Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Here's your money briefing for Thursday, April 13th. I'm J.R. Whalen for the Wall Street Journal. After introducing yourself to someone, it's pretty common to ask, "So what do you do?" But what if asking someone about their job wasn't the second question you'd ask? Or the third or the fourth? Would you know what to say next? WSJ "Work and Life" columnist, Rachel Feintzeig explored that question and she joins me now. Hey, Rachel. Thanks for being here. Thanks so much for having me. I'll refrain from asking you the question, J.R. I won't tell you what I do, but it has to do with sort of like hosting things with a microphone. I'm getting some context clues here. So, you know, being asked, "what do you do?" seems like a pretty benign question. But when did it become taboo to ask someone right off the bat? I don't think it is taboo. I think it's still a part of us. One person I talked to said it's like asking about the weather, but I think there has been this sense, especially over the last couple of years that people don't want to just be defined by what they do that they want to have a bigger life. And I think going right into it can kind of be jarring for some folks in this moment. But in this era of overworking and struggling to find a work life balance, don't many people feel their job is part of what defines them? Yeah, I talked to people who found that their, all their social media feeds had been inundated with work that they were kind of itching to have people ask them that question just so they could kind of put it out there. I think it can become this kind of low-level status competition as another person described it to me. So, yes, I think this is something that we're always kind of battling with even as we maybe try to change our relationship to work. Oh, so something like, oh you're a manager. Well, I'm a director. Yeah, a source for this said to me, like, he feels like people are always kind of low level sizing each other up, maybe trying to figure out who makes more money than the other person. So there's a whole undercurrent going on? Yeah, yeah. And when we swap our job titles, we're really like trying to say something about how busy we are, how important we are, how valuable we are. You know, Rachel a few recessions ago, I was out of work for a stretch of time and I remember cringing when somebody would ask what I did for work because I was out of work. But when I got a job, I couldn't wait for someone to ask. So it's still ok to ask, right? Yeah, it's definitely still ok to ask. I think the idea behind the column was just, what do we gain if maybe we don't ask right away, what are other ways that we can kind of connect with and relate to people? And if you happen to be someone who doesn't want to lead with your professional self, how can you field that question? Because inevitably people are going to keep asking it. I guess if you're a covert CIA operative, maybe you want to sort of like, bury that down to the conversation. Yeah. And yet those are the people we want to talk to about their jobs, right? That sounds way more fun than like the accountant. That's true. But I guess, you know, you can't stop people from asking the question, but is there a creative way to answer it or maybe work around the question? Yeah, definitely. When I talked to one guy who said he kind of makes a joke out of it, people will ask him what he does, and he'll say that he makes the little mini umbrellas that go and drinks, and they'll be like, "really?" and he'll be like, "No, not really." But it just kind of... honestly, like, a joke can just kind of lighten the moment, I think, and kind of disrupt those wrote patterns of conversations, those scripts that we all devolve into. You can also just kind of lead with your hobbies, your family, other parts of your life, and then add as a kind of last final beat, an afterthought almost, in my day job I... or the way I make a living is... And you're kind of throwing it in there at the end and taking some of the focus off of that. And then one last tip is to talk about what industry you're in, what you actually do, but not focus as much on your title or the company you work for. And the idea there is that that might not be forever. And so that was a tip that I got from someone who had been laid off, J.R., who had actually been fired and found that his identity was pretty tangled up in the circle of work, friends that he had, the prestige of his title, being in management, this brand name that he was working for. And those are the things that can kind of go away. But maybe what you're actually doing, your profession, the field that you're in, um, that might be something that people might want to focus on. Is there some sort of a stigma associated with asking someone about their job? I don't think so. I think it's still a really common place question. I think there is just a growing sense from a lot of people and I've heard from tons of people since the story was written about people who don't want to be judged by their job anymore. But no, I still think it's a socially acceptable thing to ask. I think the one awkward moment that people might fall into is if someone has been laid off, especially in this economy, and that can obviously be a hurtful thing to have kind of pushed up to the surface. I guess I'm in between jobs is the standard answer. Yeah, I mean, in between jobs or even someone told me to focus a little more positively, you know, I'm looking for my next opportunity and launching in there to make that connection. But let's say you're at a party and you meet people haven't met before, wouldn't not asking about their job, at least during the introduction process be a hard habit to break? I think it is a hard habit to break. I think we're all totally used to this. But I also think it is possible to shift. I talked to someone who felt like her job had become her entire personality, who would just sit there hoping that people would ask her what she did for a living. It made her feel better about herself. She said she kind of worried that people, before she said what she did, people would kind of be thinking like, "who's this idiot?" and throwing her title out there would kind of be this thing that would make her seem like a valuable person, but she was able to shift, and now she asks people how they fill their time and what brings them joy. It might seem a little weird at first, but I think it's possible to shift the conversation. There's more to life than just work. Exactly. We're more than our jobs. All right. That's Wall Street Journal, "Work and Life" columnist, Rachel Feintzeig. Rachel, thanks so much for being with us. Thanks so much for having me. And that's your money briefing. I'm J.R. Whalen for the Wall Street Journal.