Spice Up the Conversation by Skipping "What Do You Do?"

A few years ago I sat down to dinner with a new acquaintance while I was visiting Sweden. But the conversation was unlike any other first encounter I'd ever had, and it has changed the nature of "cocktail chat" for me ever since. (See also: 7 Ways to Be the Life of Every Party)

I'm not sure what inspired me. Maybe I subliminally knew she was a kindred spirit, or maybe I sensed she was dreading the standard roll call of questions people ask when getting to know each other...starting almost inevitably with:

So, what do you do?

I read her pursed lips and took a chance. As she unfolded her napkin and prepared her "elevator speech" describing what she does for a living, I instead opened the conversation with a question that stopped her in her tracks:

What excites you?

She blinked and looked at me for a while. With each passing moment, I increasingly feared something was lost in translation or I had trodden on culturally sensitive ground.

Then her face relaxed and she smiled widely. "Nobody has asked me that before!" she said as she then considered how to answer it.

Career and Identity

In an ideal world, we love what we do for a living — and it creates part of our identity. We spend a large portion of our waking lives working at our careers, so it should stand to reason. This is why an easy opening question often surrounds career.

But for many people, careers represent little more than conduits to income, and their true identity and passion comes from their activities outside of work.

So why not open the conversation with a question that allows somebody to talk about something exciting; something that makes them bubble over with enthusiasm — and which can ultimately lead to new frontiers of conversation?

The Spicy Question

You may wish to choose a different question than "what excites you" (which in some scenarios could even be construed as suggestive).

But choose a spicy question or two to have in your coffers for your next meet-and-greet situation; it will surely lead to an interesting exchange. Keep your question open-ended — it's important not to pry. Instead, focus on something that can be answered in many different ways.

Some ideas:

  • What's the most important thing to you in life?
  • If you had all the money in the world, what is the first thing you would do?
  • What has been your greatest adventure in life so far?
  • What have you always wanted to do but haven't had a chance to yet?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and do or change anything, what would it be?
  • Where in the world have you always wanted to visit?
  • What's the number one item on your bucket list?
  • What are you happiest about right now?

The point of a spicy question isn't to shock your conversation partner (although often it will surprise them since it's not a "standard" opening question). The idea is to encourage somebody to reveal a passion, dream, experience, or story that they're excited to talk about — which in turn, leads to deeper connections, or at the very least, a conversation you'll both remember.

Once you've asked your question, listen to the answer. According to networking principles, what your conversation partner says will lead you to the next question, as long as you're attentive and open-minded.

What's your best "spicy question"?

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Guest's picture

Yes, I ask people "what do you like to do?" instead of "what do you do". Much better to get them to open up.

Guest's picture

Yes, I don't like the "what do you do" question either because it's one of those questions that is innocently insensitive. I've had many friends be asked that question while they were unemployed and be slightly embarrased while answering. I also agree that the correlation between someone's job and who they are doesn't always match up; just because you're an accountant doesn't mean you're boring (for example).

Guest's picture

Spicy questions:

What if money was no object, what would you do with your life?
Are you holding onto something that you need to let go of?
What impact do you want to leave on the world?
Why do you matter?
Other than money, what else have you gained from your current job?
What's the #1 thing you intend to accomplish before you die?

Guest's picture
Emily Nagle

I love movies but instead of asking what they're favorite movie is, I ask what the last movie they watched was. Or the last book they read. Sometimes the answer is "embarrassing" (even the biggest film buffs watch dumb movies now and again) which is great! it breaks the ice, gets us into a conversation that can go anywhere, and it builds trust because they get to reveal something about themselves.

Guest's picture

The approach is delightful; many of the suggested questions first will being puzzlement and then thoughtful and memorable responses. Having been in situations where I was often meeting new people, I began asking, "Tell me your life history in 25 words or less." That too yielded interesting and enjoyable replies. These several additional questions will expand the concept and pleasure greatly. However, may I urge you to expect to answer your own question. -- hwf

Guest's picture

Usually the "What do you enjoy doing?" works best for me when talking to someone new, but a good one at things like job fairs can be something along the lines of "So give me your spiel." It sets you apart from the crowd by challenging them to make an impression, but it will let the person making the pitch freshen up since they have probably made the same speech 5 times over in the last 10 minutes.

Guest's picture

Good one. I like the ideas. "what do you do" is boring and predictable. My favorite is "What is your dream?" or "Where do you see yourself in 5 - 10 years?" The conversation takes an interesting turn from there and gets quite exciting

Thanks Nora

Guest's picture

Great suggestions for the "spicy" question. I really like how you used "spicy" there too. I received a package from Omaha Steaks as a gift the other day and inside were 5 conversation cards with questions very similar to your "spicy" question. I thought it was a great idea. My roommate had invited a friend over that I had never met before and while my roommate was cutting his hair, I found the cards in the box, opened them up and started asking questions. It worked out quite well.

Guest's picture

Urgh! What do you do is just an inappropriate question sometimes> what oyu have suggested here are great opening questions so not to start an awkward situation.

Guest's picture

I had a classmate in business school who would ask "What gets you up in the morning?" instead of "What do you do?" He found it to be more all-encompassing and would often get people talking about their family instead of work.

Great post!

Guest's picture

"what do you DO?" in USA is translated in Europe to "what do YOU do..?" and is considered rather invasive, and not polite. With many out of work there (unemployment at around 25% or more) and getting that way here- it's can be an unkind cut to ask such a question. I've never, ever thought to ask a person what they do, it makes me feel as if I am sizing them up. I don't know why or when this habit started, but it's none of anyone's business.

Guest's picture

It’s a bit flippant, but I often ask "What's your deal?" People usually interpret that as an opportunity to tell me about whatever they are most interested in at the moment. It confuses people sometimes, of course, but adventurous people typically step right up to an open-ended question like that.