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Respectfully Yours: Occupation tact

Dear Jacquelyn,

When I meet someone new, I always ask what they do for a living. This seems like good conversation starter, but I’m not sure if it’s polite. Is it rude to ask someone you just met what they do for living?

Dear Reader,

It’s not so much that the question in itself is rude as it is a matter of sensitivity of context.

I suggest starting off with an ice-breaking question to set the context so your question doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s better to start with “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

As the conversation continues and if it is flowing smoothly, then the question might be viewed as continuing the natural flow of conversation.

The best way to ask this question is to say, “What line of work are you in?”

Asking it this way gives the other person the opportunity to open up about themselves.

From there I would ask, “Why did you choose your profession?”

Learning about how someone landed in their given profession has layers. You’ll learn what motivates them and what they are passionate about.

Your intentions behind the question should genuinely be career interest or things of that nature. Don’t ask the question in a manner which implies you are being nosy or worse, putting the person into a social category.

If you are not mindful of your tone and body language, and the way in which the words are said, it may cause uneasy feelings. If that happens, the question will not be well-received and is guaranteed to be a conversation-ender.

Lastly, when you meet someone new and are genuinely curious to find out what someone does, wait for an opening. A comment about a long day may be a polite opportunity to ask. But pay attention to how someone responds and be prepared to change topics.

Respectfully Yours,


Have a question? Email: jacquelyn@ptd.net. Jacquelyn Youst is owner of the Pennsylvania Academy of Protocol and is on the board of directors of the National Civility Foundation.

All Rights Reserved &Copy; 2019 Jacquelyn Youst