Small talk will never not be awkward, because to get to know someone you have to ask some fraught questions. Some questions should stay off-limits, but it's almost always fair game to ask, "So what do you do for a living?" Still, answering it can be a pain in the arse.
"I'm in marketing." (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Maybe the last thing you want to talk about is your crappy job. Maybe your job is complicated and you can't easily explain it. Maybe, like me, you go into therapy mode and start unloading all your emotional hang-ups about your career. To avoid these traps, try Fast Company's tips on engagingly describing what you do:
- Find something relatable: Explain your job the way the average person might come into contact with it. "You know how cereal box tops have simpler slots that don't rip? My company invented those." "If you're in a deadly car accident and it's the car company's fault, I decide whether to issue a recall."
- Skip the nitty-gritty details: Don't list off your résumé or dump all your career worries. This is especially important for freelancers or entrepreneurs, who might feel required to account for all their income streams. The other person doesn't want time sheets, they want a jumping off point for a pleasant conversation. Pick what you're feeling the best about, whether or not it makes any money, and talk about that.
- Show instead of tell: If you can carry around an example of what you do, go for it. But unless you're at a networking event, don't turn this into a pitch.
These tips hit home for the Lifehacker team. Writing careers are non-linear and involve a lot of aspirations and concessions, so writers often over-explain or self-deprecate. This can be awkward for the other person, who might feel obligated to prop up your ego or talk you through a personal crisis. In any line of work, speak confidently about what you do. No one's out to get you with this question.
But do tailor your answer to your audience. My Lifehacker colleagues choose the title "blogger" or "journalist" depending on how much they're ready to get grilled about the lamestream media. There's always a way to play your job up or down, without excessive bragging or self-flagellation.
My favourite answer to "What do you do?" comes from the father of a childhood friend: "I provide products and services." He would reveal nothing more. It was a lot more memorable than whatever desk job the guy probably had.