We’ve all been there. That friend’s party or a networking event where you suddenly find yourself standing in a group of strangers and no-one is talking. The tumbleweed is on standby at the edge of the room, ready to roll in and make the awkwardness all the more apparent, as you wrack your brain for a good ice-breaker to avoid the uncomfortable silence. And before you know it, that gaping void of conversation has been filled with a line more classic than a Rolls-Royce. Those four words that ask “What do you do?”

It’s not the poor quality of the chat that annoys me about this question. It’s the way we all answer it by instantly giving a rather awkward description of our job. But that’s only what we do from 9-5 (ok, so more like 8-7 for most), it is not what we do as a person. It’s what pays us so we can do the rest of our life. So why, oh why, when asked this question, do we not share what we do with the rest of our time? 

Scenario 1:

Joe (tumbleweed on standby): So, what do you do?
Janice: Oh I work in marketing for an electronics company. Social media, direct mail, that kind of thing. And what do you do?
Joe: I’m a teacher. Science and humanities. For a school in Kentish Town.
(Tumbleweed rudely rolls between Joe and Janice as conversation returns to the weather.) 

But how about scenario 2:

Joe (tumbleweed on standby): So, what do you do?
Janice: I do a lot of yoga, Vinyasa Flow mainly, and I’m trying out that Mind Calm Meditation at the moment to help me switch off after work. I also just signed up to Borrow my Doggy so I’m often found walking little Jester on Hampstead Heath.
Joe: Ah cool, what type of dog is Jester?……….

And off Joe and Janice go, at some point coming back to what Joe does, potentially discussing where they work, but more importantly having a really interesting conversation about the actual person they are engaging with.

Wouldn’t networking be so much more fun (read as ‘something you’d dread a lot less’) if we all answered the “What do you do?” question as it was intended? 

And it’s not just to ease the small talk that I care so much about this. It’s what it does to our relationship with ourselves when we define who we are by what we do at work.

What you do to earn a living is not who you are. Sure it contributes to it, but it’s not what makes you you. If we define ourselves by a single movable thing such as our job, who do we become if that role is no longer needed in the company? If we define ourselves by things that are not in our control, external factors will always control how happy, satisfied and fulfilled we are. Why would we choose to give the remote control to our happiness to someone else? If we start to define ourselves by what drives us, our variety of interests, our thoughts and values, not only are we much more interesting, but we don’t run the risk of losing our identity when an external factor changes.

So, next time a ‘Joe’ kick starts the small talk with “So, what do you do?” take a moment to think about what you do in life that makes you you, and how you contribute to the world. You’ll both feel better for it, and the tumbleweed will just need to find another dull conversation to be a part of.