“So What Do You Do?”

When meeting people for the first time, one of the questions that comes up inevitably in the first few crucial moments is some version of, “So what do you do?” The question is really an abbreviation for, “What’s your job or career title?”, and if you don’t provide the name of the employer, that may be the next question to be asked.

So given that so many of us ask the question, my question is, “Why?” I mean what is it that causes us to ask people whom we’ve just met, how they occupy their time and derive a living from that? The question of what we are doing is really connected of course to the income we derive which in turn indicates how we support ourselves financially. Make no mistake about it.

Imagine for example you overheard a conversation where someone asked, “So what do you do?” and the reply you heard was, “Oh I love to garden, take in the football matches and watch the sun go down on the back deck each night with a warm drink in one hand and my spouses hand in my other.” Well that might be all well and good and carry the conversation for the next few minutes, but something interesting would occur shortly after. “But seriously, what do you do? – I mean career wise.”

It’s as if the initial answer wasn’t taken as a serious response; was the person avoiding answering the question? Technically of course they weren’t; they answered the question in the way they wished. If the person doing the asking wanted a specific answer respective of an occupation, then the question should have been formed to ask, “So, what’s your job title?” Doesn’t that seem unnatural and perhaps a little invasive?

We all, “do” many things. We shop, dress, eat, read, rest, relax, laugh, cry and thousands of other things. But when we are asked, “So what do you do?” there is this implied understanding that the question really be poised is about occupations.

Okay so that being the case, why is this of interest to us when we meet someone new? At the root of it I suspect is a desire to assign some kind of value to the person based on our own value of the work they perform. If you think a Cashier is a rather non-noteworthy position, then meeting a person who is a Cashier may cause you to place the person into a category based on your own value system. Meet a Photographer, and you might then say you’d like to see their work – and why? Because once you’ve seen the quality of their work and their preferences for subject matter, you then assign some kind of appreciation (high or low) for not only the quality of their work, but the quality of the person.

Now is this fair? No. You may suppose that clothing models are superficial, self-indulgent and perhaps not all that intelligent. Were you to actually meet one and have a conversation of any length to get to know the person behind the runway model, you might find yourself correcting your initial assumption. And it works the other way doesn’t it? You might revere a person with what you think is a job of great prestige and engage them in conversation only to find them evasive, unsure, boorish and shallow.

Still, when we meet people, we start a process of gathering information and clues that collectively permit us to form opinions based on our own experiences. The more information we gather, the more our opinions become formed on real data rather than guesswork and suppositions. We gather information on how people dress, their posture, their smile (or lack thereof), where they live, who they know, what car they drive, their environmental consciousness, their income level, so why not the jobs they hold?

Young and old do this. Suppose you were given a list of occupations held by people in a large room without being able to first enter the room and look around. Who would you like to meet and have a conversation with based on nothing more than knowing their occupation. Are you equally anticipating a chat with a housewife and a rock musician? Without knowing either or seeing either, you’re own upbringing and personal view of each may lead you to prefer one over the other. And if it were a small business owner and an Accountant, would you care? Maybe and maybe not.

For you personally, whether you are employed, unemployed or underemployed, think carefully then about your personal response to the question, “So what do you do?” What impression do you want to make initially on others? Even if you are out of work, would you answer the question, “I’m unemployed”, or would you come back with, “Carpenter by trade specializing in historical restoration work.” Which of the two responses might generate interest in the person who asked to want to know more about you?

Here’s the best thing about the question, “So what do you do?” YOU get full control over what first comes out of your mouth and the confidence or lack of pride which your body language will communicate in answering. Do yourself a huge favour and spend some time carefully crafting a good answer. Then practice so it comes across the way you want it delivered.

Is It Possible You Don’t Know How To Shake Hands?

Different cultures have different practices for greeting one another upon meeting, and I acknowledge that right up. Whether or not YOU are from a culture that practices this handshaking tradition or not, what is critical in job searching and work life, is that you engage in the practice if the handshake is predominately accepted by the organization and the culture of the community you are working in.

No doubt you would do your homework and learn how to welcome an important person if they were from another country visiting your workplace, or if traveling to their country, you would brief yourself on how to greet and return greetings. Why? Well to show respect for the other person and their traditions of course. This is good manners. You’d hardly say, “Hello Liz” if you were meeting the Queen of England, and you’d be cautioned never to actually touch her either which would be cause for scandal.

So back to the handshake itself and then we’ll look at when to use it. The acceptable practice is to extend your hand and grasp the other person’s hand so the area between your thumb and pointing finger is fully engaged with the same area in the other person’s hand. This communicates and is interpreted as being fully engaged, having nothing to hide and being confident. However, a surprising number of people do variations of this which are interpreted differently.

One style of handshake is to only lightly grasp the other persons fingers from their knuckles to the tips of their fingers. This is not only awkward for the other person who is caught off guard, but it communicates reluctance, lack of confidence, caution, even trepidation. Bottom line is a lack of trust. And almost always the message also passed along is that you’d really rather not shake hands at all. Well, it’s not about you. It’s about the relationship between the two of you and you’re off to a poor start. Even if your reasons are that you don’t want to contaminate yourself with germs, do it anyway and sanitize yourself later away from their view entirely.

The other extreme some go to is the overpowering grip that seems to be a test of who has the stronger grip and can get the other person to winch first. This is a poorly thought out handshake, because instead of conveying power, it conveys a lack of sensitivity to the other person. That crushing handshake can get things off to a poor start if the other person has arthritis, or possibly some other medical situation not immediately obvious. The only thing worse is to violently shake your whole arm at the same time forcing the other persons arm to also be wrung up and down. You’re now bordering on physical abuse!

So why shake hands at all? Well I’ve been told that the practice goes back a long time to when people would meet strangers and people were less trusting. So when you’d meet, you’d want to show the other person you had no concealed weapons, and those you carried on your person weren’t in your hands. As long as they weren’t in your hands, the other person would relax a bit and show you the same in return. The showing of hands progressed to the clasping of hands, and the tradition of shaking hands upon meeting has continued.

Now to who to shake hands with. So let’s say you walk in to a reception area to drop off a resume, or perhaps to announce your arrival to a Receptionist for an interview. Should you shake hands with the Receptionist or not? After all, they won’t be making a decision to interview you or hire you. The answer is that you should. If you walk up, say hello and introduce yourself by name while you smile and extend your hand in a friendly handshake, you’re off to a good start. And just before you leave the building, it’s also wise to repeat the handshake with a, “It was nice meeting you and I hope to see you again.”

You see what you’re really doing is exhibiting good manners, and good manners never go out of style. Keep in mind that beyond just being good manners, you will perhaps be contacting that Receptionist to either get through to the interviewer in a week or so, or you might get information from them as to what they can pass along about the company, the hiring process etc. Why not be memorable and in a good way with that person?

It’s also wise to go through the same introductory process with those that greet you to welcome you to the actual interview, whether it’s a single person or a panel of interviewers. This process shows everyone your confidence and polished manners. And again, there’s more going on here for you. For one thing, your actions slow things down just by a few seconds which in turn gives your brain a chance to connect with each person. And if you are worried that someone on the panel or the lone interviewer might be unfriendly or even distant, it’s harder for them to be this way if you are genuinely friendly and well-mannered.

What would happen if you extended your hand in greeting and it wasn’t returned? Keep smiling, withdraw your hand, and don’t force it. Rather than judge the person as being rude, just assume they haven’t the opportunity to read this blog!