“So, what do you do?” How often have you been asked that? How often have you asked someone? I know I have been asked more times than I care to remember and have posed the question at least as often. It’s a conversational gambit that’s reliable and routine, offering the other person to tell you almost anything. But of course, that’s not the way most people see it and so we answer with what our job is, causing often entertaining and thought-provoking results, as Emile Hirsch’s blog for the Huffington Post demonstrates. His example of somebody taking offense at the question, believing it to be demeaning to reduce a person to their job, is certainly interesting, but the real gold can be found in the comments section. It demonstrates perfectly why the simple question “What do you do?” is so problematic.
Hirsch is writing about social situations, though, and certainly the problems he’s describing are not the same when you are at a conference and meeting someone who may just turn into a potential business acquaintance. In these networking situations, after all, knowing what the other person’s job entails is actually the first thing on your mind. But does that make the dreaded question any more appealing?
James Adonis argues in the Sydney Morning Herald that it is basically an invitation for people to start on their elevator pitch. A well rehearsed little speech that will rattle off all the talking points about who they are, why they are there and what they are looking for, but will tell you absolutely nothing about them.
Besides, it’s an invitation to ignore people. If the answer is not what you are looking for, you are just going to politely disengage and move on to the next target. But that’s not what networking is about. Networking is about building relationships, even if there is no obvious benefit visible from the start. If you are going to ignore all the people at the conference who don’t have extensive experience in Russian mining operations’ law, you will not have many conversations, even if an expert on that particular topic is just what you are looking for. But can you be certain that our hypothetical specialist will include that in their elevator pitch? Maybe they’ll rather stress their knowledge of logging operations in South America and so you disengage before you have a chance to get to know them.
Networking means getting to know people and that can’t be accomplished through one simple question. So our advice is obvious: talk to people without a clear agenda. Find out a few things about them and especially why they are at the event. And yes, obviously, at some point you will want to know what their job is and whether your business is going to get anything out of this relationship you’ve been carefully fostering. And at that point, simply pick a different phrase – if they haven’t already volunteered a lot more information than their elevator pitch ever contained.