Field Guide: Don’t Ask A Lot Of Direct Questions and Don’t Talk About Work

When I was in graduate school I began to be subjected to work as a core conversational topic. What department you were in, what research you were doing and when you planned to finish became regular banter topics. This pattern was actually an unwitting form of systematic humiliation; almost no graduate student finishes as quickly as they like nor are as pleased with the content of their work as they hoped. I sum it up with a strip from PhD Comics:

In school this game took on a sort of existential purpose, filling the space of polite discussion but at the same time lacking any significant meaning. None of us were all that concerned with other people’s work, and with the rampant impostor syndrome infecting our subculture, we didn’t want to face our own work either. It was a bit like the joke that “in Communism we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Put more simply, it also meant that we had run out of genuinely interesting things to talk about.

It was a perverse sort of prisoner’s dilemma, we all had an incentive to confederate in propping up what bit of meaning the system could provide us, and you couldn’t afford to defect unless you were guaranteed to compensate for the loss of social cachet (in effect, the only option was leaving school entirely where your collegial social value no longer mattered); meanwhile you along with everyone else knew everybody was doing it wrong.

When I left grad school and entered the working world, I was disappointed to find that the “what do you do” question had taken on a whole new level of conversational meaning in afternoon happy hours and genteel dinner parties. It was no longer a mutual backscratching, a collective acquiescence to the shared ennui; rather it was more likely a passive aggressive invitation to show your cards early, laced with the air of cutthroat competition and status jockeying, of subtle plays to one’s superior income or “juice” (social proximity to important figures).

Fortunately, when still in school I had formulated a simple personal policy to deal with the situation: don’t talk about work. It was very simple and easy to implement; once on a ride to a picnic with a student group, another student turned to me and opened conversation with “so what are you doing for your research?” I told him on the spot that I was sorry but I had to go to sleep, and instantly napped it up with my head against the window.

DON’T TALK ABOUT WORK

When you’re out meeting people or flexing your game against the ladies about town, work discussions are a sure way to get put in the “cubicle drone” box instead of the “mysterious dashing fellow” box.

If someone drops in the “so what do you do,” they’ve probably run out of interesting things to talk about and have decided to play a beta-bait “let’s get to know each other” script. However, don’t sleep on the other, more nefarious purpose of interrogating you about your work: to investigate your social status and probable income. You can see where I’m going with this, that with what seems like an innocent question, a crafty woman might be asking you to save her the effort by disqualifying yourself from her potential mating pool.

Fortunately, you don’t have to assume the worst to motivate yourself to find other conversation topics. You just have to realize that talking about work is boring, and lends itself to an encyclopedic discourse that is either value-neutral or negative.

Besides, you shouldn’t want to discuss it at length; if you’ve been doing it right, you work your workday so you can go home and enjoy yourself, unburdened by the stresses of the day until you come back to the office in the morning.

In the same way that you avoid paying for women’s dinners by not going on dinner dates, the key factor here is to, quite simply, not talk about work. This can be easier said than done, and when you find someone who is REALLY concerned about what you “do,” you’ve got someone you’re better off walking away from. If it’s a deep concern of hers on the first meeting, you can be damn sure that you’ll be subjected to an unbroken sequence of lifestyle fitness testing and status pressures throughout the life of whatever relationship is possible with someone with that kind of either rocket-powered hypergamy or (conversely) strictly work-based life values.

Anyway, the best way to deal with this question is to treat it like a fitness test, and respond innocently with an answer so ridiculous and over-the-top they can’t help but tingle.

Give them a bullshit job title and description. Remain in character as long as possible. Options to riff on include:

  • You’re an agent in a semipro midget football league (talk about how hard it is to find enough talented players to fill rosters)
  • You’re in a Gordon Lightfoot cover band (talk about the difficulty of maintaining authenticity over decades of changing vocals and styles)
  • You’re a security consultant for Wolfgang Puck restaurants (discuss the challenges of keeping the recipes safe from wannabe-Slugworths who slip into the kitchen offices on the way to the bathroom)
  • You were involved in constructing the world’s largest guitar (“luckily we found someone who could play it, but on condition of absolute secrecy”)

You want to channel Owen Wilson’s dinner speech in Wedding Crashers where he convinces Christopher Walken and the rest of the well-to-do hosts that he and Vince Vaughan operated a charity where homeless people spun yarn into thread for other homeless people to make marketable garments out of.

(Notice the fitness-test trap question: “so is it just about the money?” Also does anybody else think this scene was ab libbed?)

If bold mendacity doesn’t get people off the scent, provide a concise, unapologetic description of your work, without expecting anyone to be impressed by it, and then change the subject. You don’t want to get on the topic long enough for people to ask follow up questions or to start poking fun at you and put you on the defensive.

Notice that I haven’t said anything about whether your job is cool or not. That’s because it’s immaterial to whether you should talk about it or not. If your job is menial, boring or low-status (let’s not kid ourselves; most jobs, even well-paying ones, are at least one of these), you definitely don’t want to lay that out in social company. In close friend groups or more intimate moments, sure. But even if your job is cool, you don’t want to lead with high status and value first. You can cultivate a mysterious edge and be different, the guy who DOESN’T want to talk about his job; and then when people find out you really are a badass, the effects of the understatement will ripple through the group like a shockwave.

DON’T ASK DIRECT QUESTIONS

Going again in the direction of providing the emotional adventure: you don’t want to get in the position of being asked interrogative questions (see above), and you certainly don’t want to be the one asking said questions. Nothing can dry up somebody’s social juices like the feeling she’s on the spot.

Here are some questions that can get you started. (I keep a few of these phrases ready in my mental pocket in case the conversation lags and I need to jump-start it.)

  • When did you last sing to yourself?
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  • Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

My high school English teacher was all about “assertions” in our essays. “Don’t just write facts down on the page, make assertions, and use facts to support them!” She taught me, after much roughness, how to stick to a point and make the argument not just in the topic sentence or the thesis statement but in every phrase in the work.

Likewise, you don’t want to be in a “conversation” that is like a mutual information drop. Instead you want to be leading someone through your affective assertions, with soft leading questions instead of direct pointed ones. Don’t stay on one topic too long, and don’t apologize for changing the subject. Factual exchange is not the aim (nor is coming out right in an argument), it’s the opening of interpersonal boundaries - using little nuggets of her own personality as anchors, as markers on the path through a vibrant, sensual trail.

As Roissy has said:

You are ROAMING all over, taking her on an adventure. In this world, there is no need to finish thoughts or draw conclusions. There is only need to EXPERIENCE. You’re grabbing her hand and running with her down an infinite, labyrinthine alleyway with no end, laughing and letting your fingers glide on the cobblestone walls along the way.

When you can make her feel something, the piddly details of your job or what neighborhood you live in fade to the background – you occupy a pole position in giving her that most distinctive experience, an emotional rush.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Field Guide: Don’t Ask A Lot Of Direct Questions and Don’t Talk About Work

  1. TGC

    Whenever the “so what do you do?” question comes up, I always use it as an opportunity to talk about my hobbies. For example, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is something I am really into so I’ll say I’m a professional fighter (I’m not) and then show some of my BJJ tats. If pressed about what I do for money, I just say, “You wouldn’t really want to know.” It’s so boring to talk about, but the job does pay well. If pressed further, every now and then, I will relent in revealing that I actually work as a part time gigolo.

  2. (R)Evoluzione

    This is some good stuff. I happen to have an interesting job. The question invariably comes up. I’ve had the best success in keeping that under my sleeve, and/or humorously obfuscating it. Sometimes I’ll ridiculously exaggerate what it entails, or why I got into this field. It turns into banter, and it’s often a successful experience for me.

    This banter ideally at some point would include a few DHV’s or at least leading statements that guide her into asking questions that allow one to tell some DHV stories.

    This is some tricky business, it takes some calibration, and practice, though I do believe one should approach it as a fun, interesting experiment, rather than framing it in one’s mind as a lot of odious work.

  3. FFY

    Last Friday was incredibly weird in that I ended up being asked by every girl what my job is, within five minutes of every conversation. As you pointed out, and I agree, it is far more fun and advantageous to bullshit her with some wacky job. The girls interested in you will find it funny, the ones that have other motives will keep pushing the question.

    That night was particularly fun because there was a thirty year reunion for a local high school up on the patio. Me and fresh sweet talked the ladies running the booth and got name tags for ourselves, and used fake names and decided to be twin brothers.

    That led to a lot of fun not relevant to this topic, but one thing it did allow me to do was bullshit every girl about my job.

    “So what do you do?”

    “Me and my are rsvp fillers”

  4. FFY

    Android has got to figure out this comment thing better…

    “me and my brother are rsvp fillers”

    “what?”

    “yeah when class reunions or things like that need more people to come they call us up”

    “yeah right! you’re lying!”

    “it’s like two hundred a pop, sometimes three if if they really need us”

    And by then I start smirking because it’s too funny to watch their disbelief, and then they shoulder punch when they realize you were just fucking with them. But now the conversation is on a playful level and I can segue into better topics.

  5. FFY

    And for those of you with a large social circle that have girls friends who have an idea of what you do (for example most people I know know where I work, but not what I do), when those girls ask I like to tell them I’m the CEO and run with it.

    Youngest CEO in the history of the company, looking to retire next year, etc.

    The point is use the job question to be a smart ass, and take that thread as far as you can amidst all the “shut up!” Or “yeah right!”. Keep a straight face and don’t break. So that when they finally realize you were fucking with them the whole time it makes things playful and by messing with then and not being a boring straight shooter.

  6. Candide

    You can make it a fun game for them. I often describe my job in terms of types of characters (of people I work with), relationships and emotions, then tell the woman to guess what I do. The guesses get pretty wild sometimes. My job is hardly exciting, but the way I describe it is plenty of fun.

  7. Infantry

    When you can make her feel something, the piddly details of your job or what neighborhood you live in fade to the background

    Exactly. Its about her feeling something… anything.

    Keep a straight face and don’t break.

    Good advice for most game.

    My favourite go-to occupation is the old school PUA ‘cigarette lighter repairman’. It always gets the ‘no really, what do you do’, which eventually leads to David Deangelo ‘Now you really want to know, I’m not going to tell you’. Which leads to them calling you an asshole. And you know where that leads…

  8. Q: What do you do for a living?

    A: I do a few things. A little cosmetic surgery, a little corporate law, a little surfboard instruction. And odd jobs. My last project was helping out with some bridge engineering for a project in Taiwan. A few newspapers publish my advice column. I guess you could say I’m a dabbler.

    Q: Ha ha. No, really. What’s your job?

    A: Are you saying you don’t believe me? Ok, maybe not ALL those things. Mostly I clean toilets.

    Q: Ewww! Come on. Be serious!

    A: (Pause until she speaks again, holding eye contact.)

    Q: I’m trying to get to know you. Don’t be so evasive!

    A: Well, I don’t tell just anyone what my real job is. Maybe later.

    Q: (Looks at watch) Ok. It’s later.

    A: I sell fake passports. (look at her sideways as if judging her reaction to see if she’ll turn you in, look sideways to see if anyone was listening) No! No! Just kidding!

    Q: Really?

    A: Well, it’s a little embarassing, but if you MUST know, I seduce young rich women and get them to give me a monthly allowance.

    Q: Oh, come on!

    A: Na, not really. That would be unethical. I train cruise ship employees how to seduce the older women. Ya, I bet you didn’t know that’s part of cruise ship employment training nowadays, did you?

    Q: Ha ha ha. I’m not going to give up you know!

    A: Really? You must really be interested in me.

    Q: Mr. Big Head! You just got me curious, that’s all.

    A: My job? You mean right now? I’d say my job is to get you drunk.

  9. well, you already know my take on “work”. what do i do for a living……

    “world traveller and professional lady kisser.”

  10. Great post Badger.

    Xsplat’s dialogue was pretty damn good as well.

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  12. Found myself in an american flag jacket last night…I managed to convince several ladies at the bar that I was a harmonica player in a Bruce Springsteen cover band who had just gotten off a gig

  13. A couple of my favorite fake jobs:

    Ninja – I tell a story about how I’m the Green Ranger from Might Morphin’ Power Rangers (“No, not the actual actor, the guy in the suit that does the stunts”)

    Gravedigger – “Yeah, I’m a gravedigger. I sneak into cemeteries at night, dig up corpses and then pawn the wedding rings that I find. Shit, I meant ‘grave robber.’ Always get those two confused.”

  14. Joe Commenter

    Great post Xsplat. Problem with many of the game posts out there is that it’s all theory and not practical at all. You fixed that Xsplat.

  15. Tasmin

    Good stuff. I have been trying this (derailing the “what do you do” question) for a while now and have to ay it can be difficult at times. The hardest part for me is distinguishing between the people who ask this for all the wrong reasons and those who ask out of habit. After all, this very American sense of “what you do” is pounded into all of us from early on so I have found that it can be tricky to walk the continuum in terms of benefit of the doubt vs verifying their ill intentions. And I’m much better when it comes to men – I’ve been around pissing contests for a long time, but with the women the motive behind the question can be much more illusive. Sure some are easy to spot but many are just going back to the well. I’m with you when it comes to reading their reactions though, that does indeed sort out most of it. I’ve had women get flat out pissed off and/or suddenly lose interest and drop the conversation dead because I am somewhere between vague and outlandish in my answer. As if they are entitled to my CV because we are in the same place at the same time.

    It is interesting from my perspective because I have had a long career in a “sexy” high-status field and then opted out to a bootstrap collection of endeavors which initially indicate either seriously impaired earning power or low-status or both. When I was in my old field, I rarely disclosed anything and avoided the topic as much as possible. It was often my GF who made sure the other folks knew I was a baller. Which is probably part of why we are no longer together, but in any case, now that I don’t even have the baller status to back it up, I find derailing the career shit-test to be even more rewarding.

    I also have to say that in traveling to other countries, this concept is almost a non-issue. Being interesting, engaging and inquisitive is far more of a concern it seems. Granted, being American carries some kind of status for good or bad, but still, the foreign women I have dated never asked about my job directly, and indirect inquiries were in the context of something else and came much later on.

  16. DC Phil

    1. @Tasmin

    I second how foreign women rarely are that concerned about what you do for a living than are American women. I’ve experienced this more than once when I was living in and traveling around Europe a few years ago. Especially in Romania, where I was last year. I told a couple of them that I worked in IT and then they changed the subject, wanting to know more about why I was there in Romania. (They almost seemed ashamed of their own country.) To them, an American going to a place like Romania was unusual, and they wanted to know why. I got an even more interested reaction when I told them that I have some Romanian heritage in my family.

    As for American chicks asking the question, obviously it’s to size guys up and then disqualify us. I’d also have to say that it reflects how boring and shallow they are themselves. If they’re not talking about work, then they’re talking about what restaurants they like to frequent, what TV shows they like to watch, what the newest app is for their iPhone, or some fabulous vacation they had with their girlfriends at a cheesy tourist resort. Sigh . . .

    2. As for talking about jobs, I had something resembling the reverse happen to me earlier this year . . .

    Late 30s woman, decent-looking (but showing her age, especially with evidence of sun-worshipping in her youth and fairly pronounced wrinkles around the eyes), fairly chatty, and not too full of herself. The standard “I have a great job” and “I live in a great neighborhood” statements came, but then she volunteered more information about what SHE did, not asking that much about what I did. She said that she was some kind of researcher at the Institute for Peace Studies here in DC. Harmless (and tedious) enough, but then she added that that career was a 180 from what she had been doing before: a CIA case officer. She left it because she had a “moral quandary” with the work and wanted to do something different. Uh-huh . . .

    Now, as someone who is a bit familiar with this kind of stuff, had it been me, I wouldn’t have mentioned that I worked for the CIA unless I had done contract work over there with the lighting system or, maybe, cleaning the toilets or working in the food court. :) I certainly wouldn’t say that I was an analyst or, as this woman said, a case officer. The latter, FYI, usually recruit informants where they’re stationed, and this woman was in New Delhi during her tenure. Stating that you did this kind of work might draw attention to yourself, and not the good kind.

    In retrospect, I’m sure she mentioned it to try to impress me, which failed — along with most everything else she said after she said, with glee, when we were in the Starbucks before we headed to the park, “I’m part of Starbucks’ biggest demographic!” Uh-huh . . .

  17. I dropped out of my PHD program when I realized that I would not get any benefit from it other than getting Dr. before my name in the church bulletin when I sang a song. I didn’t need it for my career, which was almost over, and didn’t need it for any other reason except pride.

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