Don't get me wrong: I'm all about networking and personal marketing. I can flip the charm switch and work a room so well that Bill Clinton would give me a pat on the back. No one thinks twice in Washington D.C. about taking all of six seconds to ask strangers what they do for a living. We crave that instant knowledge to determine whether someone can be helpful to us in advancing our careers or accomplishing other goals.
I wasn't up for popping that question at a recent networking event with the DC PR Flacks meetup.com group. (I love meetup.com and highly recommend the site to everyone. And do join PR Flacks if you're in my trade -- they're good people.) I decided to make the effort to get to know just a few people well instead of a room full at surface level.
That's when it hit me: Sometimes, you just have to take a break from "What do you do?" and ask something more pertinent, more real. I promptly made a new friend and brought the issue up with her after several people walked up and asked us our names -- following it up with the vocation question before we could even get our names out. New friend and I spent some time debating the right question we should ask people and the kind of answer we should pivot to when the next person asked us about our jobs.
"The next time someone asks us what we do," I suggested, "let's not respond in a way that includes our jobs. And then let's put a different question back to them."
All kinds of possibilities entered my mind for potential answers to the jobs query.
"I do as many things as possible that I'm passionate about like mentoring young people, teaching people how to write better, and learning about American history." Other potential answers? "I play tennis as much as possible and as hard as possible to achieve a zen-like state of tranquility," I might say. Or "I travel to minor league baseball games to watch the drama of young players trying to make it to the next level." I could even reach back to two-decade mantra from Thoreau: "I suck the marrow out of life so that I don't look back when I'm older and realize I had not lived."
Despite my preparation, no one else came up to me or my friend that evening. Probably a good thing, too, as we couldn't quite find the exact words for the question we wanted to ask people.
Naturally, it hit me the next morning when I wasn't trying to think about it. Keep it simple. Ask "So, what are you about as a human being?" or "What are your passions in life?"
I can't wait to see the expression on strangers' faces when I drop that question. Regardless of the answers, I bet it leads to more meaningful conversation and opens the doors to friendship ... something that could be a lot more beneficial than a business card.