Party-Appropriate Conversation Topics

What do you talk about at cocktail parties — particularly when you’re trying to network? I’ve gotten a few questions like this recently, such as the one from Reader K, below:

I was invited to a co-workers party last weekend and I was the ONLY person from the office there. I didn’t know anybody, not to mention I was the youngest person there!

So as I was making the rounds and mingling, I noticed nobody was asking me the question I was trained by TV to expect: “What Do You Do?”

Is that question off limits these days?

This is a really interesting question because I can’t imagine any reason why “what do you do” would be a loaded question, even in this difficult economic time.  (Hey, it’s one of “Mark Wahlberg’s” favorite intros when he talks to animals: “So you’re a donkey, what’s that all about?”) If people are working, they’re happy to talk about it; if they’re looking for work, they’re probably especially happy to talk to you about it to see if you can help them. In fact, I would say “what do you do” is one of the safest conversation starters around! (One of the other reader emails I got was along the lines of, “what the heck do I talk about when I’m seated next to a SAHM mom at a party?” — and I would even say “what do you do” is a safe conversation starter there.)

As we head into holiday party season, though, I thought I’d throw out a few other questions that are usually safe intros:

  •   “How do you know ___ (the host, the person you were just talking to, the person being feted, etc).”
  •   “How long have you been working here?” (for interoffice events)
  •   “Great ____ — where did you get it?” — compliment his tie, her shoes, her bag, etc.

These are really just handy things to have in your pocket as ways to begin conversations — the follow up questions are key to having a great conversation.

Readers, do you consider any topics “off limits” at parties?  What was the most unusual first conversation you had with someone (good or bad)?


  1. fluffy bunnies :

    Commenting on some aspect of the party works well, if you use it as a segue into something else. “I really like these meatballs. They remind me of the ones at X, my favorite restaurant…”. Obviously, more for social occasions than networking ones.

  2. I don’t know if “So what do you do?” is off-limits so much as it is boring. I like, “What do you do for fun?” You have to watch your tone to make sure it doesn’t sound like you’re hitting on the person (unless that’s what you’re going for, in which case carry on), but it tends to lead to more interesting and genuine conversations. I think I’m more likely to maintain a professional connection with someone if we initially connect over a shared enjoyment of poker, for example, than if we trade cards because we’re both lawyers.

    • “what do you do?” is a very American question. Europeans (at least in my limited understanding) think this question is incredibly tacky and places too much emphasis on employment.

      • I agree with both of you.

        Sometimes I can’t help but feel like people are *really* asking “What do you do? Is it as prestigious as my job? How much education do you have?”

        Besides, who *really* wants to know about stuff like investment advisory firms over a glass of wine?

        • I actually find it really interesting to find out what people do, how they got into it, what they took in school to get there, what it involves, etc.

          • Agreed. To me that is way more interesting than the weather or traffic or whatever.

          • Definitely! I wonder how investment advisory firms work, too.

          • Anne Bronte :

            I agree — I’m curious about all kinds of jobs. But I never ask about what people do lest they find me crass!

        • I ask because I enjoy talking about it, not because I’m trying to show off. Maybe a job at an investment firm wouldn’t have that many talking points, but a lot of jobs do.

          • Zing! Ok, well, at least it forces me to be a little creative in conversation!

          • Anonymous :

            Yea when I say I am in-house for a financial firm I often get something along the lines of “oh you work for evil wall st. fat cats” and how you/they sunk the markets. Then I go on to tell them I help them follow the rules but I’m already offended and/or rolling my eyes.

          • I represent death row inmates. Not a party topic.

      • Cosign Karenpadi.

        Most Europeans find this question offensive on multiple levels.

        I lived in London for a few years and have also lived in Spain. Brits consider this question terrible manners and also a sign that you define yourself by what you do (which they do not–that’s a very American notion). It’s almost a sign that you’re boring, as some folks alluded to below–you are your personality, your hobbies–not your job!

        In the states, this question can be very loaded–roomful of lawyers, and then you ask one of the lawyer’s wives/husbands what they do and it’s not nearly as “fancy” on a traditional prestige scale–awkward pause.

        I have also been unemployed from time to time in my career and found this question terribly awkward when I hadn’t yet decided what to do next or how to “spin” my next career move. (Sometimes you’re just not “there” yet in terms of moving to the next step.)

        Much better to stick to “safe” topics and let what someone does come out naturally or once the flow of the conversation gets going, IMHO.

        • I’m European and certainly don’t find that question offensive. Not terribly original, but not offensive either, and way better than weather references.
          But then I’m not into small talk.

          Actually, I noticed that some people don’t ask you what you do, but try to find out by every mean. I’d rather be asked directly.

        • I’m with BPM – am happy to provide an upfront answer to an upfront question on what I do. Not so happy to have the same information extracted by roundabout means, together with where I live, where I went to school, where my kids go to school etc etc – and unfortunately, have to say this is a typically English approach.

          Signed, someone who lived in the UK for 15 years and who is also guilty of extracting information in roundabout conversations

          • This drives me nuts, especially when it takes me such a long time to figure out what they’re doing. Just come out and say it!

            Of course, it’s something I’ve also caught myself doing as well sometimes – I imagine it’s a hard habit to break when you’re used to it!

      • Young Consultant :

        I also agree with both of these. I feel like in world of younger people, like out at bars and things, people think of that question as a bit of a buzz kill. I am generally pretty curious regardless, but I feel like people think that you A) can’t think of anything funnier/more interesting to talk about and B) are sizing them up

        • Awful Lawful :

          Not sure if I totally agree with this, but my stepmother says this is a white people thing. It drives her crazy that whenever she is with my father’s family all they want to talk about is her work. She says that her family would never ask about work at family gatherings. Your work is YOUR business, not theirs. I didn’t think about it much before she mentioned it, but I have noticed it more since she mentioned it.

          • “What do your parents do?” seems like an upper-middle class question people ask for the reasons described by Young Consultant.

      • S in Chicago :

        Maybe it’s just me, but I think asking where someone purchased what they are wearing is far more tacky than “what do you do.” If you compliment and they volunteer where it was purchased or what a great buy, that’s one thing and can be particularly bonding. But I would never ask outright. It looks like you’re sizing up econonic status or have no taste of your own and are looking to copy. Neither provide a favorable impression. I’ve even been left a little caught off guard after such exchanges when delivered a little too sudeently. It leaves you wondering whether the color of your purse is too loud, heels are too high, or other fashion misstep because it drew unexpected attention. Much easier to talk traffic and travel routes, food being served, or any light personal connections such as pets, travel, hollywood gossip, etc.

        • I agree completely.

        • Senior Attorney :

          Yes! There is no acceptable reason why you need to know where I purchased the clothing I am wearing. In fact there is no reason for you to be evaluating my clothing at all. It always makes me feel like the Duke who ejected the fawning dinner guest, stating “Damned cheek! Fellow praised my chairs!”…0l5.………..0.mjTU_853eO4

        • What do you do is not a good question especially if you are unemployed. Jagged with several above comments regarding this U.S. based question . Commenting on good or someone’s outfit can be safer if tasteful and posigive.
          Comments about accessories tend to work well
          from my phone forgive typos.

      • I agree that “what do you do?” is safe, but somewhat boring question. To me it’s the equivalent of “What’s your major?” in college! Nothing wrong with it, but a little overdone.

        I like the “How do you know so & so?” route, I’ve had success with that. No matter what the answer, you can start a conversation from it. Example: “we grew up together” = “Oh really? Where did you grow up? I just met Jane last year.” Or, “We went to college together” = “Where did you both study/what did you study/etc” or, “I just met her a few weeks ago” = “Me, too! How’d you meet? We met at work, I think she’s hysterical!” Bam. insta-BFFs.

    • eastbaybanker :

      Agreed. It’s boring and American.

  3. I wouldn’t say that “what do you do?” is off limits at parties, but I find it much more interesting to ask what people LIKE to do. It is almost like a game to me to find a subject that really interests the person I am talking to – something that makes them light up – and then the conversation usually flows from there. Even if someone’s passion doesn’t match my own, I love to learn something new.

    Asking about cooking/food is one of my go-to conversation topics. Even if someone doesn’t like to cook, they often have a great “kitchen disaster” story or recommendations on a good restaurant. I also like to ask about travel, because most people have places they enjoyed visiting or dream of visiting one day.

  4. Divaliscious11 :

    Food, sports, television shows. I am fairly political but generally avoid unless there is absolute certainty that conversation can be reasonable (read rarely or at already politically oriented events). I also am an avid reader so books/book series etc….

    What do you do, IF its the right kind of place, and I am not worried about getting pitched…

    Vacation destinations, international travel, kid related stuff – less babies, more activities for older kids etc…

  5. I like, how do you know [host]? And then a follow up question about the source of the connection (i.e. ask about their job/college/sport etc.).

  6. I live in a big city so I often ask people what area of town they live in. That’s pretty neutral. Then you can follow up with things like, “Oh, I love that area, RESTAURANT or STORE or PUBLIC PARK is really great.” (Or, my friend lives near there or whatever.) If that stymies you can ask them how far they have to go to get to work. Then if the person is a real wet blanket and that doesn’t work that actually leads into asking them what they do. And at that point if the conversation isn’t flowing then you have permission to leave.

  7. “What did you do today?”
    “How did you hear about this event?”
    “Any big special plans for the holiday season?”
    “Read any good books lately?”
    “I’m such a sucker for reality TV. Do you watch any shows?”

    • I think that these questions may not really start a conversation; to easy to get a no/yes answer.
      As my English is not great someone way back when help me getting better at starting a conversation not by asking What do you do – asking What has been keeping you busy lately? So everyone can answer about their work/their search for a new job/their kids’ projects – bref everyone is kept busy by something that we can’t often imagine and this is a great conversation starter!

      • Ok, so rephrase them:

        “What are your plans for the holiday season?”
        “What kind of books do you like?”
        “What TV shows do you watch, and why?”

        • I’ve been stuck next to some real clams at parties and have resorted to questions like, “Tell me about your favorite vacation” and questions like that just so we’re not sitting there staring at each other in silence!

      • Almost There :

        “What has been keeping you busy lately?”

        I love this idea, thanks!

        • When I’m not working and sleeping, watching Parenthood courtesy of Amazon Prime.

      • just Karen :

        I love this idea (what has been keeping you busy lately) and need to remember it – it gives people an opportunity to talk about whatever is most likely on their mind. Right now I’d talk about home renovations and moving, but other times it might be work, or family or travel or planning an event…

  8. I’d venture to say that people are straying from the “what do you do” question because of the economy. Several of my unemployed and under-employed friends have had anxiety about what to say in response to this question.

    • I agree – I know many people who are currently looking, and the “what do you do” question causes anxiety and embarassment. It shouldn’t, but it does. So I avoid the question and try to ask about recent/upcoming events (How did you fare in Hurricane Sandy? Any vacations planned for this year?).

      • I also have to disagree with Kat that those looking for work would be eager to say so, in order to seek out help. First of all, you may be in different fields. But even if you’re not, I’d really not like to come off at a social party as someone trying to shake guests down for job leads. I’m not saying that this kind of networking is wrong, but I am saying that if you’re exhausted from job-searching and just want to be taken as a nice person who’s fun to talk to, discussing your own unemployment is all cost and no benefit. Inevitably, people ask “what do you do?” but I prefer “how do you know X?” or something else timely/local.

    • Research, Not Law :

      This. I find it’s hit or miss with stay-at-home persons, too.

      I agree with the sentiment above that I dislike being asked about my job in social situations because people are so clearly bored by my work. I’ve tried various descriptions, but their eyes always glaze over.

      Discussing the weather is surprisingly effective. I like to open my multi-site conference calls with it. It works well with visitors, also.

      • Business, Not Law :

        I get the “glaze over” thing too mostly b/c people have no clue what strategic planning is (or that it can be interesting and meaningful…no binder full of obsolete work plans here…) I usually try to just answer oh I work in “xyz field” try to gloss over with “oh it’s one of those administrative roles no one wants to hear about it” and then people push and I watch them glaze over/look completely bewildered. I often kid with them “I told you it was boring!” and then quickly change the subject.

        I actually dislike the weather conversation. because of the following: One of my classes in undergrad dealt with the psychology of social interactions (among other things) and I will never forget the professor talking about “the weather phenomenon” as being the most basic level of social connection and that it’s often a go-to when people are uncomfortable and also is likely not to lead anywhere in terms of additional conversation. So I think of this professor/class every time weather is used as the “lead” and I notice it ALL the time even though that class was more than 10 years ago!

        • Research, Not Law :

          I respectively disagree with your professor. Similar to the question “How are you doing?” it can be nothing more than space filler when people are not interested in the response, but it can start a good discussion. I find discussing the weather leads well into other topics, like where they used to live (because the weather is better/worse), hobbies (skiing, reading, softball, gardening), or upcoming weekend plans or vacations.

        • Senior Attorney :

          We have a different “standard lead” here in So Cal. I never noticed until I heard Garrison Keillor mention it when he was performing at the Hollywood Bowl: “Whenever people get together in Los Angeles, they spend the first ten minutes talking about what a hard time they had getting there!” LOL It’s totally true! We don’t really have weather here — we have traffic!

        • WAY late but came across this linked from somewhere else — I live in the midwest, and our weather is… well, tumultuous to say the least. When you’re used to sunscreen one day, a snowstorm the next, and a tornado the day after, the weather is a legitimate (dramatic) topic of conversation!

    • Agree. I asked this question at a party to someone who I did not know was unemployed and had just tried to get into law school and couldn’t. Apparently she reported to our mutual friend that I was “stuck-up” because all I cared about was status. I haven’t asked that question since that party, and it’s been about 3 years…

  9. “So, who do you ship?”

    Just kidding. TV, music, and movies are usually safe.

    • Kanye — if you and I encountered each other at a cocktail party it would be epic. Otherwise, it would be weird. ;-)

      • If I met you at a party it would be an epic fail because I have no idea what this means!

        • “ship” is the internet jargon for what relationship on a television show you like best. So you ship a couple — and generally they have cute names….like Klaine on Glee for example. Anyway — its a Tumblr joke really and not an actual good opening like for a c*cktail party!

          • It’s actually (I think) short for relationship, and it’s used to mean fictional characters you think should be together. Like, you could ship Mulder or Scully. Or your ship could become canon, like Matthew and Mary.

            What has Tumblr done to me?!?!?!

            Kids these days.

      • It would, indeed.

  10. [insert clever name here] :

    Personally, I hate the “what do you do” line of conversation. If my purpose is networking, the topic is usually unavoidable, but I try to get to it in less blunt and un-fun ways than asking “so, what do you do?”. That is the most boring and unoriginal question and can only lead to the answer being an equally boring laundry list of job assignments that have no potential to take a conversation anywhere. Networking fail. The details of what I do can come up more organically in a discussion – I met so-and-so while I was helping her draft XYZ contract… Or in the course of a discussion about a recent news story, fill in the detail that I visited that company’s plant on a site visit while I was helping them with permitting and offer an interesting (and non-confidential) detail, etc… It even works for the stay at home mom – The pattern on your scarf reminds me of a much more sophisticated version of the painting we saw when I took my child to the art museum last week Wednesday. This is obviously much harder to do than the point-blank question, but I think makes for a more enjoyable – and thus more memorable – networking conversation.

    If mere small talk is the aim, then the following are my go-to for conversation starters. The point is that the conversation starter has to have the potential to go somewhere after the initial question.
    – ask for restaurant recommendations – leads to conversations on shared experiences, likes, dislikes etc.
    – my husband’s job (WAY more interesting than mine) – job is liquor and travel-related and has all sorts of tangential conversation potential
    – how do you know a mutual person at the party – can lead to shared stories of that person or interests brought up in answer
    – decor at location (obviously only if it is an interesting location) and how to recreate at home – usually leads to DIY-fail anecdotes that are always enjoyable
    – Apologies for inevitable spit up or food stain on my clothes from kid – usually leads to family conversations
    – Upcoming Thanksgiving plans (or other impending non-religious, generally uniformly celebrated holiday) – can lead to suggestions about what food to make, feelings on Black Friday shopping start times etc…

    As a general rule, I do not talk politics. Except with my husband and very close family. No exceptions. But that is obviously a personal thing, and many people find politics a perfectly acceptable topic.

  11. Office selections :

    Hi everyone, I am moving offices within my workplace and am looking for some advice on which office I should select. I have 3 options:

    Option A is the nicest office. Good color scheme, good location with respect to people I work with, large, excellent view. The one drawback is that it shares a thermostat with another office, and the resident of that office likes to keep his office cold – no compromising. Add to this that I am one of those people who (gasp) likes to sport bare arms on occasion, and I wear a skirt daily.

    Option B is not quite as nice as option A, but it is pretty big and in a good location with a nice view, except it is close to my SO’s office (who works with me). I’m not sure if it is a bad idea to take an office close to SO, especially since we already work together and live together, so we see eachother a lot. Plus I don’t want it to give off a weird vibe at the office. We’re very professional at work and interact only rarely (I definitely interact with other coworkers much more regularly than with SO) and no one has ever complained about us working together.

    Option C is the smallest office, bad color scheme, less good view. Less optimally located with respect to the people I work with. Pro is that the temperature is stable and not too close to SO.

    One more consideration – I am pretty junior, so the nicer the office is, the more likely it is that I could be bumped from that office at a future date by someone more senior than I. Picking the worst office means I could settle in with a minute chance of being bumped.

    What one do I pick?!

    • cartascartas :

      I’d pick number one and have a cardigan/space heater in the office. :)

    • Option A with a space heater, heating pad, blanket, cardigan, shawl, pashmina, etc.

    • Option A, space heater

    • SF Bay Associate :

      Option A, space heater and other items as needed. The most important thing is a good location relative to the people you work with/for.

    • I say pick #1 and invest in some sweaters. As a ‘junior’ in my department, I am in a great big office – I am also getting moved soon after being in here for about 5-months. It’s been a great 5-months…now on to something 1/2 the size (but at least not in the basement!). You never know how long you will stay in #1 but you might as well take it, and go from there!

    • Business, Not Law :

      Option A. No question. My “work BFF” shares the thermostat with our boss (who like to keep the office at arctic temps) but it’s resulted in some good-natured joking and also lots of sympathy from others since his arctic-office has become somewhat of a known entity around the office.

  12. How do you know our host?

    Do you live in this town? What neighborhood?

    Or just say, “Hi, my name’s Julie. I work with Sam.”

  13. You always hear that this is a DC cliche, but I feel like I can’t really know enough to have a good conversation with a person if I don’t know what their profession is. It seems weird to just start throwing out random hobbies or interests and see if something clicks. When I have, as an experiment, tried not asking and the person doesn’t volunteer the information, I find the conversation so awkward. But if people tell me what they do professionally, there is usually some jumping off point to ask them about or further the discussion. And no, it’s not a status or a judgmental thing. I certainly don’t have a high status job, and I don’t judge others by their jobs.

    • As a fellow DC resident who also likes to know what people do professionally, likes to talk about my own job, and is not status-conscious or judgmental with respect to jobs, I completely agree with this.

    • I think it is a very dc thing, and I think its because so many dc jobs kind of relate in some way. Tons of lawyers, fed employees, gov contracters, etc. I agree that it is a boring question, I like a lot of the suggestions on this thread.

    • I agree as well; and if you are networking, you’re supposed to know what other people do, where they are, how they got there, etc. And given the small town vibe of DC, chances are, I know someone who knows someone that works there, with, at, etc. I don’t use it as a status thing, although I know that others may.

    • Also, and I may be somewhat biased here, I think people in DC tend to have really interesting jobs. Of course people’s definitions of interesting may differ somewhat…

      • Biased right with you. I’ve met people who worked for State and were stationed in Bosnia in the 1990s and am having Thanksgiving dinner with someone who works for the CIA (not undercover, but still, a very interesting person). I’ve met producers for network news shows and a guy who helped fix the Hubble.

        But then, I always felt like I fit in better in DC than anywhere else I’ve lived because we’re all a bunch of bookish geeks who like bookish, geeky things and are usually pretty passionate about ourjobs.

        • I fit in better in the DC than anywhere else too. I moved here from my home state of Colorado, and immediately was like, “Ah, here are my people.” I know a lot of people really hate DC, the intense career focus in particular, but I kind of want to get everyone together in a big, wonky group-hug because I love it so much.

      • Also, people in D.C. are often excited by their jobs even if they’re stereotypically boring. So in Oregon, where I’m from, I’m socially expected to downplay my job as a regulatory lawyer and talk about how I’m just waiting to get away mountain biking this weekend (or whatever), but in D.C. it’s normal to be a bit enthused about it. My dad related a conversation he once had with someone at a D.C. party that he thought was absolutely archetypal in this respect, with a young woman saying excitedly: “You know, I had never realized how interesting frozen foods are until . . . ” And this was the late ’70s; I think it’s just been a cultural feature for a long time.

      • I live in DC too, and don’t think jobs here are any more interesting than they are anywhere else. (I’ve also lived in Boston, NY, and in two large European cities.)

        I do think that people here *think* their jobs are All That. LOL

    • Agreed. I always assumed it was because in DC, people seem to be in their line of work because they are genuinely passionate about it. When I came here, people I met had internships or entry-level jobs that in themselves weren’t “impressive,” especially in terms of day-to-day tasks, but gave us an opening to talk about their interest in a certain topic or cause.

    • Does anyone else in DC find that they’re constantly asked “where are you from?” as a conversation starter? I have always heard that “What do you do” is the DC cliche, but I nearly always have people start out with “Where are you from?” I’ve always been curious if it’s something specific to me — I’ve been here nearly a decade, so I don’t think I come across as”new” to the area, and I don’t have a regional accent, so there’s nothing that would clearly trigger the question — or if other people always get it too. I know most of us here are transplants, but it seems to me to be a weird way to start a conversation unless you’re a college freshman at orientation week. Maybe I’m just fitting into the stereotype but I would SO MUCH rather talk about my job than the hometown I haven’t lived in for years.

      • Don’t worry, it’s not you—everyone’s from somewhere else, so it seems like a natural question. (See: “What area code is that?” when you give someone your number.)

        I also find my hometown boring, but then the conversation usually segues to “how’d you get from there to here?”, and we talk about college, early jobs, how do you like DC, is NYC better, etc.

      • Anonymous :

        It’s the transplant thing. I am fascinated by it, being a non-transplant.

        • As a non-transplant, does it bug you when you hear the ubiquitous, “Everyone’s from somewhere else?” It kind of bugs me because I feel like it’s erasing a whole lot of people who live in the city. Same with “Everyone in DC is a lawyer.” But don’t think I’ve ever heard a DC native’s perspective on this.

          • (Thanks for asking this—I should have been more specific earlier.)

          • Glad it’s not just me! After I got it 10 times in a row at a party last weekend I was starting to feel self-concious that I was giving off a weird vibe.

            And good point DC Jenny — I’m usually more careful about using the “everyone’s a transplant” language since I know that’s not actually true. I’m curious how non-transplants view that too.

      • I’m actually from here and was born in DC, so I’m kind of like “who are all of you people?” But I’m pretty used to it – my friends are from Nevada, Missouri, Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, etc. and my SO is from another state. So obviously, I’m quite happy we get people from all over. My colleagues are also from all over the place. I do have one friend that I keep in touch with from HS.

    • I lived in DC for 9 years, and I completely agree. I like it as a conversation starter. Now that I’m on the west coast, I find I’m never, ever asked that question in social settings and I really try to avoid doing it because people can be weird about it.

      • SpaceMountain :

        I was kind of sad when I left DC and all the talk of people’s work. It was so easy. In my town in the Midwest, the conversation starter is “where do you live,” and it gets more and more specific, as in which street and then which house, and usually people will know your house. Then we talk about neighbors. It’s a small town. I asked a friend in L.A. what the conversation starter is there, and he said it’s “Where do you work out?” That would not work in my town — there’s only one gym!

    • anon in-house :

      I’m in NY and feel the same as you folks in DC.

  14. It’s cliched, but talking about the weather or traffic can often be a way to get a conversation going. Weather leads to talk of things like extreme weather (Sandy, power outages, flooding in Venice), or weather in places you like, activities you like to do (skiing! ice skating!) and it’s always fun to bond over crap weather. Same with traffic – I always thought my parents were nuts, the way they’d parse with visitors the finer points of getting around the Chicago area, but now I can talk about DC traffic for hours.

    And now everyone will avoid me if I make to a C-ette get together as I’ve outed myself as old and boring. I’ll also admit that I like it when people ask me what I do, because I think my job is interesting (has to do with cancer research).

  15. I want to say that Emily Post’s “Etiquette” warns against asking people how they know each other because it may be an embarrassing topic. The rule may only apply to asking spouses/partners how they met though.

    Does this question offend anyone?

    • Research, Not Law :

      Nope, not at all. I often ask or have been asked “How do you know [the host]?” at social events and have never detected embarrassment. So long as you don’t give a vibe like you’re screening people (“Did you *really* get an invitation to this event? Prove it. Who do you know here?”) then I think it’s fine. I find most people really open up when asked.

      I could see “how did you meet your spouse” to be too personal to ask a stranger, though.

      • LadyEnginerd :

        I agree on the “how do you know the host” front. That’s about as vanilla as it gets and I can’t imagine that it would be offensive.

        With the significant other, I have no problem with being asked how we met. If there’s an embarrassing story (guilty as charged) and they have any social skills whatsoever, they’ll have developed a stock vague answer after a few months. As a currently betrothed person, I detest the “how did he propose” question, which is always followed up with “when’s the big day.” I’m not exactly offended, but it makes me feel like I got slotted into “bride” instead of “well-rounded person” in their mind and our conversation just gets dominated by Weddings! Yay Weddings! I have other hobbies too, you know…

      • fluffy bunnies :

        Not sure I agree… I think every couple has developed a meet-cute story suitable for family consumption (even if they, in reality, met at swingers club while stoned). At least, I’ve never noticed any embarrasement when I ask this.

      • Research, Not Law :

        To clarify: I’m not offended to be asked how my husband and I met or suggesting that it’s inappropriate to ask. I was leaving open the possibility that there could be those may not want to share with some random person they don’t know. I was giving Emily Post the benefit of the doubt.

    • Not really. If the truth is awkward, they probably have a more “diplomatic” answer ready (and then will change the subject). An ex of mine from way back lives in the same area now, and if a friend of his asks how I know him, I usually just say “Oh, we know each other from [his hometown].”

      • (Also, within the past couple years I’ve noticed a lot more couples who met online just saying so, simply and without embarrassment, and the reception from others is pretty much the same as if they’d said “through mutual friends.” Sometimes it even starts a conversation about everyone else’s online dating experiences, which is always fun!)

    • I have a hard time imagining someone inviting someone else to a social function if they’re embarrassed at how they met them. But if you’re walking with a friend on the street and someone recognizes them, that might be different, I guess – it could be their therapist or something like that (though don’t many medical professionals not acknowledge patients on the street for that reason).

    • TO Lawyer :

      I like this… it’s an easy conversation starter and relatively unobtrusive. It often segues into the “what do you do” conversation i.e. we work together or went to law school together but it’s also a really interesting way to get to know people.

    • The only time I had this question become awkward when I asked, it was because the gathering was a mix of people the hostess knew from school, work, hometown and AA. The AA friends didn’t all want to out themselves as AA but hadn’t prepared a vague answer either, I think they were caught off guard. In general I think this is a safe question.

  16. Asking about restaurants they would recommend, the best movie that they’ve seen lately, or their recent/upcoming vacation plans are some neutral topics that can help get a conversation started.

  17. Just don’t assume that you know what a person does. When I was in law school and just out, I was amazed at how many people at get togethers (i.e., summer parties while I was clerking) would ask my husband “So, where do you go to law school?” or “What firm are you working with?” Some of us marry non-lawyers, people!

  18. I think this really depends on the type of event you’re attending. At a work or networking type of event (like at a Bar Association event) — its really common to start with “so what type of law do you practice” or “what firm are you with” or something of the sort. That usually starts a conversation about what they like about their practice area or whatever.

    At a social event if I don’t know anyone, sometimes I’ll ask how they know the host, but I frequently will go with “so do you live around here” or “where in the city do you live” which usually starts a conversation pretty easily. Also good is asking if people are from the area or from somewhere else. Then TV, movies, and recent news stories are kind of a good go-to. Or if its the type of event where children are in attendance or where people are likely to have kids, I ask about their kids — how old they are, where they go to school, what activities they do — that sort of thing. That usually gets people talking.

    Anyway — those are all pretty innocuous. But I honestly have no problem with the “what do you do” question, I just tend not to lead with it in purely social occasions (though in networking settings I do more often).

    • Diana Barry :

      Ditto to this whole post. I usually ask about how they know the host if it’s a social event. And I guess I don’t ever go to any networking events that aren’t lawyers! Or it’ll be lawyers, financial planners and life insurance guys – so your guess is probably 33% right no matter what it is. :)

  19. Two Cents :

    When I lived in DC, what do you do was a standard question that I heard (and asked) all the time. When I moved out of DC to another east coast city, a few people seemed a little puzzled when I asked them that question.

    The only question that sort of annoys me is “Do you work?” I get this mostly from older Indian men who we meet as various community gatherings. I suspect that they don’t want to assume that I work in case I don’t. Then I tell them that I’m a litigator at a major law firm in the city, and they look taken aback. :)

  20. Am I weird because I REALLY dislike discussing my job, even though I’m mostly content in my career? What excites me about my job is geeky stuff that isn’t that easily explained to someone outside my profession. That, and I assume that nobody *really* cares about my job.

    I’ll preface this by saying all my friends in a certain profession talk about their jobs ALL THE TIME, and I — and others in our group — find it annoying. Mostly because they act like they’re the only ones who encounter sucky people from time to time and aren’t appreciated enough even though they work hard and care a lot. I think *all* of us feel that way at times, but that doesn’t mean we want to talk about it during a social occasion that’s supposed to be fun.

  21. Susan (edna_mode_nyc) :

    Off-topic, but that donkey in the photo is way cute.

    I would love to have a farm, so I could scoop up little Jacksie. No farm, though, so when I feel spendy, I throw some pounds their way. *sigh* I am a sucker for warmfuzzy mammals.

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      During law school, someone down the street from me had a donkey. I used to walk by there daily to pet it. It was sooooo cute. I miss it!

  22. Athena York :

    While I don’t get offended by the “What do you do?” question, I think it’s in poor taste if it’s asked too early in a conversation (or too aggressively). To me, it signals that the person is a social-climber of sorts — that is, that they ONLY care about your jobs. I’ve been to numerous events in NYC where this one of the first things people ask you and if they’re not satisfied with your answer, you can almost immediately see their eyes glaze over and then start looking around the room for someone “more important/useful.” I know that such people probably think that they’re effectively networking, but to me just signals a lack of social grace.

    I honestly think talking about TV, movies, and (to a lesser extent) books is a great in situations like these. I know that some people here will disagree with this on that grounds that it makes one seem unserious, superficial, or unprofessional (because they’re watching TV instead of working or whatnot), but I disagree. Almost everyone watches some TV and movies and loves to discuss and offer opinions. Also, if someone is interesting, intelligent, or someone with whom you’d like to be more friendly, it will generally come through in a conversation like this.

    I usually start the conversation with something along the lines of, “I watched the first season The Newsroom when I was stuck at home during the hurricane, what should I watch next?” This usually then ends up being a discuss of what shows people like and why, and generally you can end up “bonding” over something and forging a somewhat memorable connection.

    • Legally Red :

      I haven’t lived here very long, but I feel like your first paragraph describes every social event I’ve been to in DC (but I haven’t been to a this site meet-up, yet). Seems that I’m never “useful enough,” and it’s making me want to become a hermit. I moved here from more of a work hard/play hard city, so it’s taking some time to get used to how intensely career-focused everyone is.

    • I really, really enjoy hearing about what people do for a living! Granted I’m in labor & employment law, but I just love learning about different industries and different jobs I may never have imagined existed. So I ask “what do you do,” because I actually care what people do and want to know!

  23. I never ask women what do they do. I’m a hard working FT lawyer, mom of 3 and my husband is a lawyer, too. If I’m talking to a SAHM, I feel she’ll be offended. I NEVER ask women that question unless they’re discussing “working” generally so I KNOW they have a job outside the home. I think it would be ok to ask that if I was a SAHM, but I’m not. So I think it looks snobby. (Maybe it’s snobby that I think it looks snobby!) I also try not to ask about kids unless I’m pretty sure they have them. (“Do you have kids?” “No. You?” “Yes, I have THREE.” – sounds bad…) My failsafe is “going on any good vacations soon?” People usually have something they’ve done recently or are about to do.

    I also think it’s tacky to ask people where they bought an item of clothing or an accessory! Isn’t it?? I mean, I thought that was rude beyond question. What if they got it at TJ Maxx and didn’t want to say that? I only ask close friends that if I’m serioulsy considering trying to copy them and buy the same thing.

    • AnonInfinity :

      I agree with your second paragraph — I have always thought that it is rude to ask where a person procured an item of clothing because that’s almost exactly like asking how much it cost.

      I also like the vacation question.

      I don’t agree with the part about women potentially being offended by the career question. Lots of men are also dissatisfied with their jobs and don’t want to talk about them…

    • As a childless but tried desperately to have a child for 10 years before becoming a mom, I have to second the advice not to ask about kids. If they mention something about their children, then you can ask follow up questions, but please, please, please do not ask someone you do not know if they have children.

    • In-House Europe :

      This is super late but I just wanted to say O M G yes, I so agree with this. I feel super uncomfortable if the woman is a SAHM because I don#t want her to think that I think less of her for it, or that I think I’m superior because I work. I actually sometimes have trouble talking to women – especially wives of colleagues, because I feel like I can’t talk about work or about kids, and sometimes really struggle to find another topic of conversation. It makes me feel horrible because I want to embrace the right of women to decide whether to work or not but I really do feel more comfortable talking to either other non-SAHMs or to men. Agh, I am a horrible person! :(

  24. Lady Harriet :

    I have a horror story about first conversations! When I was growing up, I did a lot of folk dancing with my mom. (I’ve replaced it with swing dance in recent years, mostly due to moving away from my hometown.) When I was 12 or so we went to a party held by another dancer. I was always the only kid in the group, but I was comfortable interacting with adults, so it usually wasn’t too much of a problem that most people were at minimum 15 years older than me. Some lady had brought her teenaged son (maybe 16 or 17) to the party, and since I was the only other young person, she decided I should hang out with him and play Boggle. He seemed rather creepy and weird, but I tried to make some awkward conversation during the game. At one point, out of the blue, he asks me “Are you a virgin?” I was terrified and gave him a death glare, saying “What is your problem???” I skedaddled and stuck by my mom for the rest of the party. What kind of a creep asks a 12-year-old if she’s a virgin? Ewwww, I’m still disturbed thinking about it years later.

  25. I’m not offended by being asked what I do, but it can be an awkward question – right now, I’m clerking, but of course, if you say that to most non-lawyers, they have no concept what it means. And I used to be a college professor, which can weird non-academics out (though that’s probably exacerbated when you’re living in a small town with town/gown issues… but my friends who are English profs get a lot of, “oh! I’ll have to watch my grammar!”, which drives them nuts). It’s fine when I’m in a professional setting where everyone’s pretty much in the same/related fields, or has a similar level of conversation. It can be more awkward in a group of people with really varied professional/educational backgrounds (not saying it *should* be, it just is, sometimes).

    I’m totally taking notes on all the suggestions here, though! I like “What’s keeping you busy these days?” (and “Who do you ship?” is awesome!). I think you can ask where someone got an item of clothing/whatever if you preface it with something like, “I’ve been searching all over for a [whatever] just like that – do you mind telling me where you found it?” Recognizing that the person can answer vaguely if they don’t want to answer. But I think this only works if you really have been looking for something like that, rather than just making conversation. Or if you’re in some kind of setting where shopping is already a focus.

    • I meant, “similar level of education” NOT conversation. D’oh!

    • When I was a graduate student in religious studies every.single.f*ckface asked me “Ohh, so you’re pretty religious?”

      Yes, religious about reading Claude Levi-Strauss.

    • as a fellow clerk, I just want to say that I am also often frustrated and stumped when non-lawyers ask me what I’m doing

      • Not sure anyone is still reading, but to Anna D. and Ella — there’s a really easy answer to this question (at least I found it easy when I was clerking):
        “I work for a judge.”

        • Oh, sure, and that’s what I say – but since people don’t usually know that a judge has to research the law/write opinions, it still requires a bit more explanation, which just feels awkward. Because, really, when you say “I work for a judge,” most people assume you’re a secretary. To quote a classic, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but since it’s not what I do, it’s just a little weird. IME people either know what a clerk is/does, or don’t have any concept at all.

  26. I almost always fall back on the “are you from this area?” The question can be interpreted as inquiries into the person’s personal or professional background so I allow the person with whom I’m speaking decide which direction they want to take the conversation. Do they want to emphasize that they moved here for law school and never left, or do they want to emphasize that they are from Georgia and go back to visit family frequently. Either way, there’s plenty of get to you know fodder that can spring off that. If you’ve never been to one of those locations, you can ask questions about it, and if you have been, you can share a story about your trip there.

    “Any upcoming travel planned” is another good way to achieve the same type of thing.

  27. Agree that variations of “what do you do?” are good, but the question itself is off-putting. Even the example given was “So you’re a x, what’s that all about?” not the straight question. Asking someone what they like about what they do or how they like living where they do or their opinions on just about anything is preferable to gathering social-economic data (or sounding like that’s what you’re doing)

  28. emcsquared :

    I always thought it was a bit aggressive to start a conversation with a question at all, since you’re putting the other person on the spot. If I’m diving into a conversation, I usually like to start by introducing myself and giving one situation-appropriate factoid about myself – how I know the host, where I work, what I do, hometown, etc. If the other person is a decent conversationalist, they’ll pick up the cue and chime in with their own similar factoid, and then we’re off to the races.

  29. I usually like to say something like “my husband and I are trying to decide where to go on vacation next summer, have you been anywhere interesting lately?” Or something along those lines. It’s always a great conversation starter.

  30. I don’t think asking “what do you do?” is particularly American. It gets asked all the time at East Asian social gatherings, and no one is ever offended by it. From what I recall, if the person who gets asked is a SAHM, she just talks about what her husband does. In fact, being asked your salary is pretty common too, and Americans get offended by that. It’s not a sign of social climbing, although I admit that East Asians have a huge thing about prestige and “face” during social events so the better (often law, medicine, or an engineering PhD) your career sounds, the better your parents look.

    I don’t mind people asking me what I do for a living, because it’s something I care about and it relates to my hobbies as well. I like to talk about travel (international and domestic), but maybe it’s just because I tend to associate with well-traveled people.

  31. I often say “what’s keeping you busy these days”? as it lets them say anything- work, skiing, kids, etc. Or if they aren’t busy, whether that’s something good/bad. Or they can move on- ‘nothing much! how about this rain?’ easily.

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