Ask This Question for a More Insightful Conversation

I was in the bathroom during a friend’s birthday party. It was one of those bathroom trips where you go to linger. The truth was, I stayed in there to avoid that question: “What do you do?” At the time, I was doing freelance work in digital media for a TV personality in DC. I didn’t live in DC, he was a relationship coach, and it all seemed like too much to explain to someone who wasn’t familiar with the industry.

I was envious of my friends with easy answers like engineer or medical school student because there was a universal understanding of what people in those professions did. I loathed explaining my work to people who were asking more out of politeness than interest. And ultimately, I saw it as a transition job, which was a weird thing to share, so I rarely did.

identity capital

The Benefit of Identity Capital

The one commonality I came to realize among the easy-to-explain and hard-to-explain job descriptions was one thing: Boring, limiting answers often tell you little to nothing about the person other then where they went to spend their day. This question was sometimes alienating or uncomfortable (especially for my unemployed friends) and almost never told me what was unique or interesting about the person.

It honestly made me frustrated because I have teacher friends who are SNL-level hilarious. I have accountant friends who should be running the UN with the amount of knowledge and passion they have about world affairs. I have law school student friends who have very specific interests about the kind of law they are studying, which says something wonderful about the type of person they are. That’s what I want to hear about and never could seem to get to in a conversation.

So why aren’t we asking the questions that tell us interesting things about people? I couldn’t seem to find the answer, so I settled for the consolation prize of trying to avoid it…until I heard Meg Jay’s TED talk.

Dr. Jay talks about the concept of identity capital, the things we do or skills we build that, over time, create who we are. These could be items on a resume, like a teaching certification or a degree, but they can also be skills like glassblowing or writing a blog about a topic you enjoy. These are things you choose because of your interests, and they say something about the type of person you are.

After watching this talk, I had a new mission: Find a way to ask people about their identity capital. The solution was simple. In fact, I simply added two words in the question I so dreaded.

Now instead of asking, “What do you do?” I would ask, “What do you like to do?”

The question was normal enough to not solicit a head tilt, but open enough to give the person an opportunity to answer with a piece of identity capital they wanted to discuss.

So next time you’re making small talk, ask a question that inspires passion, not predictability.

Kate Gremillion is the founder of Mavenly + Co, a community of young women having honest conversations about college, career and life and helping them create a lifestyle by their own design.

Image via Cape Cod Collegiate.

18 Responses to Ask This Question for a More Insightful Conversation

  1. I love this! I, too, have always dreaded the question “what do you do?” I’m not what I do for a living and I have lots of diverse interests. Now that I write and blog full-time, I inevitably get a look like “don’t worry, you’ll find a real job soon.” Thanks for reframing the age-old dreaded question into something more user friendly!

  2. Love this! I’ve always disliked that question (Aside from being rude, I think it’s pretentious.) and love your suggestion instead.

  3. Bree says:

    Loved that TED Talk. It’s one of my favorites to recommend to young adults like myself.

  4. Great question…because I think many are more passionate about what they love than what they do. I could watch Ted Talks all day if I had time!

  5. Sami Mast says:

    Love this post, I dread the “What do you do/want to do?” question! I feel like I never have a good or quick answer and it’s just so irritating!


  6. Annaliese says:

    I feel like I can relate to this since a lot of people don’t seem to understand my post-grad plans… but I love the concept of identity capital that’s presented here!

    xoxo A

  7. Amanda says:

    I suck at small talk so asking someone what they like to do instead of what they do is a great idea! I find it difficult to explain my job to people because it’s so boring and meaningless and I feel like it’s a transitional job as well. Great post!


  8. Lindsey says:

    I think what do you like to do is such a better question!

  9. Such a great post! I think we can all relate to the struggle of answering the “what do you do?” question. xx Merisa | Monogrammed Magnolias

  10. Felice says:

    This is so true. Adding an extra element to such a question definitely is the perfect conversation starter. You not only make a new friend but you also find out find out little things about them you would have never thought to ask. Great post xx ❤️

  11. Lauren says:

    I love changing it from what do you do to what do you like to do? It really is great and it’s SUCH a better conversation!
    The Fashionista’s Diary

  12. Michaela says:

    such a great one!

  13. Amy says:

    Love this! I always dread going home and getting asked what I plan on doing on my life when I am so lost!
    Amy | Pastel N Pink

  14. Mndyi says:

    I’ve never thought about this! My career and my friends are all pretty universal – marketing, accounting, nurses.. I never thought about this experience! Xoxo Mindy

  15. Cat says:

    You bring up such a good point! This goes beyond the topic of “what do you do” as a career, but how oftentimes people care more about status as an identity as opposed to the actual individual. I’m bookmarking the TED talk for later.

    Class Meets Couture

  16. Sara Kate says:

    OMG such a great post! Even though I love what I do, I come to hate talking about it. It can be so exhausting and the fact that I feel like what I do defines me has become a point of frustration. Loved this post!

    Sara Kate Styling

  17. Tiffani says:

    I love love love this. I never ask people where they work, I always ask what they enjoy. It’s so easy to get lost in labeling ourselves with our jobs or what position we’re in right now, that we forget to have an identity.

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