I have a confession to make.  I’m an introvert. Most people don’t believe me when I say that—partly because they misunderstand what an introvert is and partly because they see me as social and open. But the truth is, I’m an introvert, and one of my least favorite things is going to a cocktail party with a bunch of strangers or (gasp) a networking event. I usually find myself off in the back corner or by the food table, and I speak to maybe one or two new people.  

I think one of the reasons I hate those things is because the first question that people ask is, “What do you do?”  And automatically, I’m turned off. This question irritates me to no end because at the core, this question implies that the most interesting thing about me is my job.  And I can assure you that while I like my job, there are so many more interesting things that are worth talking about. And I’ll bet that although you like your job, there are probably other, more interesting things you’d like to talk about, too!

This actually caused a bit of a kerfuffle with a friend of mine while we were both living in Hong Kong.  She had been raised to be a professional networker, and she is constantly linking people from one part of the world to another part of the world.  It is one of the loveliest things about her. And often she makes those connections based on professional criteria and backgrounds. Whenever I attended events with her, she would introduce me to someone and share two or three bullet points from my professional resume.  It would go like this:

  • Her: This is my friend, Robin. She is the head of a large consumer goods company here and previously lived in Argentina while she worked in consumer goods and telecom. She is also a professor!
  • Them: Oh wow that’s very interesting. Please tell me more about consumer goods and your fancy job and what you think about manufacturing in China.
  • Me: (Ugh it’s Thursday night. I thought this was a social event. I don’t want to talk about work. Can I please escape from here?). Well … what I’ve found in my experiences with manufacturing is … bla bla bla bla bla. I wanna go home now.

I actually had a conversation with her and asked her to stop introducing me with bullet points from my resume.  She said, “OK so how do you want me to introduce you?” And I froze. I had no idea. It is so common for people in our culture (and in the business industry in general) to be achievement-focused that I didn’t even know what else she could say. I was so used to being introduced based on my job and company that it took me a while to think differently about how someone could introduce me. Should she introduce me as her friend who likes to write? Her friend who doesn’t want to talk about work?  Her friend who likes airplanes? Her friend who would rather have the other person talk about themselves? It was really awkward.  

Finally we settled on, “This is my friend Robin. She is really into art and design and learning about different cultures.” And I can’t even tell you how much more interesting and enjoyable the conversations were from there! Instead of focusing on accomplishments and achievements, we talked about things that are REALLY interesting in this world.  

This interaction reinforced how much we define ourselves and others by our accomplishments in the US, the UK, Hong Kong, and in business in general.  It also made me realize how much meeting new people in Latin America was NOT focused on achievements and accomplishments. Even with business associates. Conversations there always quickly turned to things other than work. Questions and comments about current events, politics, the economy, and personal matters were always more prevalent than the standard, “So what do you do?” conversation.

To draw this point out even more clearly, I remember being on vacation in Uruguay one year.  I was in a beach house with people from Argentina and from the US. Someone from the US mentioned that I had a PhD and one of my Argentine friends said, “You have a PhD?!?!?!” Now … this was a dear friend whom I had known for 4 or 5 years. We were close enough that we’d rented a beach house together with our friends for two weeks. This was not some random dude. And I was so proud that he didn’t know I had a PhD. It had never come up. It wasn’t important. And to be honest, with my Latin American friends, I don’t actually really know what they all do for work and they don’t really know what I do. We are friends, and we know each other in more meaningful ways.  

Recently, there was an article in the New York Times by Adam Grant that said we shouldn’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up because it frames their worth around their profession and work rather than around other qualities. This resonated with me and I realized it was related to my negative reaction to the “What Do You Do?”question.  

So in an effort to shift from an achievement-focused conversation when meeting new people, I’m trying to figure out a different question to ask. Right now, I’m asking people, “What’s capturing your interest these days?” It’s catching people off guard but then leading to conversations about fly fishing, art exhibits, a lantern parade, the Red Sox, and the Northern Lights. Which is way better than hearing about work. At least to me.  

I encourage you to figure out something else to ask people as well. While it’s great to talk about accomplishments and achievements and those should be celebrated, we should also remember to celebrate, recognize, and acknowledge the wider range of interests and contributions of one another. We are more than just our work!