“So, what do you do for work?”

Surely this is the most hackneyed and unimaginative of all possible conversational gambits.  Yes, it’s polite to inquire about your interlocutor instead of blathering endlessly about yourself, but in a social setting, talking about work is just passe.  Worse than that, in this crummy economy, asking a stranger about work can put somebody unemployed on the spot.  There’s plenty to talk about besides work while still avoiding religion, politics and sex. (But if you’re still avoiding those topics, you might be going to the wrong kinds of parties.)

Here are five stratagems for coping with this outre question.

1. Redirect

The softest approach, but be warned that it doesn’t always stick.  Acknowledge that you’ve been asked the annoying question, but answer an adjacent question of your own that has something to do with it.  Be warned that this can turn the entire conversation to work stories, but it can also transmit the idea that you don’t want to talk about your work, or lack of it.

“So, what do you do for work?”

“Have you seen that movie with Zach Galifianakis, the one where people explode from the stress of their dystopian jobs?”

2. Ignore

This one is easy to pull off in a busy setting with lots of people talking all together.  Just keep going wherever you were going as if the question was never asked.  You can be nice, and ask a more appropriate version of the getting to know a stranger question, or just wing it. Either way, it helps to counter as soon as possible or even before the bore gets finished with the work question.

“So, what do you do for-“

“I just saw a really good show of canopic jars – do you get to the museum often?”

3. Stun

Answer directly with a show-stopping lie.  This isn’t very sustainable, so if nobody else saves you by redirecting, you should be prepared to bolt or feign sudden illness.

“So, what do you do for work?”

“I work on the stun line at a slaughterhouse.

4. Distract

This is the most fun.  You can acknowledge the question or not, but you just have to have a topic of discussion that’s more interesting and more urgent to talk about right now.  Or you could just point at something behind the bore’s back, and run away when he turns to look.

“So, what do you do for work?”

(whisper, point conspiratorially with your chin) “Wait, see that guy there, at the buffet? He just did it again, he double-dipped! With a chicken wing!”

5. Mis-hear

If the scene is loud, you can pretend to mis-hear and answer your own question.

“So, what do you do for work?”

“Are there Jews on planet Ork?  Well, Robin Williams never explicitly said so, but there are clear signs of Yiddish in the Orkan dialect…”

In summary, there’s no reason to be trapped in a conversation you don’t like.   If there’s nothing interesting in your life besides work, and you can’t think of anything to ask others about besides their work, maybe you should reconsider your life choices.  Get a hobby.  Or a personality.

PS Thanks to the good folks at Grub for inspiring and then paring this post.