The Etiquette of “What are you working on?”

by Scott - 2 Comments

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So… what are you working on?

What Are You Working On

This question pervades the New York Tech scene like 6th grade girls at a Bieber concert. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think there is a level of etiquette surrounding it which few employ. 

People ask this question for a variety of reasons: they’re naturally awkward and have no idea what to say, they can’t wait for you to ask back because they think their project is the next Facebook, or they’re generally interested and want to help. If you want to develop meaningful interactions aim to be in the final camp.

When I first meet someone I never like to ask this question off the bat. Why? Because you never know whether someone is flailing in the lifecycle of their startup. If they’re struggling to make their startup work, usually the last thing they want to talk about “what they’re working on.” I’ve been there and it sucks. Navigate this situation by letting them bring it up if they want to. There is a 95% they’ll do it anyway for the reasons mentioned above and you avoid looking like an unoriginal tool if they don’t.

If the conversation progresses and the question hasn’t come up, I’ll go ahead and ask if I’m genuinely interested and feel the person is in good spirits. The most important thing is to ask with the intention of giving. If you make the ask to genuinely understand their product and determine whether you can add value there is a much higher chance that will remember you and want to know you. Look to add value in the form of domain expertise, feedback at a later date, or connections. If you offer any of these assets actually follow through. When you treat this question like conversational formality or mechanism to talk about yourself you’ll be unmemorable and just look like a tool. And yes, failing to follow through on seemingly altruistic “how can I help” offers also puts you into these buckets.

One thing I can’t stand is when people bring up a competitor during an initial conversation. Someone describing what they’ve spent the last 4 months obsessively working 14 hr days on does not want to hear: “Oh have you heard of x or that sounds a lot like x.” Of course they’re aware of their competitors. At this point, they’re probably tired of explaining the differences to people because so many acquaintances with poor social skills have asked this question.

Don’t ask someone you just met these questions. Its just not very becoming and makes you look like a tool.

 In general, people welcome those who are genuinely looking to help. They also value and remember originality. Asking someone what they’re working on for the wrong reasons definitely does not fall into either category. If you want to get the most out of you’re networking, be memorable and look to add value while expecting nothing in return. Givers gain, simple as that.

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