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Asking the Right Questions When You're New on the Job

Anthony Balderrama, writer

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Socialites know the longstanding battle between "new money" and "old money." That is to say those who were born into wealth against those who came into it, either by their own hard work or from an inheritance. In social gatherings throughout high society, a battle of outsiders versus insiders, rule-makers and rule-breakers ensues.

Megan Hustad, author of "How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work," sees the same phenomenon happening in workplaces every day. In essence, the new employee, whether fresh out of school or just new to the company, is the outsider who needs to learn how to behave at the party by asking the right questions at the right time.

Here are some of Hustad's tips for being the new money in a room (or office) full of old money.

Do pick your moments. The newcomer who runs to the boss every time the fax machine isn't working is quickly going to exhaust his boss's patience. To a certain extent, you want to consider the organizational status of the person you're posing the question to. (As will be discussed later on, most higher-ups don't even know where the fax machine is, let alone how it works -- but executive assistants and mailroom guys generally do.)

On the other hand, you should never assume someone low on the totem pole isn't qualified to answer substantive queries. Many outside callers, for instance, annoy both company VIPs and their staff by insisting, per Donald Trump, that "they only deal with the boss," when in fact the boss employs many people capable of fielding any question related to his business -- indeed, who are employed for just that purpose.

Last note on this front: Try to distinguish between an invitation to "sit in on" and an invitation to actively participate.

Do fashion some sort of all-purpose three-question primer. How did you come to work here? How long have you been here? What are you working on right now? Not asked all in one breath, but following the general flow of conversation. The answers will invariably provide a sense of the lay of the land, of who has seniority in the organization and the amount of pride someone takes in his or her job. This last proves very significant the longer you work somewhere, and the more entwined you get in the politics and emotional rhythms of the office.

Do have one signature question you can resort to whenever you can't think of anything to say. It shouldn't be a test of knowledge, tied to current events or of the "What's your favorite color?" variety. Ideally it's a question that can be used on people you've known for five minutes as well as those you've been running around with for five years: What are you reading these days? Any travel plans?

"What was your first job?" works well too. In her 1970 crack at the self-improvement shelf, How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, Barbara Walters relates how she once had a particularly difficult time getting Aristotle Onassis to open up to her. They were at lunch, he was yammering about high-seas finance, and she found herself wondering how this short man with a mouth full of gold fillings could be considered a world-class charmer. She found him uncooperative and intimidating. When she finally found an opening in the conversation, she decided to plow ahead with this: "Tell me, Mr. Onassis, you're so successful -- not just in shipping and airlines, but in other industries too -- I wonder, how did you begin? What was your very first job?" He opened up like a flower. (His first job was washing dishes, it turns out.)

Do be aware of regional differences. In some parts of the country, a long, leisurely introduction to a professional conversation or phone call is expected. In others  -- New York and Los Angeles come to mind  -- any small talk beyond a certain point is seen as a gross imposition. Fortunately, it's not difficult to tell when you're starting to wear down someone's patience. Hearing "uh-huh, uh-huh" while you're pausing midsentence is a clear sign you need to wind up and get to the point. The rude party in these exchanges is not the one in a hurry, because to take your time is to assume the person you called is not busy  -- and that's an insult in her book. In the South and Midwest, be prepared to stick with pleasantries for six, seven minutes.

Don't talk to a cripple about the joys of dancing. The American Chesterfield counseled, when starting a conversation, "Never speak of ropes, in the house of one who has been hung." Nor, [Emily] Post said, should you veer into the advantages of "bloodline" to a self-made man. It's reasonable enough to expect adults to be able to stand hurt feelings, but the point is to be aware (and to realize that the person who might suffer the most from someone's hurt feelings -- if you're new money -- is you).

Don't ask people you don't know well to opine. "How about those Sox?" is not a useful question because it asks people to express an opinion apropos of nothing. People can freeze up when you ask them to make judgments on the spot -- even when fudging an answer wouldn't be all that difficult for them.

Excerpted from How To Be Useful by Megan Hustad. Copyright @2008, Megan Hustad. With permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Last Updated: 09/07/2008 - 11:51 AM

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