I love the little traditions that develop organically at Buffer. One of them is to welcome each new teammate with a long email chain of happiness that begins with that person’s introduction.

More often that not, the introduction has a certain ratio:

  • 1 part what this person will do for Buffer and has done for work in the past
  • 2 parts who this person is in the world—a mom, a breakdancer, an ex-Marine

I love this 1:2 ratio because it speaks to a simple truth we strive to recognize as a team: We are more than our jobs. 

As much as we may love working, it can’t be the thing that defines us fully.

At Buffer, we’ve been focused lately on bringing our “whole selves” to work—our passions and strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities, hobbies and pet projects.

This can be quite contrary to the way most businesses are run, where you might be expected to check your personal life at the door. And it’s led to some extraordinary insights and closeness.

There’s more to life than ‘What do you do?’

And yet, I haven’t quite been able to take this knowledge to heart in my interactions with others.

I’m a bit of an introvert in social situations, and my natural instinct when I meet new people is that old fallback, “What do you do?”

I’ve long had an inkling that this question doesn’t always create the best environment to really get to know someone, and Geekwire explains a few reasons why:

  • It’s understood as “What do you do for a living?” and ranks paycheck activities above all others in the get-to-know-you hierarchy.
  • It assumes permanence and stability when our economy and values pave choppier paths.
  • It pins your identity to a job instead of pinning a job to your bigger, evolving identity.
  • It loads the resume, an automatic output given time and time again.
  • The person may not have a job at the moment, which is awkward to explain in this context.
  • The person may not care about what they do for a living. But they have to tell you anyway.

One way to break out of the mold and have more authentic conversations might be to prime ourselves with lots of alternatives to The Question.

Here are quite a few—some are only minor deviations from “What do you do?” while others spin off in an entirely new direction.

The key, according to Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, authors of What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss, is to ask an open-ended question. Their advice?

“Aim for questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers.”

27 alternatives to ‘What do you do?’

  1. What are you most passionate about?
  2. What do you like to do?
  3. What’s the best thing that happened to you today?
  4. What are you most excited about right now?
  5. What are you working on?
  6. If money were no object, what would you do with your life?
  7. What do you do for fun?
  8. What’s something you’re really into right now?
  9. What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you lately?
  10. How do you feel your life has worked out so far?
  11. What was the best part of your week/weekend?
  12. What did you want to be when you grew up?
  13. What are you looking forward to right now?
  14. What’s the last picture you took on your phone?
  15. What is your favorite thing to spend money on?
  16. What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about you?
  17. What habit or improvement are you working on?
  18. What cheers you up?
  19. What’s your favorite word?
  20. What cause are you passionate about?
  21. What’s on your mind lately?
  22. What personal habit are you proudest of?
  23. How do you spend your days?
  24. What problem do you wish you could solve?
  25. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?
  26. What’s your favorite emoji?
  27. Whom in the world would you most like to share a meal with?

27 questions

I’m looking forward to giving all 27 of these a try. Here’s to better, deeper, more fulfilling conversations!

What questions do you like to ask as an alternative (or addition) to “What do you do?” I’d love to add your choice to our list!

Oh, and for even more tips on winning friends and communicating with ease, check out:

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Sam

    Does an applicant have to be an over the top extrovert to work at buffer? Seems like a super friendly company but have thought a few times it looks almost off putting with the in your face approach. Is it more laid back than it seems? Or do you just not hire introverts?

    • Hi Sam, great question! I’d say that Buffer is a great mix of introverts and extroverts (myself being one of the former). Our CEO, Joel, identifies as an introvert, and I think that goes a long way towards making introverts feel they have a space at Buffer. I think our Happiness Heroes, who are the most customer-facing, might tend to be a bit more extroverted. Perhaps that might be what’s giving that overall impression? Definitely one for us to reflect on!

  • LOVE this! My favorite is probably “What’s something you’re really into right now?” I think that life comes with so many ebs and flows, sometimes understanding what makes someone tick right now can help you understand them! My husband and I have been super into kayaking lately, and I have drawn so many connections between what I feel, think and do on the water and how I want to function “in the office.” I completely agree, bringing your “whole self” into the workplace allows you to pull from extracurricular experience to push boundaries and innovate.

    • I like this one a lot, too; Ashley! Feels like it would be pretty easy and natural to ask and could start some cool conversations! The connection between kayaking and the office sounds like a really cool topic to dig into; I’d love to hear your insights!

      • Definitely easy to ask, and it doesn’t sound too formal or awkward. Ah, I’m not sure if you want to get me started on kayaking, but what I will say is that on our first kayaking trip in our new kayaks, we accidentally put into the “lake” on the wrong side of the dam..meaning we were in the river. Embarrassingly enough, we didn’t notice we were in the river until we tried to kayak back upstream through some slight rapids—you can probably see where this is going. Though we were unprepared, a bit scared and slightly cold/uncomfortable, the experience caused us to push past everything we “knew” and work towards thinking outside of the box for a solution. We were forced to use our resources creatively, call for help (!) and communicate clearly. Three things that are easy to neglect when faced with tough scenarios at work! Overall a great learning + growing experience!

        • WHOA! What a cool story and experience! That’s an amazing thing to have gone through and learned about yourself. :)

  • Clara G

    I love these questions! For some time, I have felt caged when people ask me “What do you do?” as I cannot really answer it in a simple sentence and I get the feeling that the person who asked starts getting impatient as I keep explaining. And really, “what I do” is very likely a mix of the answers to these 27 questions. I love the fact that what I do cannot be summarized in a sentence. And really, the cherry on top is “How do you feel your life was worked out so far?” – when I get asked that I realize once more how happy I am with the paths my life is taking me on, even if they are different than what I envisioned a decade or two ago :)

    • How wonderful to hear this insight, Clara! Love that you keyed in on “How do you feel your life was worked out so far?” and the gratitude it brings you; so inspiring! I find that jobs are getting harder to describe, especially in tech! :)

  • Love this! As someone who has a paying job that I don’t consider my passion or life’s work, I hate this question (I want to talk about the nonprofit I founded, not the one that pays the bills :-)). Great alternative questions. I like #20 (What cause are you passionate about?) and going to work that into my ever-awkward-introvert-small-talk.

    • Sounds like a great goal; I’d love to hear how it goes!

  • Patrick Sawler

    Another great article. We are not defined by how we make our money but by who we are as a person. Can my answer to #19 be Chocolate?

    • I think that’s a fine answer! And thanks so much for the encouragement; I really appreciate it!

  • Chris Jones

    One I’m partial to is “what’s one problem you are working on solving right now?” It’s almost impossible not to get a great answer to that question.

    As a recently post-employment jack-of-many-trades, I despise “what do you do” as a question. “Breathe, in and out,” is a stock answer, but deeply unsatisfying for both of us. All of these are far better.

    • Oooh, that’s a fantastic one, Chris! Thanks so much for adding to our list!

  • Shantelle McDonald

    This is a great list! I’ve always liked asking people what they like best about the season we’re in at the time because it’s easy to be negative in the moment (like last week when the temperature was dropping below zero) but thinking about what there is to be excited about puts a positive spin on the circumstances. It also opens up potential for conversation about seasonal hobbies or holiday plans!

    • Awesome one; love this addition to the list, Shantelle!

      • Paul Tucker

        Taking a mental queue from my poorly asked “what did you do this weekend” small talk that I posed to one of my direct reports this morning, I later asked him, “so what did you get to invest your time in this weekend? Anywhere interesting?” Wow! What a difference! He told me about his kid, his wife, three different self improvement/training tasks he’s working on, and some of his personal interests! What fun! I need to work on this more, but it was rewarding to have an immediate change right off the bat! 😀

        • WHOA! That’s absolutely astounding to hear; thank you so much for sharing that experience, Paul! Sooo excited to try this out now!

  • Paul Tucker

    This list is so good! I must confess that it’s also a bit scary. Why? Because I know generally what to expect when I ask someone “what do you do?” It’s safe. It’s easy. It’s not too personal, and for a person who’s a bit of an introvert, not-too-personal seems to be my default setting for most introductions.

    These questions cut right through that though and ensure I’m making real conversation that connects directly to the person’s desires, passions, and interests! I’m looking forward to trying it! And yes, I will try it… in spite of myself. :)

    • I agree, Paul; I think it could feel a bit out of my comfort zone to ask some of these as well! I really identify with everything you’ve shared here; vulnerability is something I’m really working on lately. I’d love to hear how this goes for you, and I’ll report back as well. “)

  • I like these, but folks are so used to the other question that they are more likely to hem and haw at “What are you passionate about?” then to smile and exclaim “Jelly Donuts!” or something like that. I like “What are you looking forward to?” and “How do you spend your days?” as they are more in line with what people expect. As you get more personal, the rest of these could follow easily.

    • Great thoughts here, Josh; I’m looking forward to road-testing some of these and seeing how it goes!

      • I’ll be very interested to hear the results. It’s like Buffer is made of Humane Scientists and I love it!

        • Haha, I LOVE this description! <3

          • Wow, the capital LOVE, I’m on to something ;-)

            So, I would LOVE to work with you guys, like LOVE LOVE LOVE it, but I don’t have a solid idea about what I could bring to the table for you at the moment. What types skills or people are looking for specifically that might not be so easily categorized by a traditional position? I just don’t want to pitch people in the dark anymore, I want to know that I’m making a real difference with my marketing/publishing/programming skillz.

          • Hmm, that’s a good one! We often don’t know it until we see it when it comes to the more undefined roles. Maybe it could work to think of a particular (long-term) challenge you’d be interested in solving for us?

          • That’s an excellent answer and I’ll have to give that some thought. Perhaps something to do brand identity.

  • Ann Pohl

    I was just talking about this very topic this weekend! It’s all too easy in our culture to default to this question. It’s a very American thing to ask.

    I also really like asking people what their favorite color is. And then what shade: lime green, hunter green, etc. and why – I feel like it reveals a little of their personality. And then if you go to get them something like a card or a gift, you can pick out something in that color :)

    From this list my favorites are 4, 5, 6, 15, 16, & 22. Great post, Courtney! So many alternative/additional options.

    • Ah, cool; perfect timing! I agree; it does seem quite American. ;) Favorite color is a neat addition to the list; I’d love to try that one out!

  • This was a very fun thing to do for me. Thank you for this post today. I was able to gather my own thoughts and actually focus on a few aspects about my life :)

    • You’re welcome to share the incredible video here if you’d like! I was very inspired by it!

  • Here are my responses to 27 Questions to Ask Instead of “What Do You Do?”

    https://youtu.be/ZQniAUq_3es

  • This is such a cool post Courtney – I always feel so stuck on that question and yet it’s awkward to not ask it too sometimes. Asking “what’s the last good book you’ve read” as been my go-to previously. So keen to try out some of these!

    • Oooh, I love the good book question! That could open up a pretty great conversation!

  • Here are some things your piece made me think about, Courtney.

    Another reason to avoid asking someone what he or she does is work-life balance. If you’re at a purely social event, the other person is on downtime and might need a break from thinking about work. Even if she or he doesn’t mind talking about work, there needs to be a separation between work and social time sometimes for a person to refresh. Not everyone is good at doing that and might need help through a fun chat!

    A bonus: If you ask her or him a fun or intriguing question like those above, you’ll stand out for not asking the usual questions and maybe be a little more likely to make a a memorable connection or be viewed as a fun or interesting person worth chatting with.

    • These are awesome thoughts, Beth Ann; thank you so much for sharing them! I agree with both all the way!

      • Thanks, Courtney! Your post and our conversation makes me want to go further and ask if you’re familiar with the podcast Awesome Etiquette. Have you ever tried that one? I like it a lot. Two of Emily Post’s younger relatives discuss and answer questions about etiquette and social situations for our times. It’s informative and a lot of fun!

        • I haven’t; sounds like a great one to try! i’m woefully behind on my podcast listening!

  • Sylvia

    Great list :) Since I’m not sure I could pull off a smooth delivery, I think it may feel a bit unnatural to randomly interject some of the questions into an introduction as I’m getting to know someone. Does anyone have some good leading sentences?

  • I absolutely love this list! Especially “what’s your favorite word”? Because I’m a total word nerd who actually thinks about that question quite frequently. Haha.
    And the fact that Buffer is about the whole person and not just the professional person is one of my favorite things about you guys. Having worked jobs before where I genuinely have to separate work and life completely, the knowledge that I could one day have a job where it doesn’t have to be compartmentalized is super motivating!

    • Great choice, Sarah Anne; I think that one could be a lot of fun!

  • I love what I’ve seen coming from the Buffer team lately. It is so refreshing to see content that promotes individual creativity, meaningful relationships and insightful discussion. I’m a long time Buffer user and the story behind your values, ethos and the people at your company have made me not just a user, but a loyal brand advocate as well.

    I also often fall into the “what do you do” question rut, which in retrospect is counterintuitive because it remains one of my least favorite questions to answer, even though I like my job. I would much rather discuss recent travels, upcoming plans or a passion project I’m working on. Thanks for sharing.

    • Oh wow, Ty! Thanks so much for taking the time to send over such a kind note; it really means the world to me! Feeling very encouraged to keep going with these type posts. :) If you happen to try out one of these questions, I’d love to hear how it goes!

  • What do you do is the worst question ever! Ever since I read the 4 hour work week and someone asks me that I have to respond, “I am a drug dealer”. Thanks Tim Ferris. Thanks for these alternatives Courtney!

  • I like the question “What is your favorite word?”. Its so simple but it can be so telling!

  • Awesome alternatives to a question I’ve always been embarrassed to ask because of the direct “for a living” implication. These are perfect for awkward holiday party conversation starters!

  • Christina Fry Durta

    Just wanted to say thank you. I wrote a post that incorporated your image and talked about this subject http://nontraditionalcpa.com/people-or-business/

  • Absolutely love this list (just featured it here: http://thecornishlife.co.uk/friday-favourites-6/) BUT I have to say I feel like if I went round asking number 10 (How do you feel your life has worked out so far?) people would think I’m being a dick haha.

    Anna
    http://thecornishlife.co.uk

  • DeeAnn Cooper Kendrick

    Can’t wait to give some of these a try! I always seems to resort to sooooo what do you do?? I am honestly more interested in what drives someone and what their passions are. Here’s to more authentic conversations!

  • Simply awesome.

  • Dan Strickland

    One that I like a lot that’s get people talking comfortably about themselves is “what does your name mean”? Pretty soon you’re hearing about genealogy, family legends, how the name fits or doesn’t, yet it doesn’t feel like a personal question.

  • Great list! A speaker at a local networking group recommended we ask people we meet “why” they do what they do (not “what” they do) as it encourages them to tell a story. It also gets people to reveal their passions (which ties into your no. 1).

  • Susan Basterfield

    I also love this idea of this for circle check ins! Thanks Courtney you never cease to inspire :D

  • johnnie poole

    i have sheetrock in my home and somthing sticky is coming out of the walls .anyone know what it is