Ice Breakers: An Open Letter

creative commons image by williamarthur on flickr

Dear World at Large,

We’ve been slowly getting on a little better over the past few years. I’m learning to navigate your tricky social world and you’ve been learning that I can be pretty cool sometimes.

Sometimes, though, we just don’t seem to get along. I do really try to live by your rules and your standards of how people are supposed to be, but sometimes I really need you to take a few steps towards me. This is one of those areas.

Stop asking people about their job as an ice breaker!

Seriously. I am not very good at making conversation with strangers in the first place, but this ice breaker really does not help. Not everyone works, not everyone has a job that they are happy with, and not everyone has a job that they can talk about. I know you want to think that it’s good enough since it works for most people, but it can be seriously alienating for those of use for whom it does not work. It is also an area with a lot of social baggage stuck onto it, and it can be expletive difficult to avoid feeling shame if you happen to be one of those people who does not have a job.

Sometimes people ask what sounds like a more general, “what do you do?” type of question. I would like this if it were actually general. Then people could answer with their job, or with their hobbies, or with their advocacy, or whatever else they could talk about in terms of how they spend their time. Sounds great, right? Except that I have learned that when people do this, they are not actually meaning it as generally as it sounds. They are still asking about a job.

Story time! Once, I was chatting with a stranger and she asked me the “what do you do?” ice breaker question. I chose to answer in terms of one of my hobbies, so I said that I crochet. The rest of the conversation went about as follows:

Her: Oh, you crochet for money?

Me: No, it’s a hobby.

Her: But what do you do for money?

Me: Nothing.

Her: But how do you get by? What do you do?

Me: I’m a hobo.

Eventually a friend of mine stepped in and said that I am “between jobs” and the interrogation ended. However, this should never have happened in the first place. If I choose to answer what I “do” with a hobby, please just go with it. Why is it so important to pursue the job question, even when I have clearly chosen to not answer? What is so important about knowing how I do or do not make money?

A similar thing happened another time when I was chatting with a stranger. The usual “what do you do?” question came up. This time I was blunt and simply said that I do not have a job. I was then subjected to yet another interrogation regarding why I don’t work, and am I looking, and how hard am I looking, and how long has this been going on and honestly, why is that necessary?

This is one of the reasons why I rather dread talking to strangers. The pervasiveness of this question is rather frustrating for me. I already find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know, and I already find it difficult to cope with my jobless status. Combining the two into one horrible interaction just comes across as unfriendly.

I don’t think I’m asking something terribly difficult. It can still be a job question for all those people who want it to be a job question. Just please let it be a hobby/other things I do with my time question for the people who need it to be. If I choose not to answer in terms of a job, please just go with it. Be ok with it. It can still be an ice breaker if two strangers find themselves talking to each other for whatever reason. In fact, it will be a better ice breaker, because it will no longer be excluding people who are disabled and don’t want to talk about their medical status, or otherwise don’t have a job and don’t want to be interrogated about it. It’s not friendly, it’s not nice, please stop.




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12 responses to “Ice Breakers: An Open Letter

  1. Andrew



  2. PK

    Yep, and it kinda sucks when you’re an NT mom who’s been looking for a job for a couple of years, too. I feel your pain. It’s not an issue for me currently – BUT then if you don’t have what people consider an “important” job (read more-than-an-administrative-assistant-even-though-we-keep-the-company-functioning), it’s kind of wearing as well.

    So I will also “co-sign” 🙂

    • That’s a good point. There can be any number of reasons why someone might be unemployed, but I’ve never known anyone to want to talk about those reasons with a stranger.

  3. Thank you for mentioning people who can not talk about their job. With my last job it was always awkward trying to politely respond without going into too much detail.

    I’d advocate for people to respond to what do you do with hobbies or whatever it is they are passionate about whether or not they have a job as well. If more people take this question at face value we can help normalize a non-job response for everyone.

  4. I just want to add that I have a career path that is REALLY easy to talk about (lots of great talking points about helping people and current events and school and nice cushy small talk type stuff), and I STILL hate this question, or at least the implication that knowing about my job is the easiest way to identify me. The actual reasons I’m involved in my career are incredibly personal and in reality I disagree with the ethics of most of my colleagues, but you can bet I’m not going to be talking about that stuff as an ice breaker. So when someone asks me what I do, yeah I can give a pretty impressive chatty scripted answer, but afterwards people know much less about me than they did before and they have no idea.

    That was a bit of a rant on my part. Oops. Anyway, yes. I’m behind you 100% on this one.

    • Oh, this is a good point, and I’m sorry I missed it in my open letter (and I just replied to someone else, talking about how I tried to remember that there are multiple reasons someone might not like this question).

  5. you put my thoughts into words. well done 🙂

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