A year and a half ago, I wrote a popular article titled, “Stop asking, ‘What do you do for a living?’” The crux of my argument was,

Chatting with somebody in socializing situations should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life to size up the other’s socioeconomic status, and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations about topics of mutual interest.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog article on networking argues that the ‘what do you do?’ question may not be the best way to build rapport with someone else.

Research findings from the world of network science and psychology suggests that we tend to prefer and seek out relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with the other person. Sociologists refer to these as multiplex ties, connections where there is an overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context. … We may prefer relationships with multiplex ties because research suggests that relationships built on multiplex ties tend to be richer, more trusting, and longer lasting.

The article gives examples of open-ended questions that could elicit non-work-related answers.

  • What excites you right now?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Who is your favorite superhero?
  • Is there a charitable cause you support?
  • What’s the most important thing I should know about you?

These inquiries could be helpful once you have a conversation going—they don’t make good initial questions. I’ve found it helpful to start with simple questions (“how do you know the hosts” or “is this your first time in this city”) and wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally.

Another practice I’ve found helpful is to ask to be introduced. Request your host to mention common interests when you are introduced to a new person in the gathering.

Susan RoAne’s How to Work a Room and Do I Say Next? provide great guidelines on how to make your business and personal conversations more effective.

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