Who Are You? instead of What Do You Do?

When I first meet someone one of the first questions I’ll ask is, "So what do you do?" Almost always I’ll get some generic response like, "I’m a software entrepreneur" or "I’m a teacher." I do the exact same thing when someone mistakes me for a 30-something and I’ll say "Oh, I’m just an entrepreneur and writer." Not very helpful. With only one question, I’m hesitant to dive into my full bio because that comes across as arrogant.

Umair Haque, in a recent parenthetical, said that only in the U.S. do you ask "what do you do?" as the first question at a mixer.

Maybe this is because in America we unfortunately value what someone is doing as much more important than who someone is.

Is there a better question to ask when meeting someone for the first time that will elicit a richer perspective on who they are? Obviously, in the virtual world, a personal blog does this magnificently!

14 Responses to Who Are You? instead of What Do You Do?

  1. Zoli Erdos says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but you don’t seriously say you get mistaken for a 30-something? :-)

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    All the time. More like a late 20′s person. When I’m in a suit I look older.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    I think more interesting questions are: What is important to you? What are you passionate about? What have you learned recently?

  4. Dossy says:

    The problem with the “who are you” question when meeting people in Real Life is that the answer is obvious: “I’m me.” You can see the person. That’s who they are. The questions you ask are to reveal the unobvious, not knowable answers just by looking at a person, such as, “What do you do?”

    Other unknowable answers have questions that tend to be taboo, such as, “How old are you?” or “What’s in your pants?” and “Are those *real*? *ogle*”

    “What do you do?” is a safe question.

    Other safe questions:

    - “How are you feeling?”
    - “How are you doing?”
    - “Where have you been lately?”

  5. Taylor says:

    sweet post. great insight. it really is about doing in the us. i wonder if/how our focus could change.

  6. My favorite stealth question for figuring out who someone really is is to ask them, “What music do you like?”

    It’s a little shallow to say so out loud, but you really can tell quite a bit about a person by finding out whether they prefer Mozart over Slayer, Nick Drake over Neil Diamond, or AC/DC over XTC. And if they say, “Music isn’t that important to me” or “Whatever’s on the radio,” that tells you things too.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Good thoughts Dossy. I agree with many of your “safe questions” but some of those are only appropriate for people you already know. I’m thinking about first-time encounters.

    Also, what do people in other countries say?

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Steve – right on about the music question! I actually think you asked me that once, and I said “all different kinds” – which is true. And that still says something, because in general I do a lot of different things, interested in a lot of different things, and thus it would follow that I like a lot of different kids of music.

  9. Tim Taylor says:

    It’s an interesting point. When someone asks me that, I will often tell them what I do and try to re-direct by saying “You know I bet there are a million things about you that are more interesting than my work.”

    Also, one night I met (alert, alert,name dropping…) Tyson Beckford (who is one handsome dude…) and he told me that he often tells people he’s a janitor or a mailman at first instead of a super model and actor. With me, it didn’t come out until a few hours after meeting him. I didn’t know he was a big star until someone actually told me and I “confronted” him.

  10. Dossy says:

    Ben: First time encounters? Usually, I start with “Hi, my name’s Dossy, what’s your name?” After that, the follow-on questions are all context-sensitive: If I’m meeting someone in a professional context, I’ll ask them “what do you do” or “what’s your job title” … if it’s a personal context, I’ll ask “so, who do we know in common” or “how do you know (mutual friend’s name)?”

    Yes, I’m also interested in hearing what the social protocol is in other countries. Considering we’re all humans, I have a feeling it’ll be very similar in goal (to identify a commonality between people) but different subjects will be taboo in different cultures.

  11. Rick Koelz says:

    Try, “Tell me about you.”

    The answer will tell you even more than the words do. Usually a person will start with what is important to them.

    I’ve found that men tend to go to the profession/career answer much more often than women.

  12. Tillerman says:

    I like to find out what we have in common, what connections we may have. So if it’s a party I may ask, “How do you know Jane and John?” or if we’re meeting at a sailing club it could be something like, “Why did you decide to join this club?”

    The point is to get them talking about something that will reveal something about themselves without being as intrusive as, “What do you do?”

    But then I’m English so my style is different from Americans.

  13. I love this one because, like many here, that’s what I’m trying to really get at when getting to know somebody.

    On a sidenote, you can really make the girls fall in love with you by asking the “Who are you… what makes you, you?” questions. lol, of course I don’t exploit this and am sincerly interested.

    The way you end up defining other people ultimately ends up defining you.

  14. Cara says:

    My favorite opening question: what do you enjoy doing?

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