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27 Questions to Ask Instead of “What Do You Do?”

3 min read Self-Improvement
Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter Director of People @ Buffer
27 Questions to Ask Instead of “What Do You Do?”

I love the little traditions that develop organically at Buffer. One of them is to welcome each new teammate with a long email chain of happiness that begins with that person’s introduction.

More often than not, the introduction has a certain ratio:

  • 1 part what this person will do for Buffer and has done for work in the past
  • 2 parts who this person is in the world—a mom, a breakdancer, an ex-Marine

I love this 1:2 ratio because it speaks to a simple truth we strive to recognize as a team: We are more than our jobs.

As much as we may love working, it can’t be the thing that defines us fully.

At Buffer, we’ve been focused lately on bringing our “whole selves” to work—our passions and strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities, hobbies and pet projects.

This can be quite contrary to the way most businesses are run, where you might be expected to check your personal life at the door. And it’s led to some extraordinary insights and closeness.

There’s more to life than ‘What do you do?’

And yet, I haven’t quite been able to take this knowledge to heart in my interactions with others.

I’m a bit of an introvert in social situations, and my natural instinct when I meet new people is that old fallback, “What do you do?”

I’ve long had an inkling that this question doesn’t always create the best environment to really get to know someone, and Geekwire explains a few reasons why:

  • It’s understood as “What do you do for a living?” and ranks paycheck activities above all others in the get-to-know-you hierarchy.
  • It assumes permanence and stability when our economy and values pave choppier paths.
  • It pins your identity to a job instead of pinning a job to your bigger, evolving identity.
  • It loads the resume, an automatic output given time and time again.
  • The person may not have a job at the moment, which is awkward to explain in this context.
  • The person may not care about what they do for a living. But they have to tell you anyway.

One way to break out of the mold and have more authentic conversations might be to prime ourselves with lots of alternatives to The Question.

Here are quite a few—some are only minor deviations from “What do you do?” while others spin off in an entirely new direction.

The key, according to Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, authors of What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss, is to ask an open-ended question. Their advice?

“Aim for questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers.”

27 alternatives to ‘What do you do?’

  1. What are you most passionate about?
  2. What do you like to do?
  3. What’s the best thing that happened to you today?
  4. What are you most excited about right now?
  5. What are you working on?
  6. If money were no object, what would you do with your life?
  7. What do you do for fun?
  8. What’s something you’re really into right now?
  9. What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you lately?
  10. How do you feel your life has worked out so far?
  11. What was the best part of your week/weekend?
  12. What did you want to be when you grew up?
  13. What are you looking forward to right now?
  14. What’s the last picture you took on your phone?
  15. What is your favorite thing to spend money on?
  16. What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about you?
  17. What habit or improvement are you working on?
  18. What cheers you up?
  19. What’s your favorite word?
  20. What cause are you passionate about?
  21. What’s on your mind lately?
  22. What personal habit are you proudest of?
  23. How do you spend your days?
  24. What problem do you wish you could solve?
  25. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?
  26. What’s your favorite emoji?
  27. Whom in the world would you most like to share a meal with?

I’m looking forward to giving all 27 of these a try. Here’s to better, deeper, more fulfilling conversations!

What questions do you like to ask as an alternative (or addition) to “What do you do?” I’d love to add your choice to our list!

Oh, and for even more tips on winning friends and communicating with ease, check out:

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