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Small business

So, what do you do?

May 4, 2012
What do you do? ... I'm an assassin.

What do you do? ... I'm an assassin. Photo: Andrew Quilty

Perhaps it was cool a long time ago – and maybe not even then – but today the “What do you do?” question conjures cringe-worthy memories of pushy self-promoters with tacky ‘elevator speeches’. According to research by the Business Networking Academy (BNA), 90 per cent of people ask it as their opening question upon meeting a new business acquaintance. 

“It’s a terrible question,” says Julia Palmer, the chief executive of BNA. “It puts people on the spot and makes them feel judged. The point of networking is to start a relationship – not to sell to someone on the spot.”

According to Palmer, it’s a question that often leads to awkwardness, primarily because people feel forced into replying in a way that sounds impressive. All the while, no one’s listening. They’re too busy figuring out what they’re going to say next, resulting in an endless cycle of dismissive answers. In other words, people don’t really care “what you do”. Not so soon, anyway.

She suggests it’s best to first establish some common ground. Then, after a few minutes, ask a question such as: “What brings you to this event?” And when the right time comes to enquire genuinely about someone’s profession, a better question is: “I’m curious to learn more about your work. What is your role?”

Palmer says the four words what-do-you-do cause “such panic in most people” that, even when it is appropriate to ask, it’s more engaging to use different language to set yourself apart from the sameness of everyone else.

In a Huffington Post article last week, one columnist chronicled the hissy fit his partner encountered when she innocently asked a stranger – with whom she’d already been communicating for a short period – what he did for a living. The guy was a waiter and a musician so, presumably, he felt he’d be perceived (and judged) as a typical wannabe muso had he told the truth.

The most enjoyable part of the article, as is the case with many blogs, was the comments section. Readers listed a slew of comebacks they use when confronting the what-do-you-do question. One of them replies by asking the questioner for their gender. Another always answers by saying “I’m an assassin”. 

The more sensible folk posed some alternatives to what-do-you-do, such as:

  • “What are you passionate about?”
  • “What do you like?”
  • “What would you like to do?”

Most likely as a defense mechanism, humans have developed the 30-second elevator speech primarily for this purpose. Some marketing experts even advocate a two-minute elevator speech, which undoubtedly would be four times as painful.

The problem with the elevator speech is that it’s really obvious when the monologue starts. It’s so craftily versed, and so perfectly rehearsed, that it tragically stands out from the casual tone with which most people speak.

Such is the prevalence of elevator speeches that even prestigious business schools like Harvard have established online tools that help people design their spiel. “You have one minute to say it all”, shouts their website, before listing a selection of suggested words to describe yourself, such as ‘dominant’, ‘finest’, ‘authoritative’, ‘premier’, and ‘pioneering’.

Various authors recommend a variety of responses to the what-do-you-do question. In Nonstop Networking, Andrea Nierenberg states your answer should evoke an “Oh, really – how do you do that?” response from the questioner. And in Make Your Contacts Count, Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon say your reply should include what you’re proud of, excited about, or working on.

But you know what? I think I’d rather just stay home.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

17 comments so far

  • Being young, educated, cultured, attractive and intelligent I delight in this question as it allows me to give my reply of, "oh, I'm retired" and watch the questioner flick through possibilities (Wealthy parents? Sugar Daddy? Favourite niece of rich old aunt who died recently? Wise investments?) Then I smile in a slightly smug, slightly bashful way and ask how they like to spend their leisure hours, which generally serves to remind them how few they have.

    It's a little cruel I know, but I do it as punishment for them asking that question.

    Commenter
    Lily
    Location
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 11:16AM
    • Well aren't we a smug little pain in the neck?

      Thankfully this is apparent from your answer to the question so you wouldn't be wasting anyone's time for long.

      Commenter
      Bob Knuckles
      Location
      Olinda
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 1:22PM
    • On the contrary, Mr Knuckles, once people hear about the volunteer work I do to keep myself busy they waste *my* time asking all sorts of questions about it.

      My attitude may be distasteful but it is brought on by the narrow thinking that one is defined by what one does to earn the money to live on.

      Commenter
      Lily
      Location
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 5:05PM
    • Lets face it, people only ask because they dont know how to otherwise start a conversation or if they need to pre judge. If im asked who are you and where are you from i say " John from Blacktown" and am proud of it.

      Commenter
      John Cranfield
      Location
      Blacktown
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 6:07PM
  • I think the elevator speech can have its uses - mainly to sharpen up thinking about the benefits your business offer.

    At business gatherings I think it is reasonable to expect this question. And it helps to be able to say how you might be able to help other people there crisply.

    But is is better to be clear and talk to the other person rather than reeling off a memorised spiel.

    Commenter
    Evan
    Location
    livingauthentically@gmail.com
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 12:06PM
  • Re "What do you do?" being "...a terrible question," says Julia Palmer, the chief executive of BNA. "It puts people on the spot and makes them feel judged."
    Many unemployed people live in fear of being asked "What do you do?" and may even avoid social events in dread that this question may be put to them. Fearing any honest answer to be shamefully embarrassing with their self-worth simultaneously judged inadequate. So much for social inclusion.

    Commenter
    Pete Dowe
    Location
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 12:37PM
  • If someone came up to me and asked me what I'm passionate about, I'd probably just laugh in their face.

    I don't really see what's wrong with being asked what you do, particularly in a work setting. Sure, it's a dull opener, but the job that someone has chosen often tells you something about them as a person, not just as an employee/businessperson.

    Commenter
    But...
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 12:38PM
  • You must live on a different planet.

    Men never ask me this question.

    Women always do, and universally, it is code for "how much money do you have" ?

    Commenter
    enno
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 1:49PM
  • I absolutely hate this question, not because I'm embarrassed about what I do, but because I'm not my job and the last thing I want to talk about in a social situation is freaking work.

    I also never - ever - ask anyone I meet this question, because I also figure they are not what they do and it's way more interesting to find out what they enjoy doing in their spare time.

    Unfortunately, most men - especially those in the MOST boring professions - can't wait to tell you what they do for a living and drone on about it.

    Commenter
    Patty
    Location
    plainplumpspinster.wordpress.com
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 3:09PM
  • Yep, the terrible lack of effort in coming up with a better question brings out the judgmentalness in me straight away.

    Commenter
    Serp
    Location
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 4:00PM

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