As you pass the gravy around the table at Thanksgiving, you might become trapped in a conversation about work. “What do you do?” is the default question many of us ask when we want to connect with someone we don’t know well or haven’t seen in a while.
The question may seem neutral, but it has judgment built in. And if you are between jobs, having a hard time at work or at odds with your family over how you make a living, it can be an especially sensitive topic. “The assumption is that, whatever you answer me, I am going to then categorize you and interact with you in a way that is based on whatever your answer is,” said Cynthia Pong, the founder of Embrace Change, a coaching business that focuses on helping women of color to transition in their careers. She said the question can subscribe to the “very Western, American idea of work is your only identity and only value, and the only reason you are worth anything.“
When you say, “What do you do?” the conversation “almost becomes like networking,” said Debra Fine, a speaker and the author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” “I’m not at Thanksgiving to network. I’m there to learn, to get to know [people].”
You can think of better icebreakers and avoid getting roped into talking about work with some practiced redirection. Here’s how:
Don’t be afraid to assert that you don’t want to talk about work
If you get asked “What do you do?” redirect the question with new information for you and your conversation partner to talk about. That way, you lead where you want the conversation to go.
If you’ve been laid off and do not want to talk about it, for example, Fine suggests answering with, “Talking about what I do is just not in my toolbox today. What I would like to talk about today is movies...”
Having a topic to pivot to means investing energy in the conversation. “Come up with things to talk about so when somebody says, ‘How have you been?’ ‘What’s new?’ that you have other things to talk about besides work,” Fine said. “You decide what you are willing to disclose about yourself.”
When asked “What do you do?” you can also redirect with “Oh, you know, for fun, I like to do X. Or lately, I’ve really been into...” Pong said.
Holiday gatherings can be stressful for all kinds of reasons, so don’t feel bad for asserting a boundary and directly stating your need to not discuss work if someone gets pushy. “If that’s happening, I would say, ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’ Or if you have to, remove yourself from the conversation,” Pong said.
Don’t cave because then you will set a precedent that your boundaries are not firm. “It’s worse if you try to set a boundary and then don’t hold it right away, because then you’ve set a precedent that it’s not real and people are going to subconsciously register that, and keep trying to push your buttons,” Pong said.
Instead of asking “What do you do?” try these better icebreaker questions
If you’re on the other side of the table, so to speak, and you’re trying to ask some questions of your own, know that you can get to know someone during a holiday gathering without reducing their identity to what they do or don’t do.
Fine said it’s good to skip questions about work, marriage and schools that you don’t know the answer to. “Don’t ask questions that put people on the spot,” she said.
A better question to ask people during Thanksgiving is “What keeps you busy?” or “What’s new in your life?” Fine said. “There’s so much to talk about beyond what people do.”
Pong’s personal favorite alternative icebreaker is “So, what do you like to do for fun?” which is a question she also applies to networking situations. She calls it a cool way to “find out about people that you would not necessarily guess when they are in front of you.”
When in doubt, ask someone about themselves. We find ourselves to be a rewarding topic of conversation. One 2012 study found that people were willing to give up money if it meant they got to think and talk about themselves.
You can mentally prepare for how you will react to intrusive questions
You cannot necessarily control what others during the party will say to you, but you can control how you will react. Fine suggests not taking the “What do you do?” question personally, because people are “lousy conversationalists.”
If you do find yourself getting riled up by “How’s work?” and “What do you do?” take a moment to get some perspective and center yourself. Focused breaths and noticing your surroundings are known to help break your body’s fight-or-flight response. “It really helps, too, to have whatever physical or mental health practices you have, to keep doing those,” Pong said. “For me, I have a mindfulness practice and it’s really important that I do it. If I skip two days in a row, then every little thing starts to stress me out more.”
Preparing for this or other unwanted questions not only means having a fun fact about yourself you are ready to disclose. It can also mean calling in reinforcements.
Pong said that ahead of a Thanksgiving gathering, ask someone at the party to be your ally for these unwanted questions. “They can either be around and be your wing person, or they can answer the question and steer the conversation away from you, or they can come and grab you away, ‘I really need so-and-so for something right now,’ and be your escape plan,’” she said.