There’s a less painful way to make small talk than asking ‘What do you do?’

Some people find small talk excruciating, but it may be because they're asking the wrong questions.

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Some people find small talk excruciating, but it may be because they’re asking the wrong questions.
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Sellwell/Shutterstock

  • If making small talk is painfully awkward for you, it might be because you’re asking the wrong questions.
  • Although it’s a classic conversation starter, the question “What do you do?” can be too intimate of a question for some people.
  • A better version of the question is “What keeps you busy?”

Small talk may come naturally to some people, while others find it excruciating.

If you’re one of the people who find it difficult to make small talk at parties, it may be because you’re asking the wrong questions, experts told The New York Times.

For example, while the question “What do you do?” is a classic conversation starter, it may lead to an awkward moment if your conversation partner is unemployed or simply doesn’t want to talk about work.

Instead of “What do you do?” try asking “What keeps you busy?” etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning told The Times. That way, the question “applies to people whether or not they have traditional jobs, are stay-at-home-parents or are currently employed,” the Times wrote.

As it turns out, Post Senning considers work life one of the most intimate conversation topics, right up there with family, health, and finance. Slightly less intimate topics include religion, politics, dating, and love lives, while the safest tier of topics to discuss include sports, weather, pop culture, and “immediate shared experiences.”

Meanwhile, in other countries, the “what do you do?” question could even be taken as offensive.

In France, for example, “They will be offended, believing you’re trying to put them into a box,” culture writer Julie Barlow told Quartz in 2017. “And they just don’t think it’s interesting to work for a living. There are other things they’d much rather talk about.”

Asking “What do you do?” could even get you kicked out of certain small-talk-averse parties in Hong Kong, Business Insider’s Shana Lebowitz wrote.

But other than reframing the question, there are plenty of other strategies you can use to initiate meaningful conversations with strangers.

For one, it helps to ask your conversation partner open-ended questions, which prompt more detailed answers than yes-or-no questions. A question like “Did you have a good weekend?” will get a less thought-provoking response than “What was the best part of your weekend?”

Communication expert Yasmin Sara Merchant also recommends preparing a few conversation topics in advance related to the event, like “How do you know the host?” or “What is your connection to this event?”

“Ultimately, mastering the art of small talk will help you learn how to build relationships with people in both personal and professional settings,” Merchant wrote. “With good small talk skills, you can turn every conversation or networking event into an opportunity for success.”