Dear GGG, When you’re meeting someone for the first time at, say, a networking event, what’s the best way to ask them what line of work they’re in? I sometimes feel awkward, like I’m being rude by just coming out with “So what do you do?”– Lisa*, age 23, Atlanta
Hi Lisa! Great question. After an introduction and an outstretched hand, asking “What do you do?” or, if appropriate, “Who [i.e., What company] are you with?” are perfectly fine and get the job done as a polite conversation stimulus. You can also try something like “So, how do you fit in to this whole event?” or “What profession/field/industry are you in?,” though the latter option can be tricky if you’re at, say, a dinner party, and there may be spouses who are stay-at-home moms or dads.
If you’re doing the “asking”, be sure to keep it light and smiley. It’s true, sometimes people on the other side of the question feel defensive, and that’s sort of on them. One of the necessary evils of meeting new people is having a concise, one line “cocktail party” summation of what you do. If you’re not exactly in your dream job, or are un- or under-employed, the simple question “What do you do?” can feel prickly. A good comeback? Mention your general line of work and say you’ve been “consulting” or “exploring new opportunities” in XYZ.