In France, they’ve got baguettes, fancy hats and better conversation.
That’s because it’s a no-no to ask people what do you do? A faux pas, if you will.
Jobs are a boring topic, they’ll insist, and it’s gauche—another status-sensitive French word—to derive too much of your sense of self from your work anyway.
“They will be offended, believing you’re trying to put them into a box,” Julie Barlow, co-author of The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, 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.”
If you’re French (or just trying to be), she says the go-to icebreakers are to ask where in the country someone is from (not “where are you from,” which implies that the person asking the question thinks the person they’re talking to might be foreign), or to ask about where one likes to vacation—a popular topic, given how much more time off they have than Americans.
An optimistic view would be that asking what do you do? offers a glimpse into someone’s way of life, while a cynical one would be that it’s a way of assessing status. Or maybe we Americans just can’t think of what else to say.
Quite unlike the French, North Americans invest a lot of their identity in what they do for a living. It’s part of why retirement can be so hard for some people, especially men. They need to construct a new identity away from work, a process thought to be more stressful than pregnancy.
The important thing to remember about small talk is that, unlike PowerPoint presentations or meetings with your HR department, the goal is the association between people more than the communication of ideas. Small talk “asks and answers familiar questions, dwells on topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement,” David Roberts observes at Vox. The point isn’t to wow your new conversation partner with your astounding intellect or avoid all possible forms of embarrassment, it’s to get to know the other person. Relationships start by relating.
The key is to “triangulate” and talk about something both of you are experiencing or have experienced, like the weather, Game of Thrones, or the newfound prevalence emoji. You draw a verbal triangle between you, them and some third conversational thing.
I have a close friend who found this liberating: after reading about some of this research, he went to a college buddy’s wedding where he didn’t know anyone other than the groom, and this self-described neurotic made a point to carefully associate with his fellow guests. He asked about how they knew the groom and bride, and he was careful not get too worried about the incrementality of the process—gliding through the party like the thoughtful guy I know him to be. It’s not about what you do, but what you have, as the saying goes, in common.