5 Questions to Ask Instead of ‘What Do You Do?’

Dating apps are not widely known for promoting social graces. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by my awkward interactions with a potential suitor. I swiped right on a jet-setting, IPA-drinking bro, and he opened the conversation by asking me what I was doing with my life. I explained that I’m a writer, student, and caregiver for my mother. He responded: “Ah, so no career yet?” And then proceeded to boast about his lack of work-life balance, as a self-proclaimed workaholic who works at least 50-60 hours per week.

When I didn’t respond to his self-important musings, he messaged me to apologize if his first comment came off as “judgy.” I agreed that the comment was indeed judgmental and attempted to explain that I’m on a different path because I’m caring for my mother who was diagnosed with dementia earlier this year. The conversation ended there. His loss.

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This exchange is a perfect example of why it’s important for people to see one another as more than titles or job positions. In a career-obsessed world, we can feel pressured to define ourselves by what we do instead of who we are. Whether you’re looking for love or trying to make a memorable impression while networking, here are five questions you can ask other than “What do you do?”

1. What passions are you pursuing?

I’ve known I wanted to help people since I was a little girl. I’m passionate about everything from volunteering with church youth groups to giving directions to tourists in downtown Atlanta. My passion to help others is a much better representation of who I am than my former job at a scratch-off lottery ticket factory. The next time you’re at a backyard barbecue with friends, try asking people what they’re passionate about. You may get some really interesting responses that reveal a little more about what motivates them.

2. What makes you thankful to wake up every morning?

Last spring, I asked my friend Kelly this question in the middle of one of my existential moments (it wasn’t quite a crisis). I was feeling down and wondering if my advocacy work for health care equity was pointless. My friend of more than a decade works with underrepresented students at a small community college in rural Mississippi. Kelly explained that she got up every day for her students. Many of them come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, experience developmental challenges, or are attempting to reintegrate into society after serving jail or prison sentences. She’s thankful to wake up every morning and experience moments like when the student who’s on the autism spectrum thanks her for helping them earn their bachelor’s degree and when students in the LGBTQ community thank her for providing a safe space for them to learn.

3. What motivates you?

I’m sure you’ve seen those novelty T-shirts that say clever things like “Will lift for lunch” or “Dumbbells now, doughnuts later.” We chuckle, but these sayings ring true for my foodie friend Ginnie. While she has always been an avid runner, her penchant for donut-burger hybrids and balsamic vinaigrette-infused ice cream, along with her high-energy Great Pyranese named Sky have made her step up her game. She wants to be fit without denying her taste buds all of that food truck goodness, so she runs to keep her health in check and to keep her loyal puppy companion healthy, too. 

While I’m not as adventurous with my food choices, I do like to eat, and I am health conscious. Our motivations often reflect our priorities. Ginnie and I both aspire to live happy, healthy, balanced lives and use food and fitness to help achieve this balance. Discovering this similarity in our motivations makes us great friends.

How do you meet new people?

4. Who is your greatest inspiration?

I have a number of great influences in my life. My most recent inspiration is a talented Broadway performer Alison Stoker, who won a Tony Award for her outstanding performance in the revival of “Oklahoma!.” Stoker made history as the first Tony nominee and winner who uses a wheelchair. She used her speech to encourage the audience to broaden the scope of equality in the arts. It’s clear that Stoker values diversity and equality. I share these values, which is why I found her speech so inspiring. Asking who another person finds inspiring can give me a peek into their values system and the things that matter to them as well.

5. If money wasn’t an issue, what would you choose to do every day for the rest of your life?

With student loan debt at an all-time high, it’s understandable that some people focus on making enough money to pay their bills instead of pursuing what truly makes them happy. If I hit the lottery tomorrow and all homelessness and sickness were eliminated, I would adopt a puppy and travel the country in a camper, stopping at the best diners and most scenic sights along the way. The answer to this question can show us what someone’s best life would look like if there were no obstacles in their way.

People are more than what they do to earn a living. We have passions, dreams, and aspirations that fuel us and move us. When I want to get to know someone, I try to dig a little deeper to get to the good stuff. What you learn when you move beyond a job title may surprise you. You may even find yourself a new partner in business or in love.

Originally published August 8, 2019.

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Aisha Adkins is a writer, advocate, graduate student, and speaker based in Atlanta, Georgia. A graduate of Georgia Southern University, with Bachelor’s of Science in Sociology, this authentic storyteller is driven by faith, inspired by family, and eager to use her talents to affect positive social change. She is a full-time caregiver for her mother. When she is not a doting daughter and agent of change, she enjoys classic film, live music, and nature.