How To Answer The Question – “What do you do?”

Yesterday I asked how you answer the dreaded question:

“What do you do for a living?”

Wow! You all had a LOT to say! I got 113 responses and they’re still coming in..

HOLY COW! I thought I’d get a few, but you, my Savvy Painters are amazing!

Fair warning: This will be a long email. It really should be a podcast episode, because you all sent in some GEMS — but I said I would let you know today. And I’m a girl who keeps her word.

So grab another cup of coffee (or tea) if it’s morning for you. Maybe a nice Malbec if you’re closer to cocktail hour.

And if the sun goes down while you’re reading this, you might top it off with a whiskey. Hopefully, you won’t need to resort to the hard stuff though.

Obviously, artists have stories about getting asked this question. Many of you have your own ways of dealing with it and gave some great recommendations.

Like this one:

“I usually give them a simple answer like, “I am an artist. Drawing and painting are my main media.” Then I would ask that person about their interests. It has to be a two-way conversation. “

Absolutely! If you want people to be interested in what you do, it really (really) helps to be interested in them! Great point, Sansanee.

Chris Lieb incorporates humor:

In less formal settings I usually just say I’m an artist and let it hang out there in the ether. If they are at all curious, they follow up with ‘oh what kind of art do you do?’ To which I laugh and say, ‘well… actually I paint chimps and astronauts… (pause) Really’. That usually gets a chuckle and opens up the conversation.

Couching it in a bit of humor I find makes others feel that you are not ‘desperate’ or ‘eager to sell them’ art or convince them you are worthy.

Unless they are really interested in the arts, I usually just move the conversation on to something else. If they are interested, it’s a great opportunity to inform about what you do, the arts, teaching art, and the commitment involved.

Another artist who uses humor is Kenn R (who is a poet but doesn’t knowit):

“Yes I am an artist, I show in galleries, pop-ups, fairs, and draw on walls in bathroom stalls. I also occasionally sell a piece at these places – except for the bathroom stalls – those are donated for the benefit of the public.”

Many artists lead with what makes them money and then mention their art. None of those artists seem happy about feeling the need to do that though.

“I always give (my company) as my answer, I’m an illustrator, I make kids educational games. But more and more I want to say what it is that I really do, I’m an artist. But I really haven’t developed an elevator pitch and when recently writing a bio I quickly learned that I am apologetic about calling myself an artist or at least that’s how it came off. I’m definitely going to be rewriting it to be forthright and confident in my statement: I am an artist and this is what I do.”

(To which I say: HELL FREAKING YES!! Be forthright and confident. You have earned it, Miss V!)

I move around a lot so I get introduced to new people often. It’s been sort of a game I play, trying to figure out the best way to answer the question.

I test my answers. And to be honest, a lot of it has to do with the situation and context.

Which is something many of you have discovered too: It makes a difference how you say it. Sometimes I say “I am an artist.” Which can be open or vague.

I’ve also said, “I am a painter.” which, as many of you have discovered, makes people wonder… Is she a house painter?

That’s because there are more house painters here in Mammoth than artists. If I were in Southern California (the entertainment capital of the world), and I said an artist or painter, the next question is usually “what kind?”

Kathleen B. answers very specifically:

“My answer was scripted by my previous gallery owner, “ I am a contemporary figurative painter.” That usually shuts up the people who don’t understand and garners more appropriate second questions – although I still get the $ questions.”

Over time, I’ve honed it down to a couple of different answers which depend heavily on context and situation.

Because I made it a game, I got a lot of practice (I mean a LOT) which helped me decide what to say, but more importantly, helped me understand what the other side might be thinking.

Katherine A. has picked up on this too:

“Practice makes perfect, exposure is key to building your confidence and having a bit of a script helps too. A set price list and website to refer people to is very helpful for sales and presenting yourself as a professional. I also find blogging helps because I’m getting in the habit of articulating my ideas about my art in words.”

So the original question was: “How do I answer that in a way that shows them I’m a serious artist, without coming off as defensive, arrogant, or like I’m suddenly going to whip out my portfolio and beg them to buy something?”

The question behind the question is where things get interesting.

It’s not about the exact phrase to use, it’s about the emotional triggers that question sometimes brings up.
And if we can deal with those, and get comfortable with them, it changes everything.

You’re more comfortable answering that question. You’re not upset by how another person responds.

I use two tactics to dissolve those emotional triggers:

Assume Good Intent
Most of the time, when people ask “What do you do for a living?” they are simply trying to start a conversation.

In the United States particularly, it’s a very common question. Of course, there are exceptions, but 99% of the time, especially at events, or cocktail parties, the person asking the question is simply looking for common ground.

They don’t really care what you do in a judgy way, they’re just looking for any springboard to start a conversation.

So when they have a relative who is also an artist, don’t take it as a comparison to your art. They’re probably just thinking – “Oh good! This is a person I have something in common with, let’s see where it goes…”

And when they stare blankly and say “Oh. You’re an artist.” assume they are in that 99 percentile who aren’t judging you. Maybe they have no experience with art or artists and just don’t know what to say next. Maybe they’re nervous and think that artists are all uber intellectuals and if they say something about art or being an artist, they’ll look stupid.

Artists don’t own the monopoly on being socially awkward!

Remember that time you said something totally cringe-worthy? (Come on, we’ve all done it).

So be human. Help them out a little. Extend a little olive branch so that they have something to grab onto.

Be an art ambassador, and make the conversation about art, not about you. You’ll both enjoy it more and if they are interested in art, they’ll probably end up asking where they can see your work.

If not, you planted the seed that artists are interesting to talk to at parties and not the reclusive weirdos we’re sometimes made out to be.

Yeah, yeah, that’s really sweet, Antrese… but some people really ARE jerks.

No argument here.

It happens.

I used to fume, get angry, and let it ruin the rest of my night.

Worse, the next time someone asked me what I do, I was already pissed off so even if they legitimately wanted to talk about art, they were scared off by the steam coming out of my ears, and daggers from my eyes.

Who does that hurt? Not the person I was angry at.

For my own sanity, I learned to deal with it.

I combined two very different thought leaders to create my own solution: Marcus Aurelius and Brené Brown.

(Only an artist would connect those two, right?)

Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome and all that stuff (blah blah blah), but he was also a Stoic philosopher. And in Meditations, he wrote:

“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous, and cranks…. and none can do me harm, or implicate me in ugliness.”

Now, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with a lot more than a snide comment at a cocktail party, and from what I’ve read, he was infinitely more capable of taking things in stride than I am.

Which makes him an excellent person to learn from.

Yes. There are jerks in this world.

Expect that you will encounter at least one a day, and when you do, acknowledge it and move on. And if you don’t encounter one? Consider it a special day.

So now when I encounter one, I think “Ah! There (s)he is!”

Granted, it may not be exactly what Marcus Aurelius had in mind but it works for me.

Sometimes though, just acknowledging that I ran into my jerk for the day isn’t enough.

When something about the conversation continues to burrow under my skin, that’s when Brené Brown comes in.

Brene Brown is a researcher, a storyteller, and a proud Texan (her words). I adore her. I’ve read every single one of her books and taken an online workshop with her.

She recommends getting uber clear about whose opinion really, truly matters to you. Like would you change your life because they were disappointed in you or didn’t approve of your behavior?

That list will be short.

Very, very Short.

Mine has three people on it.

When someone says something that puts me into that tailspin of self-doubt and worry, I check my list.

Not on my list? Ciao Bella!

I really appreciate your responses and the opportunity to have this discussion. There’s definitely more to say, and I’m looking forward to hearing it meanwhile, there’s painting to be done.

So I’ll leave you with one last response, from Bob C.

“Most of all I’m looking for understanding… This equation probably fits into all of what we do in life.

I don’t look for everything to happen as I wish it would, but rather wish everything happens as it actually will.

So fret not on the question and look to the people you meet along the trail of Art and learn about the really difficult tasks that come along, forgiveness, gratitude, selflessness, patience..

Understanding this leads to a happy life, for art is just an activity, albeit a nice one, but just an activity through which we grow.”

What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below!

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