to pose questions about family and hobbies because people tend to care about those things most. Don’t get me wrong: occupation will often come up in the course of the conversation. But, it’s an organic part of the exchange and not the opening shot.

The next time you’re at a professional event, consider some of the following alternatives to the standard “what do you do?” question:

  1. How long have you been coming to [insert event name]?
  2. Are you enjoying the event so far? What did you think of the keynote speaker?
  3. Are you based here in [insert city name]? Are you a native? If not, where are you from?
  4. Do you have kids? This can spawn a million follow-up questions.
  5. Are you married? How long have you been married? How did you and your spouse meet?
  6. Seasonal questions are good ones. In the summer, you might ask, “Have you taken any amazing summer vacations?” If its close to a holiday, you might ask, “Do you have any special holiday plans?”

The next time you’re tempted to ask the lamest question, think about how unimportant job titles are in the grand scheme of life. I know it sounds extreme, but imagine how you want your tombstone to read. I don’t know about you, but “Denise Conroy, President & CEO” just doesn’t cut it for me.

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