The ‘What do you do?’ meme shows the perils of small talk

Inevitably, at parties, in the office, or in first introductions over coffee, you will come upon the dreaded phrase of networking we resort to when we cannot think of anything more interesting to ask someone we meet for the first time: “What do you do?”

It’s a phrase that took a new life on Twitter as people reminisced about how the idea of their job description does not always align with strangers’ ideas of what they do:

Some poked fun at how the question seeks to tie your value to your job:

Asking ‘What do you do?’ can backfire and come off as rude

The meme reminds us that asking the question of “What do you do?” in an opening conversation with a stranger can be a risky gambit. It can come off as rude since its placement at the beginning of a conversation assumes that what you do is the most important part of who you are.

The conversation that follows a “What do you do?” can also be a minefield. That’s because we can be creatures filled with self-inflated importance who all believe our job is uniquely difficult. Whenever you speculate and try to relate to an unfamiliar job, it can backfire when you try to explain the job on your own terms, instead of theirs.

Most people, who recognize that we are all awkward in different situations, will be forgiving of your attempts to relate to their job with what you know. For people who will be more touchy about it, Postlight co-founder Paul Ford has good advice on how to make the other person feel important when you have nothing to say about their job:

“When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause because I know that I can push a conversation through,” Ford writes. “Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: ‘Wow. That sounds hard.’ ”