“Tell me about yourself…”–four little words that seem so simple. But are they?
We’ve all heard it before. Dates, job interviews, small talk at a party or professional event. But how do we answer it? And what does our answer say about us?
Obviously the answer to “tell me about yourself” is going to depend in part on the setting and the audience. You’re not going to answer that question on a job interview or at a professional networking event with “On the weekends, I’m really into being tied up and beaten with small, light whips,” even jokingly [unless, of course, your business industry happens to be related to S&M]. Just like I’m sure your attachment parenting support group doesn’t really want to hear you laundry-list your resumé and all of your professional accomplishments. But even within a tailored setting, the way you answer that question can be tricky. Not to mention, there are those times when you are asked the question in one setting, when the intention is another altogether.
I was recently asked this question in a professional context. As I usually do in a professional setting, I started answering it from a professional standpoint–what my practice area is, where I work, how long I’ve been doing it, etc. I was cut off. “Nah… I don’t want to know about your legal career. I want to know what you like when you’re not being a lawyer. What do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?”. Instantly, I relaxed. Suddenly, I no longer had that feeling of being “on.” But then where to go? Do I mention that I have an unhealthy obsession (as many other lawyers do, I’ve found) to trash reality TV? Do I talk about my children? Shrug. So I began where I usually do, “I really like to write…”.
For most of us, who we are is multi-layered. You can talk about your children or your hobbies. You could talk about your background from birth to present day. Or you could just talk about the week you’ve been having. But where do you begin? “Well, I was born in a small town near Timbuktu to John Doe and Jane Smith-Doe. There, I attended Almost-Timbuktu Elementary, where my first grade teacher was Miss Know-It-All…”.
This is why “tell me about yourself” with nothing more bothers me. I don’t know what information, if any, the asker is actually seeking. Not to mention, sometimes it feels like a trick: what do you prioritize about yourself? On a theoretical basis, the first thing that pops into your head should be the most important thing about you, right? But I suspect most people are like me, and within a millisecond, you’ve filtered your personality down to one innocuous thing about You© that you can share until you gauge who this stranger is and what his or her end game is. For any stranger who has used this question as some sort of personality or litmus test on me, sorry to burst your bubble, but you likely did not receive an answer that told you the things I feel are most important about me. We don’t know each other well enough for that kind of disclosure. For anyone who used it because they really didn’t know how to ask the right direct question to find out what it is about me they really want to know [which, I suppose in most cases is, “Do we have some common traits that can take this conversation from awkward introduction to a meaningful exchange?”], then I apologize if my answer did nothing but drag out the uncomfortable first-meeting scenario. But you’ve gotta work with me here!
For the personality test, I feel like there are so many other indirect ways you can find out what values a person holds dear. For someone like me (the “semi-open book” type), maybe your best bet is to skip the beating around the bush and just ask me direct questions. If you want to know if I’m a religious person in the same way you are, asking me “tell me about yourself” and hoping that somewhere in my rambling answer some church activities come up is really not a productive way to go [particularly if this is in a professional setting, since, ya know, it’s usually best to avoid topics of religion and politics unless you have a reason to believe the other person is on the same page as you]. Why not just ask me outright, “So where do you go to church?” or “Do you go to church?”. Yes, it might be momentarily awkward when I answer that no I do not go to church, nor am I Christian; but at least then we can quickly move on instead of you asking me over and over to “tell me something else about yourself.” Because we will never get to anything close to that topic. We just won’t. If there’s something you want to know about a person, why not guide them in the right direction?
If “tell me about yourself” is your way of making small talk and getting past an awkward introduction, you have actually failed in that regard, because you have now made me more uncomfortable by forcing me into a situation where I am taking a 30-second personal inventory, where I have no idea what bits and pieces of information would be remotely relevant or interesting. How about asking more detailed questions, such as the person who stopped me mid-rehashing-my-resumé-track: “What are things you like to do outside of work? Do you have any hobbies?”. In this particular instance, the pointed question led to skipping over my stock answer about writing [an area in which the asker had no interest], and into a nice back-and-forth about crafting, a rug I randomly decided to make, and an excellent kids’ craft idea she made up for one of her children’s birthday parties years ago. By focusing her general question on one particular aspect about me [hobbies], we were able to find some common ground which led to a pretty lengthy and mutually interesting discussion.
“Tell me about yourself” is such a horrible stock question. Whether you’re interviewing someone, courting someone, trying to make a new friend, or just trying to fill some time while the person you really want to talk to is otherwise occupied, why not instead try something a little more direct or specific? You’ll be glad you did.
Tell me: How do you all generally answer the magic “tell me about yourself” question?