February 26 , 2022 /


For many years, when I traveled frequently for work, I had the familiar experience of meeting a stranger, often on an airplane or in an airport, hotel or other some other travel related location.  One of the first questions that seemed to be put forward often was, “What do you do?”

My response, somewhat automatic, assuming that the person was asking about my job, was something like “I am an executive search consultant, what do you do?”  Their response was similar to mine and it could even be more broad and vague, like “I am in finance.”  Whoa!  Do I pursue that further and say something silly such as “Oh, do you make money?”    Or do I ask for clarification and say, “What dimension of the financial world claims your time, banking?”   The exchange may go back and forth or it might lead to another kind of conversation having to do with where we lived or family or something else.  It’s a way we have of meeting, greeting and getting to know enough about someone to have a longer, more meaningful conversation.

A friend of mine, the late Reuel Howe, a theologian and clinical pastoral counselor, told a story that amused me and has stayed with me for a long time.  Like many of us, he traveled a fair amount in his work and one time, getting settled in his seat on the plane, his seat mate asked the proverbial question, “What do you do?”   Reuel, with his characteristic honesty and good humor, responded with, “I am a pilgrim.”  Silence followed.  About 15 minutes later, the stranger asked,

“Excuse me, what did you say you did?”  Reuel repeated, “I am a pilgrim,” to which the response was, “That’s what I thought you said, what does that mean?”  What followed was a very different kind of conversation about how we identify ourselves to others beyond what we do.  It was much more about who we are and how that informs and guides what we do or maybe it doesn’t.

Now, imagine meeting someone for the first time and instead of asking, “What do you do” you were to say, “Who are you?”  I know, it’s a stretch, but you might try it and see what happens.  I put it into the same category of the automatic greeting, “How are you?” with the most often, general response of “Good, and you?”  Instead of saying,

“Good” I started saying “Better” on many occasions to see if it might elicit a different response.  I had a bad habit for awhile when someone responded “Good” to “How are you?” of asking, “How do you know? How do you know you’re good?”  My wife said it was rude and shocking to the other person because it wasn’t “normal.”  I know I may be a bit off center now and then and she’s the one who said “Normal is a button on the washing machine.”

If you want to know someone, I believe there are better ways of engaging people beyond the traditional and tired greetings that have prepackaged responses.  What is required is a little more thought, clarity about your intention, and some deeper exploration of those things that matter to someone else.  Maybe that’s another question for consideration.  What matters to you or at least, what’s important for you these days?  I’ll go with that for now.


Comments (4)

  1. Yes. Some questions are open ended, and they can help move the conversation from the mundane ‘what do you do?’ to the more intriguing ‘who ARE you?’ I guess ‘what matters to me’ is asking the question, and then actually investing in listening to the answer… how often I have asked the ‘what do you do?’ question in person and then forgotten to listen. Work in progress…

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. You understand the difference between who you are and what you do and that will help take you forward for you to be in alignment between you and your work.

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