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.”

It puts people on the spot and makes them feel judged. 

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.

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