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Columnists

Any questions?

Sarah Dean

I have identified the most awkward question in the English language. A simple series of words which, when you are meeting someone for the first time, can stop a conversation dead and create an atmosphere of awkwardness in an instant. There are plenty of contenders for this title: 'Those UKIP chaps have got the right idea about immigration, don't you think?'; 'I think Clare Balding is a bit annoying if I'm honest' and 'I wish everything tasted like marzipan, don't you?' (That last one is an actual thing my partner said to me, rendering me speechless with disgust and fear for several weeks.)

No, this bombshell is a common sentence that we all use regularly to keep conversation flowing at your school friend's 40th, wedding receptions or coffee after the service. It has the power to turn polite chitchat with a stranger into judgemental stand-off. This conversational grenade? 'So what do you do?'

Five little words with the power to make assertive working mothers flinch, weary employees of the Inland Revenue sigh and vicars lie, so they can avoid another conversation about God, homosexuality and the fact they only work one day a week.

Anyone who has ever had a horrible job will tell you it is bad enough having to go there eight hours a day, five days a week without having to talk about it at the weekend and worse still have people judge you as 'the kind of person who works there' - at least that was my experience when I worked at that abattoir. (Okay, it wasn't an abattoir, it was the office of a commercial theatre producer, but I think it was pretty similar in terms of morale and working conditions.)

We can all recall an awkward moment when we've asked this question only to find that the person we are talking to has recently been made redundant, is long term unemployed or works as a bum doctor. (I have never met anyone who is a bum doctor, I just added that to the list to move things away from my uncomfortable memories of the other two. My use of this lazy conversational gambit has definitely resulted in me making others feel bad. Squirm.)

I propose that the only person allowed to use 'And what do you do?' is the Queen. If HRH didn't have this question to fall back on during state visits, Prince Philip would do a lot more of the talking, putting the Commonwealth at risk from a major diplomatic incident.

The rest of us need to find new ways to get to know someone without the 'your job defines you' motif creeping into conversation. I think preparation is key, so I've brainstormed a conversational zingers to fall back on next time you are in the queue for the buffet or waiting for the cake to be cut: 'Would you rather all food tasted of marzipan or kissing Nigel Farage on the mouth?'; 'Would you rather make a person feel bad about being unemployed or feel awkward about being made redundant?'; 'Would you rather work in an abattoir or work for a theatre production company?'; 'Do you come here often?' You get the idea. Now you can come up with your own. Lord, help us to find compassionate ways to talk to new people that aren't just about employment, deliver our conversations from blandness and help me to stop finding the words 'bum doctor' amusing in case I ever meet one. Amen.