The reaction(s) generated from “I am self-employed” can often be a source of entertainment. ;-)
What to Say When They Ask You What You Do for a Living
“Where do you work now?”
What exactly should you say? Do you need to go into a long-winded explanation of how you started a freelancing business? You’re stumped.
New freelancers, especially, have been known to choke on these questions:
- “What type of work do you do?”
- Or (more commonly), “where do you work?”
But, even experienced freelancers don’t always have a ready answer for questions about employment.
The key to answering employment questions is knowing in advance what you’re going to say. In this post, I’ll give you five serious answers and five humorous answers to these questions so that you’ll never be at a loss for words. I’ll also invite you to share your own answers.
Five Serious Answers
Some people really are interested in what you do and it’s to your advantage to give them a reasonable, if brief, answer. After all, the more people who understand what you do the more potential future business you are likely to get. Ideally, you’d also pull out and share a business card at this point.
Here are five quick, but serious answers to questions about your employment that can be expanded on as needed:
- I own a small business. Technically, all freelancers are small business owners. You can easily expand on this to discuss various aspects of your business.
- I am an independent (insert your specialty here). This one has the advantage of letting them know the type of work that you do.
- I work as an independent contractor for (insert the name of your long-term client). If you are working long-term on a project for one, or several, long-term clients, this answer may suffice.
- I’m a consultant who helps businesses improve their professional image. This answer will fit with many (although not all) freelancing professions. When done right, freelancing does involve a lot of consulting.
- I’m a freelancer who provides (insert your specialty) services for a wide variety of local and international clients. In this one you’ve let them know about your specialty AND emphasized the fact that you are in demand.
What if a serious answer just isn’t working? It may be time to pull out a bit of sarcasm…
Five Not-so Serious Answers
Okay, admit it. Sometimes you don’t want to answer the question of what you do for a living seriously–mainly because you’ve already explained (over and over again) what you do to a particular individual and they just aren’t getting it.
Or, maybe you sense the question is actually a criticism–their way of nagging you to get “a real job.”
Here are five quick sarcastic comebacks. For the full effect, remember to deliver these comebacks with a sneer and while rolling your eyes.
- I do whatever I want to do. This one ought to cause their eyes to bug out and their jaws to drop open. Technically, since you choose your own projects, it’s somewhat true too.
- I work on my computer all day. Duh! Of course, you do. You’re being really sarcastic here. You haven’t really told them anything here, but you’ve hopefully conveyed that you’re busy.
- I make my money through the Internet. This one will leave them scratching their heads… Maybe they’ll even wonder why they aren’t making money through the Internet.
- I’m independently wealthy. They probably won’t believe you, but then they don’t believe the truth about your home freelancing business either. Best case scenario–this shuts them up.
- Work, what’s that? Let’s face it. In some cases, the person is hassling you because they don’t think you really work. No answer you give is really going to be satisfactory because they’ve already made up their minds about you. Why not be sarcastic and tell them what they want to hear?
When I first started out as a freelancer, freelancing was relatively rare. I got a lot of questions about what I did. Most people didn’t get it and sometimes people thought that my freelancing business was just something I made up. Others thought my “business” was a cute little hobby and that I used to earn a few extra bucks every now and then.
Fast forward nine years. Telecommuting has caught on for many large corporations. Also, more and more professionals are choosing to go solo. All of this usually makes it easier to explain my own freelancing profession, but there are still those folks who haven’t a clue.
When I’m asked this question, I almost always answer it seriously at first. After all, you never know when your own social circle might yield a client or prospect. However, there are times when, for whatever reason, I’ve been really tempted to turn to the second set of answers and respond with sarcasm instead.
What About You?
What do you say when friends and relatives don’t accept what you do for a living? Share your answers in the comments.
Image by Tim Patterson
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April 4th, 2011 at 8:43 am
April 4th, 2011 at 9:11 am
I usually go the serious route with people I’m meeting for the first time, too. That’s because I have no idea whether they’ll get my sense of humor or not. I usually say that I own small communications firm working primarily in writing marketing materials. I like the word freelancer but I realize that not everybody understands what that means so I only use it with other writers or those who understand it. If I’m in a room full of people who are familiar with my industry, I just tell them I’m a freelance copywriter and they usually understand what I mean.
April 4th, 2011 at 9:42 am
Love the “I’m independently wealthy” one! I would probably combine #1 and #5 in your serious answers to “I own a small business that provides …..” because that’s about as clear as it can get. If you stop at “I own a small business” you’ll have to answer the follow up question “what type of business?” (to which the mafia-style answer is, “that’s my business”).
This is a good thing to practice though; they call it the “elevator pitch.”
April 4th, 2011 at 10:28 am
Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. :)
TheAL–So true! And really, that’s the best response to some of the reactions (amusement).
P.S. Jones, Most definitely. I believe in giving everybody a fair chance. It’s only after a person has really demonstrated that they don’t care to understand that I would resort to the second set of answers.
Stephan–I am a big believer in “elevator pitches,” although I know some people are against them because they think it means you have to rigidly repeat a preset phrases or phrases. I think that’s a misunderstanding. Having an elevator pitch simply means you’ve thought about how you might answer certain questions.
April 4th, 2011 at 10:37 am
I tell people I’m a freelance editorial services provider. This almost always results in the follow up “what does that entail?” But I like what I and enjoy explaining, so I don’t mind. :)
April 4th, 2011 at 10:42 am
“I’m a freelance Art Director and Designer”
You’re not on trial for murder, you’re a freelancer.
Don’t be so calculated with every response that you give to people.
If you’re embarrassed it is more of a reflection on you and your insecurities.
So it goes…
April 4th, 2011 at 10:44 am
I work as a freelancer and specialize in webdesign, so based on this, I tell people that I’m a freelance webdesigner ;)
StephanieApril 4th, 2011 at 11:06 am
I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to share what you do. It’s not like you sell drugs. You’re a freelancer. And these days, a lot of us are freelancers — some by choice, others out of necessity. So, odds are that the person you’re talking to will understand what that means. Admittedly, my father-in-law seems to question whether I can make a living as a freelance writer, but he does understand what a freelance writer is.
April 4th, 2011 at 11:53 am
I say I’m a voice actress. Then they say, “what’s that?” then I say, “I talk into a microphone and hope comprehensible words come out.”
But seriously, I just tell them I’m a voice actress and explain what types of projects I do. Pretty simple. :)
April 4th, 2011 at 12:04 pm
I say: “I work in a team of professionals to ensure highest quality digital services” – and then I explain that the group comprises me, a programmer, a SEO specialist and we cooperate whenever we need each other.
April 4th, 2011 at 12:10 pm
My business cards and email signature says that “I’m a creative mind at work specializing in graphic design.” When people ask me, I just tell them that I am a freelance graphic designer. If they ask questions or seem interested, I go one to explain the type of projects I work on and the different companies I work with.
I think you’re right, there used to be a *stigma* about it. Almost like “Oh, so you don’t have a REAL job.” But now-a-days I think more and more people are either going solo or know people who do. It’s turning into a more *accepted* means of work.
April 4th, 2011 at 1:02 pm
I actually give one of the listed answers. Nice post, I wont give the “not so serious” answers now :)
April 4th, 2011 at 1:26 pm
Nice answers, Laura. The serious ones will save me from deep questioning by inquisitive people. The funniest line was, “I do whatever I want to do.”
April 4th, 2011 at 1:42 pm
Great comments everyone!
No, I definitely don’t believe you should be ashamed of what you do. However, when someone doesn’t understand that your freelancing is real work (despite being told), it’s perfectly understandable to resort to one of the other explanations.
Of course, it depends on who you know. As several commenters pointed out–freelancing is becoming more accepted and as a result more people understand what it is.
April 4th, 2011 at 1:50 pm
Love the snarky replies!
Freelancing is much more common now, so it’s more than people don’t understand MY work than understand the concept. I do a few different things, all of which confuse people other than “blogging.”
My solution is to trot out a fancy-pants answer of “I’m a marketing assistant and blogger who also does process management work and analytics tracking.”
Then when I get a confused face I go with “I write and play with spreadsheets.”
It explains what I do, it’s a tad sarcastic, and most people can understand writing and spreadsheets.
April 4th, 2011 at 2:13 pm
Very usefull thanks allot.
April 4th, 2011 at 3:13 pm
Great post Laura!
You are right. This is an interesting question to answer. For me it’s a question that my family asks more than anyone else. At one point my brother just started telling everyone that I took early retirement and when everyone else seemed to find that an acceptable answer, I just went with it. :-)
April 4th, 2011 at 4:29 pm
Depending on who I’m talking to, I may say I’m a freelance copywriter who works with startups and small businesses to develop their marketing materials, or I may say I freelance for magazines and write fiction.
I wish it could be as simple as it is for doctors and lawyers, who don’t need to explain what they do. For once I’d love to say “I’m a writer” without feeling the need to validate it!
April 4th, 2011 at 4:51 pm
Thanks for the added comments! :)
Leslie A. Joy–I do like your answer (and the fact that you have a follow up to it). That’s exactly what I’m talking about–thinking it through beforehand.
Darlene, “An early retirement…” I’ve not heard that one before. (Unless of course, it’s accurate for your situation.) I guess it doesn’t matter what people say if it doesn’t bother you. I remember being very bothered when a friend introduced me to someone as “Laura, who doesn’t work” before I could say anything. Since I actually do work hard–her introduction felt like a put-down. (P.S. I like your new avatar image.)
Natalia Sylvester–I think you have a good point. I think writers have a particularly difficult time because most people think of writers as being fiction book authors and don’t realize that there are many other types of writing work.
April 4th, 2011 at 5:33 pm
I just say that I do writing, design and photography for print and Web, that I run my own business and work out of my home. Some people get it, some don’t. Oh, well. . . . They usually get jealous when I tell them how much freedom and flexibility I have, and then they understand!
April 4th, 2011 at 6:03 pm
I usually say I work on a computer creating websites at a company in downtown area.
April 4th, 2011 at 6:11 pm
How big do you have to be not to own a small business but still be a business owner???
We are talking about sole proprietor.
Freelancer sounds more romantic. You know doing it for the profit
April 4th, 2011 at 8:14 pm
I just say I have my own copywriting business. I don’t really like to call myself a freelancer.
Usually, they’ll then assume I meant copyrighting, and start talking about law. *sigh*
April 4th, 2011 at 8:31 pm
I simply say ‘I work for myself’. It serves as a great ice breaker and goes down well with those who know what a freelance writer is and those who don’t.
A follow up is usually required so I simply say I’m a freelance writer to those who know what it is. To those who don’t, I simply say, I get paid to write web copy for businesses.
April 4th, 2011 at 10:24 pm
I tell them I put M&Ms in alphabetical order when I’m not doing dental checkups on chickens.
April 5th, 2011 at 1:18 am
i say am free bird and live a nomadic life…
April 5th, 2011 at 4:11 am
I will say, I am a freelance worker true :)
April 5th, 2011 at 12:13 pm
If I want to be serious, I always say that I run my own bussiness about webdesign (sounds fancy) and then I give a brief and simple explanation of the services I can offer. This really helps to get clients.
But when someone wants to make fun of me I always say I’m a drug dealer. I use this line when I’m flirting ;-) Trust me, it works.
April 8th, 2011 at 12:03 am
Here is what happened to me once –
Q. What you do for a living ?
A. I’m independent software developer (specialty -mobile apps)
Reply – Oh so, you lost your job in recession ?
So i decided not to give serious replies to anyone from now on. :)
May 2nd, 2011 at 12:14 pm
Well, I work full-time outside the home (against my will) as a financial aid coordinator for a graduate university. I also work from home as a legal virtual assistant, and I’m also a freelance blogger/photographer.
Try explaining virtual assistant, blogger, AND freelancer. I usually just end up saying “I work three jobs.”, which generally causes people to react to how many jobs I have rather than try to get me to explain to them about each job.
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