Dogs sniff each other’s butts when they meet for the first time. They have this cool thing called the Jacobson’s organ, which allows them to bypass that dog doo smell and absorb much more important information like their gender, health status, age, and diet. This information is good to know – especially if one meets a militant vegan dog and doesn’t want to offend by offering to share a pig’s ear or rawhide bone. Dogs can also get a whiff of the other’s mood, which apparently cannot be determined by observing tail-wagging tempo. One should never assume in the dog-dom.
Humans sniff each other’s butts upon meeting as well. This greeting comes in the form of “What do you do for a living?” and is often abbreviated to “What do you do?” The answer usually lets the inquisitor know how much money the other person makes, the type of life they have, and if this person can be of any use to them. It is a common question and reasonably expected, but I think it is a rude question that needs to vamoose. (Side note: Did you know moose can completely close their nostrils? I wish I could have had that superpower to avoid the lingering delicate aromas of burnt popcorn or fish leftovers microwaved in the office break room.) Back to butt-sniffing: You would never, upon meeting someone say, “So, how much money do you have in your bank account? Can I increase my wealth or social status by hanging around you? Can you get me into that exclusive country club, my lazy kid a college scholarship, a free haircut, or tickets? Do I want to keep talking to you, or should I go shove some guacamole in my mouth?”
It is a terrible question for a bigger reason: Many people actively hate their jobs. Some experience anxiety just at the thought of their career. They have “Sunday dread” so ominous that they cannot enjoy time off with their friends and family. “Sunday Funday” is the dumbest expression they have ever heard, and they secretly despise anyone who says it. Sunday is just pre-Monday to them. For many of these people, Saturday is their only buffer from what feels like jail. And there you are, bringing it up at that random kid’s birthday party that is burning everyone’s precious weekend hours.
You would never say, “So tell me about that thing you hate where you spend most of your waking hours.” (If you worded it that way, you might make some friends.) I wouldn’t try that approach with physical therapists; they supposedly love their jobs. But give it a go at a conference of dentists, attorneys, restaurant, or customer service workers. They might appreciate your dark sense of humor.
For the rest of you, try “Stellar meeting you (person I will try to connect with). What do you wish you did for a living?” I have taken this approach with groups of people sitting at stuffy awards banquets and rubber-chicken-conference-luncheons, and the conversations immediately turned from stale to special. Try it. Just ensure they are not sitting next to their boss – (and if they are, ask the boss for their answer first.) I promise you will see their faces light up as they enthusiastically tell you they wished they worked on antique cars, wrote a sitcom, or became a chef.
And when someone asks you what you do for a living, try responding with something ridiculous. I loved telling people I was a panda breeder for many years. Not only did it take the conversation in an interesting direction, but I immediately learned a lot about them by their reactions. Examples:
My instant new best friend: “No way!! I breed duckbill platypuses!” (I was also impressed she knew the plural is not platypi.)
Someone who works in actuarial sciences: “That doesn’t make sense. Why are you at this conference?”
Then there was that certain someone I wouldn’t be friends with: She stared at me blankly and said, “OK.” And then she walked off to shove guacamole in her mouth.
You win some and lose some when you don’t act like everyone else, but don’t fear rejection. The typical response I received was surprise and laughter. Some would ask follow-up questions to see if I could keep the panda breeder gag going, which I happily obliged. They never forgot me or our conversation and would actively seek me out at the following reception.
Some of you may think this is a silly approach, and you are wondering when the “business part” of this encounter will be accomplished. You firmly believe the point of networking is to make business contacts. You don’t have time for jokes and must fill out another report for your sales manager. You are taking the “work” in “networking” too literally.
If you have made a real, authentic connection, they will figure out what you do for a living because they want to learn more about you. They will hunt you down on social media, too. They will enthusiastically return your emails and calls, which is one of the biggest hurdles in getting business done. They will want to do business with you and introduce you to others who can open doors for you.
So stop sniffing butts. Have an interesting conversation instead. It is the better way to connect.