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According to the Urban Dictionary, the expression "whatever floats your boat" means

[...] whatever "soothes your soul" or whatever "works best" Aka- Whatever you feel like doing.

Is it possible to use "float someone's boat" outside of that specific expression? I'm thinking of conversations between co-workers or acquaintances, where the goal of the asker is to find out more about the other person, especially what drives them personally, but without sounding like having romantic interest.

(Bad) example:

So Peter, what is your driving force in life? What floats your boat?

Would it be used by native speakers? Within which relationships (close friends, acquaintances, colleagues) would it be considered polite? What would be a good alternative expression for this kind of query?

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This expression by nature is very personal, so you'd never see a "formal" version of this expression. This is a light-hearted way to ask what someone's hopes and dreams are. It is about as polite as you can be for this sort of question. Asking someone what their passion is, for instance, might demand a serious response whereas "What floats your boat?" is flexible and allows a non-serious answer, making it all the more polite to use than an alternative.

Though that said, here are a couple alternatives: "What drives you?" "What's your passion?" "What do you do for a living?" (not precisely the same thing, but you might get an equally in-depth answer)

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At a job interview, I was once asked in this context, "what makes you tick?"

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  • I thought about this, but at least for me, "what makes you tick" has a distincive business feel. Maybe it's because of the mechanical implications, allowing the asker to abstract the person in question to some kind of robot/machine, or more generally, a resource, as is often done in the business world. So in my eyes, it's no coincidence you heard this in a job interview, but I would be reluctant using it in personal conversation. But thanks and +1 nevertheless :-) – Jan Sep 16 '11 at 15:01
  • Actually, "What makes you tick?" is a fairly personal question, such as a couple that has just gotten together might ask of each other. – Hot Licks Aug 30 '16 at 12:03

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