What’s Your City’s Icebreaker Question?

Each city has one. The get to know you question that EVERYONE seems to ask. Be it baby shower or a business networking event, you’re bound to hear it from someone.

In DC, be prepared to answer “What do you do?”

Some people find this a materialistic and status probing question. I did too at first. There’s something a little intimidating that automatically rouses your defenses when you feel like you’re being judged. But after years of living in the city, I found myself asking this question not because I was curious of someone’s occupation, but rather their activities.

Washingtonians are renowned for their go-go-go (when they’re not in traffic) mentality. I think this question is more a reflection on the active nature of the culture, rather than a direct inquiry about someone’s professional life. Often, I would receive a reply of hobbies that would segue and blossom into a conversation about common interests.

“What do you do?”

“You know, recently I’ve been really into Salsa dancing. I’ve been going on Monday nights to the Clarendon Grille and met some really great people!”

“Really? I love salsa dancing. I’ve been to the Salsa Room, but never the Clarendon Grille. What time do lessons start?”

When I moved to Richmond last November, one of the first things I noticed was the complete lack of  “What do you do?” In fact, if I asked it, people seemed insulted, and it took me a while to navigate the icebreaking etiquette of this smaller southern town.

In Richmond, you’ll be asked “Are you from here?”

Richmonders are all about a sense of history and roots. Growing up 20 minutes north of the city, I remember not being considered “from here” because my parents moved here when I was 10 months old. Most of my classmates had generations anchoring them to this region, while I wasn’t even born here.

I think another reason it’s a popular question is that so many people (like me) grow up here, move away, and then move back. If you grew up in the area, there’s an immediate sense of camaraderie and more detailed questions that follow (i.e. “What high school did you go to?”)

If you grew up outside of Richmond, the standard follow-up seems to be “So, what brought you to Richmond?” I ask this often because I’m amused at why people settle in such a seemingly obscure place.

So, what’s the icebreaking question in your town? Have you noticed a trend in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Boston, or another metropolis? What about across the pond? Do Europeans have an opening question? Eager minds want to know and would be thrilled if you left a comment below. 🙂

4 thoughts on “What’s Your City’s Icebreaker Question?

  1. I think Richmond’s “Are you from here?” also stems from the fact that many of Richmond’s crowd come from across the nation through the pull of VCU. My “hometown” of Virginia Beach (wasn’t born there but part of a Navy family that moved there and has lived there for 15 years) uses the same expression for a lot of the same reasons. The Navy pulls families from all over the nation into Norfolk and the VB region. A lot of times your newest neighbor will be from hundreds of miles away.

    Another great one I hear in Virginia Beach, “Are you local?” Something about hating the tourists of summer seems to resonate across all parts of Tidewater, especially VB. Being “local” also segues into questions or comments on local activites and hobbies (Pungo Strawberry Festival, Neptune Festival, surfing, etc.).

  2. I stopped asking people the direct “what do you do” question after talking with a friend of mine from Portugal. His observation was that everyone in America asked this question and immediately started ranking one another based on the response. In Europe, that question was insulting…typically only asked by Americans. Europeans could learn about their peers by talking to each other, not rushing the process as we do here.

    I grew up in Great Falls, VA – some might say a very “status-oriented area” outside of DC and “What do you do?” was so common, as your blog points out, that I got used to it.

    But now that I’m here in Richmond, I’ve learned to adapt my friend’s approach. You learn about people first, what their character is. You have a good conversation, and discuss hobbies. In doing so, their occupation inevitably comes out and you can discuss common points of interest from there. It took someone from another continent to help me refocus what’s really important- the magic of a good conversation.

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