The Worst Question Ever

I go to a lot of receptions and social functions and there is always at least one person who will ask the worst question that I believe you can ever ask someone…

Sometimes I make a game of it. I try to guess how long I will be there before someone asks it or I will also formulate a completely mind-blowing, outrageous, shocking, and state-changing response which is guaranteed to stop that line of questioning and conversation dead-cold in its tracks for 30 seconds as the asker tries to get their thoughts straight again.

If you have not figured it out yet, the question that I am referring to is the old standard, boring, and unimaginative, “What do you do?”

Why do we try to understand and define people by their ‘doing’ in the world and what they do for a living? As a conversation opener, I don’t like this question because it seems to always rank a person and their worth solely based on what they “do.” It can and does create a weird power-dynamic or power-differential that can overshadow the entire conversation.

And that is why I no longer answer the question or play that conversation game as most would expect. At one holiday party a couple years ago I was standing in a kitchen with a group of people one doctor asked me what I did… without missing a beat I looked him straight in the eyes and declared, “I look good. That’s what I do.” Seriously, it took him 30 seconds at least for the gears and cogs in his brain to resync. But once his brain was back on-line, and he realized that he had been thrown a curve ball, he asked the question again, “No, really… what do you do?” I gave him credit for persistence, and proceeded to tell him but I took the long way around to give him the answer too.

But I have used other answers and different ones for different situations… One person at a party last spring asked me the question and not wanting to play her game, I just responded by saying, “Nothing… I do absolutely nothing.” Again, you can always see the brain jolted and the looks in their eyes by the unconventional answer they were not expecting. I have also gone as far as to answer by saying, “Well, today I DID the dishes.” I just love coming up with new answers to throw people off.

It isn’t that I want to be a jerk or difficult, but I want people to truly see the absurdity in that question and the almost rudeness that it takes to even ask it. And I have to admit, it is a challenge for me to consciously come up with original and relevant questions to ask someone when I first meet them and to not lead in with that old and tired question myself.

It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is who you are, and what you do is only a small part of who you are.

I want to know what makes a person tick more than I want to know how they earn a paycheck. Of course asking them eventually about their career is fine and part of getting to know someone new but I save that question for way later in the conversation.

Ask a person how their day is; ask them what they love to do, what they believe in, or what they are passionate about in life. I like to find out what causes they support and why. Ultimately, the question that I try to convey and get the answer to when I meet someone new is “What is your story?” Of course, that is an awkward way of asking it but you can ask other questions to get there like:

  • Where were you born?
  • Have you always lived here?
  • Where do you live now?
  • What makes you smile?
  • What is the most important life lesson you’ve learned ?
  • What is your deepest fear?
  • What is your greatest dream for your life?
  • Who are you?
  • What do you like to do? (Not what they do.)

Superficial dialogue about what we “do” and what we “own” doesn’t have to dominate our interactions when we meet new people. If you really want to get to know someone, express your sincere interest by asking questions about him or her on a more meaningful level. Let’s face it… really, most people’s jobs are not that exciting to them or to anyone else for that matter and the LAST thing most people want to talk about is their job. You can lean a lot more about a person for instance by asking them about their last vacation or the vacation they might planning on taking.

I challenge you the next time you are in a social setting and meeting new people to work a little harder at getting to know someone. Refuse to ask people the worst question ever, instead, ask them questions about things that genuinely interest you but also ones they will be interested in answering as well. If you do that, I can guarantee you will have more and more meaningful discussions the next time you are out socializing. And trust me… the person you are talking to will probably greatly appreciate it as well.

Andy Wooten M.A. Counseling – Certified Life Coach – Aspen, Colorado


  1. […] Don’t talk about the office. – Leave the office at the office today. Sometimes we get so caught up in talking about work all the time with everyone in our lives that we forget there are other things to talk about. Ask you friends and family how they are and genuinely listen. This is especially true if you are fortunate enough to be invited to a social event… don’t discuss work and don’t let your first interaction with a new acquaintance be, “so, what do you do?” […]

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