How To Talk To Strangers At Parties

“What do you do?”

Oh god how I hate that question.

Before I was a yoga teacher I was a housewife.

Before I was a housewife I worked in college admissions.

Before college admissions I was a grad student.

Before college and grad school I worked at Sears.

None of those titles described me in any way whatsoever.

They didn’t describe who I was, what I liked, what I thought about, what made me happy, what made me feel creative—nothing.

They were bullshit titles that made it easy for other people to peg me in the social hierarchy. That question was nothing but an attempt at one-upmanship.

Or so I thought.

(Spoiler: I was wrong.)

My answer to the what do you do question told the other person nothing about me except what I did (or didn’t do) for money. And in our society, what you do for money is your social identity.

At least sometimes.

Or mostly.

Or maybe never.

In our new wrecked economy, hardly anybody is what they do for money anymore, so if you answer the what do you do question with your job title, you tell the asker nothing.

“I work in IT.”  (Blank look.)

“I work in sales.” (Blank look.)

“I’m a nurse.” (Vision of needles.)

“I’m a teacher.” (Vision of blackboard.)

It’s a profoundly dumb question.

A better question would be: “What kind of projects do you work on?” Or, “Are you working on any interesting projects at the moment?

That’s a much better question.

It gives the other person a choice about whether to tell you about a project at work, or about the wooden kayak they’re building in their basement.

It steers the conversation into non-judgmental waters. It says, “I assume you are a person with passionate interests. Tell me something about what you’re doing.”

I remember getting so inwardly defensive and squirmy  when I had to tell people I was a stay-at-home mom I wouldn’t even go to parties. Especially if I knew there would be professors or lawyers or doctors there.  I imagined them meeting me and thinking: Oh great, a woman with strong opinions about vacuums and Little League.

But I realize now that all people are ever really trying to do is find common ground with other people, not judge them.

All they want to know is, Do you feel as socially awkward as I do in this moment? And if so, could you possibly rescue me, give me some little crumb, something, anything, to talk to you about so I can escape this social awkwardness?

The more accurate translation of the What do you do question is: Can you give me a little window into your life so I can see if we have anything in common? Not, Are you worthy of my time and attention?

So if you reframe the whole crappy, What do you do question like that, the whole game changes.

Try saying: “I run marathons.” Or, “I stand on my head.” Or, “I build 5 mile long spreadsheets.” Or, “I scan scalps for headlice.”

Be witty and charming and self-effacing. You can then end-run the whole social hierarchy game, play on your terms, and have some fun.

You can be a human being. A human being with an interesting life, a project, and a martini.

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