You know that asking someone what he or she does for a living is a surefire conversation starter. Unlike commiserating over the weather or complimenting someone on her necklace, So, what do you do? lends itself to follow-up questions that can keep a conversation going.
That is, of course, when both people are gainfully employed.
Responding to this common question can feel uncomfortable if youve recently quit or lost your job, and your response begins, Well I used to or, Well Im looking But theres no reason you should have to feel bad or give an awkward answer. Come prepared with a stellar response, and youll impress new professional and social contacts with your poise in light of an (unintentionally) tough question.
See below for three ways to gracefully answer, What do you do? (no matter what youre really thinking).
Youre Thinking: I lost my job, and I dont want to talk about this.
Say: Im transitioningand what do you do?
Sometimes youre unemployed, and you really dont want to talk about it. Maybe you recently got laid off, you left a bad situation, or youre reconciling with passing up a great opportunity for personal reasons.
Intuitively, you may think a quick response (e.g., My department was downsized) signals that youve answered that question and are ready to change topics. However, your new acquaintance maywith truly the best of intentionskeep asking you questions in an attempt to avoid callously moving right along.
But Im transitioning has a never complain, never explain air about itthere isnt enough information for your contact to ask a follow-up question. Moreover, immediately adding, and what do you do? is a way of passing back the talking stick: Your turn is over, and its time for your new contact to discuss his or her career.
Youre Thinking: Im actively looking for a job in my fieldknow anyone?
Say: Ive been an interior designer, both corporate and residential, for the past 10 years.
When you first meet a great new contact, it can be tempting to immediately let him or her know youre job-huntingor even ask straight-out for connections or job leads. For many people, even if theyre incredibly shy about making such a bold ask of their networks, theyre not as concerned with someone new, because there is no fear associated with offending him or her.
First, this thinking is totally backwardyou should be leaning on your established contacts! Second, you don't want your first interaction (read: impression) to revolve around asking for a favor. Rather, your goal should be to genuinely connect with your new contact, because thats the first step to building a professional relationship.
The best move here is to answer the question by referencing your field of work. This way you can highlight your experience and showcase your awesomenesswhich is still there regardless of whether youre working for a specific company. (Bonus: To keep with the flow of conversation, a new contact will often naturally respond with an indication of how connected he or she is to that fieldWhat is SEO? Im still clueless about the web! versus You know, my cousin works in event planning too!)
Youre Thinking: I need a jobbut I have no idea what Im looking for.
Say: I love media and working with people, and Im looking for something thatll help me do both of those things.
While you might think saying, Im open to anything, makes you look flexible, its actually too much for a new contact to process. First, hes not going to connect you to every single person he knows. Second, it can make you look unfocused or like you havent really thought your career through. Third, it can take the conversation off-track (or end it altogether).
Instead, always answer with something that frames your searchbe it lab research, social impact, working with others, working independently, whatever. It will dramatically increase the odds of your new acquaintance suggesting something for which you might be a fitand at the very least, spur a much more interesting talk.
When youre unemployed, discussing your current professional situation with new people can be tough. But remember, What do you do? is meant as an innocuous way to get to know someone better. So dont let it get you down, and do choose a smart answer from above: It might just help you gain a great new contactand job opportunity.