One of the most common questions in American small talk is considered rude in much of the world

Fleeting intimacy.
Fleeting intimacy.
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica
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There is something daring in seeking out an exchange with someone, especially a stranger. For such occasions, cultures around the world develop a repertoire of easy conversation starters. In the United States and Canada, however, one opener dominates: what do you do?

Whatever the reason—the influence of a Protestant work ethic, or a desperate attempt to not appear classist—North Americans habitually start a conversation with strangers by asking what they do for a living. It’s one of many customs in which American cultural norms deviate from those of the UK and Europe.

In most places in the world, asking a stranger what kind of work he or she does, especially without any pretext, is frowned upon. And now, “What do you do?” is finally becoming a tainted question in North America, too.

Learn from the French

In the US, national politics have made people more self-conscious about longstanding class divisions, while the gig economy has made work itself a more complicated concept. The question of what one does, therefore, feels a lot more loaded than it used to.

The disdain for this opening line is nothing new for the French, who have been known for shutting down chats with Americans who ask the dreaded “What do you do?”

In their new book, The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau elaborate on why you should never ask a French person about their work. The reaction is not just about the conversation starter’s affront to egalitarianism (a concept the French value dearly, even if they don’t live it, Barlow says). Rather, the French frequently enjoy pretending that they don’t like their jobs. So, just like money, work is a boring topic.

“They will be offended, believing you’re trying to put them into a box,” Barlow, a French-Canadian, tells Quartz. “And they just don’t think it’s interesting to work for a living. There are other things they’d much rather talk about.”

 To the French, she explains, conversations are for exchanging points of view, not finding things in common, the goal of conversation for North Americans.

Counterintuitively, the French do not find it rude or elitist to ask about where a person likes to vacation, but that’s because it’s common for people there to take an average 30 days of paid vacation per year. In any case, it’s a nice alternative to staring blankly into the middle distance for too long the next time you encounter a stranger.

However, the typical French openers that may translate with more ease are things like, “Which part of the country are you from?” (Notably, it’s not “where are you from?” which, in France, could imply you are not French, Barlow explains. That could be a danger in the US, too, where immigration and citizenship have become fiercely debated topics.)

Relatedly, any questions about geography or the food in a person’s hometown or region tend to get people chatting.

Stay within “Tier one” 

Food also is on Daniel Post Senning’s list of safe “tier one” topics, meant for encounters with people you don’t know. Post Senning is Emily Post’s great-great grandson, and a co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition. With other Post descendants, he now works for the Emily Post Institute running seminars on etiquette and communication for businesses and individuals. In his teachings, second-tier topics are religion, politics, dating, and one’s love life. Tier three, for your closest associates, expands to family and finances.

For strangers, tier one is safest. Other options here include sports (including historical, memorable moments), pop culture, and hobbies. “People say hobbies are boring, but what if a person’s hobby is particle physics?” Post Senning argues. “Or painting. The arts are not boring.”

What’s not in tier one? Work.

Try triangulation  

If you do have a preoccupation with finding out what someone does (I’ll admit it, I’m always curious), Post Senning says to wait for an opening. A comment about a long day or a demanding boss may make it safe or even polite to probe a little. But pay attention to how people respond and be prepared, with a fresh topic at hand, to back off.

“They may just feel like: Look, it’s all I do 40 hours a week or more, it’s the last thing I want to talk about,” Post Senning says.

As an alternative, one of the easiest routes into a conversation may be to remark on a shared experience—yes, you can have these with a stranger; think of the weather, or the spread on offer at a party. Post Senning suggests an ice breaker like, “Looks like it’s about to rain” or “This food looks delicious.” But these mini-commentaries don’t always have to be that mundane. Your opening line could be an appreciation of the quality of light coming through a window, he suggests.

Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, refers to the shared-experience strategy as triangulation. “The triangle is made up of you, a stranger, and a third thing that closes the loop—that might be something that you’re both experiencing or seeing that’s worthy of notice,” she told CityLab, explaining:

There might be a cute dog or someone doing something strange—an itinerant preacher on the subway, say. In those situations, you’re more likely to exchange a glance with someone, and that might be the whole outcome, or you could say something like: “Wow, he’s really fire and brimstone today.”

She also likes to notice small things and give people compliments like, “Nice shoes.” People love to fill her in on the details.

Once a conversation has started, if she’s asked about a topic for which she could respond with a full, personal disclosure—beyond the details she’d normally share with a stranger— she may very well go for it. “We tend to meet disclosure with disclosure, even when we talk to strangers,” she says.

For instance, if someone asks about her father, she may choose to mention that he passed away when she was a child. When that happens, she says, she almost invariably is told about a loss the other has experienced. A random encounter can become profound.

Forget yourself

Talking to new people isn’t only a shortcut to learning more about the ways other people live, and perhaps stepping outside your own social echo chambers, it’s also beneficial: Sociologists have found that even weak ties, like those made while chatting with fellow commuters or travelers, are linked to feelings of well-being. And, of course, those weak ties to someone who’s vacationing at the same place as you may organically stretch into a lifelong friendship.

One final tip: If you tend to be neurotic when talking to people, and anxious about what they might think of you, recognize that your concern might paradoxically make you a jerk. Consider what the writer Jennifer Latson learned about herself while doing research for a recent book. As she explained in New York Magazine: “I focus so much on saying exactly the right thing that I hardly pay any attention to the other person. I’m more concerned about how I look to them than I am about getting to know them.”

Most people want to connect, she discovered, and they aren’t judgmental about whether you remember names or little details. You’ll probably be excused even if you accidentally blurt out that suddenly gauche question we’re all trying to avoid—unless, of course, you’re talking to the French.