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July 30, 2008 / Maleesha Kovnesky

Asking The Right Questions

Many places in America have a Question Code of Ethics, but unfortunately it’s never published down at City Hall.  Still, it’s important to figure out quickly what kind of questions you can ask the locals, and what kind of questions to avoid…lest you look like a big fat jerk.
In Washington, D.C. the number one question that you ask when you meet someone is “What do you do?”  When I first moved there, I found that question a bit on the insulting side.  Who cares what I do, I thought.  Don’t you want to get to know me as a person?  The answer to that (I found out later) is “maybe.”  Whether or not someone really wants to get to know you often depends on the answer to said question.  Are you a Hill staffer?  Work for a senator?  Are you a hostess at Old Ebbitt’s Grill, and can you get me a table for six there on a busy Friday night?  Can you get me a VIP parking spot at Redskins stadium, or at least tickets to see the games?  Then the answer is a resounding yes, I’m glad to meet you

Are you doing contract work for a company I’ve never heard of?  Do you work at Wendy’s?  Then excuse me, I have to go wash my hair.
After three years of living in DC, I moved to Colorado Springs.  Colorado Springs is an interesting and politically polarized city with great views of America’s Mountain, Pikes Peak.  When I started meeting new people, I would ask them “What do you do?”  To this, I would get scrunched eyebrows and the Awkward Pause.  After inspecting me thoroughly to make sure I wasn’t about to Judge, I would usually get an answer.  But I noticed that people would answer the question a lot differently than they would in the District.  Instead of launching into a spoken paragraph of their title(s), qualifications, duties and responsibilities, they’d casually say “I work for the Utilities,” or “I’m a bank teller” before moving on to other topics. 

I eventually learned that the Question to ask there is, “Where do you live?”  This is because Colorado Springs spreads out over the land from directly underneath Pikes Peak to approximately the Kansas state line.  The neighborhoods run the gamut from trailer parks to normal to multimillion dollar mansions, scattered throughout the county like confetti.  Also, the powers that be that laid out Colorado Springs had no clue that in the 21st century it was going to have a population explosion, thus there is no good way to get from East to West in that town.  If you’re going North to South, you have many options.  I think that asking people where they lived immediately determined whether or not you could be friends with someone (geographically compatible) because there weren’t going to be many backyard barbeques with people that you’d have to drive all the way down I-25 for. 

Now that I’m in a new town, I’m still trying to figure out what the Question is.  I asked someone at work the other day “Where do you live?” and they immediately gave me a sideways look and said “…why?” 

I tried to reassure them that I wasn’t looking to become a stalker, but I’m not sure if I succeeded.  It was an older woman so maybe she was just being protective of herself.  But so much for that conversation starter.



Leave a Comment
  1. pikespeakdenise / Aug 4 2008 8:42 pm

    I think Ian’s got the right one!

  2. morethananelectrician / Jul 31 2008 5:33 pm

    Here in Virginia, I am going to have to say it must be “What do you do?” I am trying to think of the last few people I was introduced to and it was all the same. I asked two of them and one of them asked me the same question.

  3. Carli / Jul 31 2008 4:07 pm

    I’d have to say that down here in Texas there’s probably a tie between questions. It’s a battle between “Are you a Yankee?” and “¿Dónde está usted?”

    Don’t mess with Texas 🙂

  4. crisitunity / Jul 31 2008 9:05 am

    I’ve always lived on the east coast, and always thought of “What do you do?” as either the opener or the thing you ask when you’ve run out of conversation. Living near DC, where indeed this question does lead to much chest-puffing, I would really love to live in a place where this question matters less than who you are. But this place cannot be cold, which is why Colorado is out. 😦

    I’m amused by the elimination of friendship by location, but I’m so practical myself that I can’t call it wrong. The way you said it was just funny.

    Allison, I know you meant “shop” but that was a typo that got me wondering if you lived in East St. Louis.

    bluesuit, I think it’s cool to have lived in a place with such diversity that that question is OK.

  5. bluesuit12 / Jul 31 2008 7:20 am

    This is a great post topic because I have no idea what to ask people either. Where I live everyone always asks the standard “where are you from (I’m in a college town)” “Are you in school or working?” “Where do you work?” “What’s your major?” blah blah. Same old crap. I would like to ask something totally different to throw off the curve but not sure what without coming across as a total weirdo. When I went to school in Hawaii it was very common to ask someone “What are you?” as in Fijian, Samoan, American, etc. Looking back I can’t believe that was acceptable.

  6. Allison / Jul 31 2008 4:43 am

    Now you have me wondering what the question would be where I live. Probably:

    *Which Wal-Mart do you shot at? (yes, the question would end in a preposition)

  7. Ian / Jul 30 2008 9:00 pm

    Montana, right?

    “Do you have a lot of guns?”


    I think you are probably closer than anyone would guess.

  8. fawnahareo / Jul 30 2008 8:12 pm

    Hunh, that’s funny. I’ve lived in a few different places and everywhere I’ve been “What do you do?” seems pretty innocuous – safe ground for chit-chat since everyone has to do *something*, right?

    “Where do you live?” is also fine in the right context. To me, it would be weird at the beginning of a conversation, but if I were at a conference where everyone’s from out of town, it would seem normal. Or if I’m chatting with someone from Whitehorse, because the neighbourhoods are kind of spread out.

    Let us know if you ever find out what The Question is for your new home. 🙂

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