What do people want to be asked about their jobs?
February 4, 2010 8:32 AM   Subscribe

We've covered questions you shouldn't ask people about their jobs, but what questions do people want to be asked about their professions?

I thought the most interesting answers in the thread were ones like this, that let you know which questions made you look like an idiot and which could get a conversation going. Asking a photographer what kind of photography they do and why they do it is obvious in retrospect, but somehow I'd never realized it.

"Why do you do ___?" seems to be an easy one, but it's so open-ended that I wouldn't blame someone for dodging it.

For example, I'm a web developer. If you asked me what I did for a living, I'd just say "make boring web sites" and try to move on. Same thing with what languages I use. If you asked me if i had any side projects, though, we'd be on our way!

Assume I'm interested in absolutely everything, just inept at expressing it.

and yes, yes, plenty of people hate talking about work, but let's put that aside for now
posted by soma lkzx to Human Relations (25 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
There's a whole book about this by Leil Lowndes. You could browse through it on Amazon. That said, the book seems pretty incomplete (not surprisingly), and I'm very interested to see the answers to this question.

One idea from another book by Leil Lowndes (How to Talk to Anyone): when talking to an artist, don't ask, "Have you been in any galleries?" They might feel inadequate if they haven't been in any, or many. Instead, ask, "Where could I see some of your work?" This is more open-ended, since it can include not just exhibits but also websites, books, or even dropping by their apartment.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2010

"What's the most interesting part of your job?"

"What didn't you expect when you started working in X?"

"What would you improve about job/industry/national policy/thing X, if you had the chance to improve it?" (Sort of a variation on "What's the WORST part of your job?" but more interesting because it gets at the framework that underlies that job and how the framework could be made better. Also less depressing!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:45 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

As an editor of children's books, I like to be asked, "What are you working on that you're excited about?" It's a subtle thing, but I always get thrown off when people ask me something more general like, "What are you working on now?" since I'm always working on many things at the same time.

I also love talking about the process of working with authors, so I like open-ended questions like, "So what exactly does your job involve?"

I don't like being asked about Harry Potter. Or Twilight.
posted by cider at 8:47 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask about industry trends. "So, what's big in [x] these days?" If it's a field you have occasional encounters with... "What should I keep an eye out for next time I'm in the market for [x]?"
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:49 AM on February 4, 2010

As an editor of books for adults, I second all of cider's questions; I can talk about publishing for hours and hours.

I also like being asked, "What are things you were surprised to learn when you got into publishing?" There's lots of counter-intuitive or surprising stuff.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:55 AM on February 4, 2010

There's a whole book about this by Leil Lowndes.

At first I was disappointed because it seemed so general ("How To Talk To Anybody About Anything") but then I got to the first Amazon review:
I thought I was buying a book about, literally "how to talk to anybody about anything." What I got was an encyclopedia of about 200 professions, with questions to ask them about their professions. The title should be "Questions To Ask People About Their Profession, Covering 200 Different Professions."

I want my money back! This type of deceptive marketing is infuriating
In all their fury they only gave it one star, but boy that seems like exactly the book I'm looking for.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2010

I'm one of those people who hates talking about their jobs. (I'd much rather talk about my hobbies.) The best question you could ask me is "How do you like it?" which gives me the opportunity to say, "It's pretty good, thanks! So, how are your kids?" Unless you're sure that the person you're talking to wants to talk about their job, it might be good to start off with an easy-out question and see how they answer.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:07 AM on February 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

In all their fury they only gave it one star, but boy that seems like exactly the book I'm looking for.

Yep. Sounds like the reviewer you quoted should have bought one of her other books instead. As another review says:
Misunderstood! . . . this is an excellent book! ...

This book should be used as a companion to her other book, "How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships." It seems that all the people who are giving this book bad reviews are actually looking for the material in this other book. Once you have read the other book, you will understand how this book is useful, and you will be very glad she wrote it because you will have a need for it. This book is almost more like an exercise that expands upon some of the points covered in this other book (which, by the way, is excellent).
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:08 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was in college, the Women's Studies department (or maybe it was some feminist campus group? I can't remember) invited Alison Bechdel to come give a talk, and have a post-talk dinner with some students and faculty. I was in a feminist film class at the time, and my professor knew I was into comics, so she invited me to attend. Which was awesome! Because Alison Bechdel is awesome!

So at dinner, it was mostly students who seemed to appreciate her primarily as a feminist & queer-theorist first and cartoonist second, and they were asking her lots of stuff about how she felt gender roles were changing, the difference between growing up gay in her generation and growing up gay in ours, whether her more radical characters reflected actual viewpoints of hers or not, etc. And at some point, there was a pause, and I was like, "Uh so I know this isn't much of a thing but uh what kind of pen do you use?" And her eyes lit up, and we started talking about pens, and she seemed really delighted to talk about that!

I get the feeling that for a lot of cartoonists, it's not that they particularly love talking about their tools above all else, just that they're more used to being asked about Themes and Issues and But Is It Art a lot, and they like just shifting into "Oh man that Sakura Micron brush tip is so cheap yet so reliable" mode every now and again. I also seem to recall some issue of a Jhonen Vasquez comic where he was bitching about how depressing cartooning gets, and he was like, "Man and no one even fucking NOTICED that I used ONLY brushes to ink Squee #2"
posted by Greg Nog at 9:11 AM on February 4, 2010 [13 favorites]

Nanny, I like being asked about the kids. How old, etc. And ask me for an opinion or advice about controversial topics about kids! like, how do I feel about spanking or something or should you let your 4 month old cry it out.
posted by kathrineg at 9:16 AM on February 4, 2010

I'm a Records Management Analyst for local governments. I'd like people to ask me what I like about the job or why I think it is important. Then I can talk about open government, its importance to a functioning democracy, and ensuring that our rights are preserved. I'd also like people to not fall asleep when I tell them my job title.
posted by marxchivist at 9:23 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have two general suggestions which should work for all professions, if that is OK.

I love being asked, and asking: "What would you do all day if you wouldn't have to earn money?". People who love their jobs can explain then why they would keep working ("Because I love doing X, Y and Z!"). This is really fascinating because you find out that a lot of people like their jobs, even jobs that sound somewhat boring to an outsider.
And people who hate their jobs would be happy too, because they could tell you about their crazy plans for an alpaka farm in montana, etc.

(Additional feel-good suggestion that should work for almost all professions: Ask people what they are especially good at in their job.)
posted by The Toad at 9:30 AM on February 4, 2010

Previously: Insights gained via one's career. Not sure whether you've seen this, but I didn't see a link and there's some great stuff there. Granted, it's more of a practical bent than purely of conversational interest, but the reasons why such things are important are usually interesting. To me, at least.
posted by tellumo at 9:31 AM on February 4, 2010

Very few people want to talk about their jobs. What they want to talk about is what they are working hard in their spare time to make into their job. Talk more about skills than about concrete actions.
posted by Damn That Television at 9:35 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

True- very few people want to talk about their jobs (me included). But as an artist, hearing another person's interpretation of my artwork is usually fascinating. And if asked about intent, symbolism, inspiration, etc.- I would be thrilled and would be happy to talk about it, because I think that people that ask about your thoughts and inspiration actually care about your response.
posted by Eicats at 9:41 AM on February 4, 2010

As a painter, I hate it when people ask "what kind" I do. For that I have no answer. Slightly better is, "what do you paint?" Though my answer is not what they're looking for, ending the conversation.

Better things are asking about how I make my paintings. A much broader question that is still central to one's practice leads to conversation rather than unavoidably nonspecific gurgling. Even better would be, as has been suggested, why painting? Really, anything about the theory or philosophy of (in increasing interest to me and decreasing specificity) painting (or any specific medium), artists, art, perception, consciousness, or the nature of the universe.

Also, while I like to hear what people have to say about some specific piece, I don't like to talk about it much myself, and I know a lot of artists who are the same way.
posted by cmoj at 9:41 AM on February 4, 2010

BTW, I love your follow-up "what side projects are your working on" question. If someone asked me that, I would instantly feel bonded because I would know that this person is familiar with creative personalities and that no matter what I'm getting paid to do, I always have something of my own going on. That little insiderer question would be fun to answer.
posted by Eicats at 9:49 AM on February 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Librarian: "What's the most interesting/unusual/challenging question you've answered?"

As a side note, my university had a lecture series where they invited different professors within the university to talk about pretty much whatever they wanted. One professor gave a speech on, roughly, "Questions I wish my students would ask (and my answers to them)." This was 20+ years ago, so I don't remember most of it, but the one that stuck with me is "What do I need to know after the final?"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:06 AM on February 4, 2010

I work a fairly menial job at a museum. I like it when people want to talk to me about the collection, ask my opinion on an exhibit, ask me to tell stories about people coming only to see the Rocky stairs or even share in visitor horror stories or funny events. I see a lot of people and nice, bad or just funny interactions are a huge part of the job. Similarly I love to discuss the things the museum has to offer.

What I dislike (and a number of my friends in other semi-menial jobs have the same problem) is when someone asks "But what do you do?" As if we must also be in school or an artist because why else would we take such a crappy job? Those questions especially smart when we are all college educated and facing a crappy, crappy job market.
posted by piratebowling at 10:11 AM on February 4, 2010

I am a research assistant in a lab that studies alcoholism. Revealing this usually leads to conversation about AA, "am I/is my wife/is my brother an alcoholic?" etc. Frankly, I am not interested in treatment, and people assume that the study of alcoholism is the study of its treatment. Not even close.

I love trying to communicate to lay people, with as much nuance as possible, the myriad risk factors we've found for the development of alcohol abuse over 20 years of longitudinal study. I like trying to explain the relationships we found between alcoholism and impulse control. I like trying to explain that yes, there are genes associated with alcoholism (like variants of genes for alcohol metabolizing enzymes in your liver, variants of the gene for GABA and serotonin, etc.) and they tend to work through certain pathways in our models, but not every alcoholic has the genes and not everyone with the genes is alcoholic.

I think I am like most people in the sciences, especially medical science, in that I enjoy conversations about my work that involve nuance, since most popular discussion of science is anything but nuanced.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:36 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a computer scientist and I write a lot of papers and documents with complex mathematics and carefully-drawn figures. I care deeply about producing beautiful documents. I'd love to talk about typography (especially with my colleagues who don't seem to give a damn).
posted by rlk at 12:00 PM on February 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm an interior designer with a corporate firm. We do huge multi-million dollar entertainment resorts. So no, I don't want to "decorate" your house.

But if you want to ask me how we design these spaces, who our clients are, etc., then sure! I'd be glad to chat you up.
posted by elisebeth at 12:23 PM on February 4, 2010

I am a consultant. I would love, love, love it if instead of saying "so what does a consultant do?" someone simply asked "what was your favorite project?"

I have an answer to that. I don't have a concise way to say what it is a consultant does, because that changes with each case.
posted by CharlieSue at 3:30 PM on February 4, 2010

I'm unemployed and I'm always happy to talk to people about interesting things I read on the internet. Metafilter is very helpful on that front.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 5:07 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another librarian: ask me about unusual research requests! I can tell you about researching toilet manufacturers or the law on disposal of unclaimed dead bodies in NJ!
posted by marginaliana at 9:33 AM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

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