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What Do You Do?

Submitted by Katie on October 6, 2010 – 3:34 amComments

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Flight- TheDreamSkyI recently heard on This American Life a story about a man who did “research” on whether people would rather have the ability to fly or to be invisible. I fell in love with the story. I fell in love not because of all its greater implications and commentary on human nature, but because of the way this man conducted his research. He would basically meet a stranger, say hello, and then ask the question—“Flight or invisibility?” Just like that.

The first question most of us ask upon meeting a new person is, “What do you do?” At least, that is what the people I’m meeting ask. I imagine there are still places where strangers ask, “What do you grow?” or “How was your harvest?” There are ethnic groups that ask, “Who are your grandparents?” or  “Who are your people?” In certain countries strangers greet by asking, “Where are you going?” or “Where are you coming from?”

I like all of them better than our standard, “What do you do?” In fact, I hate this question. Yes, admittedly my distaste for it is slightly (!) related to my current state of joblessness, but I hate asking it of others as well. It tells me so little about who the new person is and how they may or may not come to matter in my life. I’ve looked for alternatives, but have yet to discover any that avoid utter social awkwardness.

I guess I’m just not as daring as the flight vs. invisibility guy. Or in greater need of new friends.

Maybe my real issue isn’t with the question, but with the limited list of acceptable answers.

What do you do?

(Photo courtesy of TheDreamSky via Flickr)

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  • Anastasia Savvina

    I love this! I always feel like a tool asking this question, but out of habit, it just slips out seamlessly. Lately, I've been editing this to say "What are you working on?" to allow more open-endedness and I've gotten more interesting responses that way.

  • Barb

    I really like this post. I, too, heard the story but would never have made the transition to how to greet strangers. Let us know when you think of an alternative.

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