How to Explain Freelance to Regular People

girl drinking coffee at urban standard

There are a lot of good things about freelancing: You can do errands in the middle of the day. You (probably) don’t have a daily commute, and you can work in coffee shops. You make more money by hustling, not by relying on the whims of upper management. Occasionally, you can spend a whole day watching Netflix instead of working.

There are drawbacks to freelancing, too, of course. If your hustle stops, so will your paychecks. You have to deal with problem clients. You’re often not paid for your work until months after you actually do it. These issues are tackled all the time by lots of bloggers, but there’s one subject I haven’t seen anything about — how on earth do you explain what you do to people who have 9-to-5 jobs?

If you say, “I’m a freelancer,” or “I’m a writer,” most people translate that to, “I’m unemployed.” You can try listing all the projects you’re working on, but here’s the funny thing about that tactic — after you list two or three projects, people think you’re lying. I don’t know why exactly (maybe it’s a “thou doth protest too much” thing), but naming a bunch of jobs only convinces people you’re doing nothing at all.

When I meet new people, I don’t try to explain. Generally, I don’t say, “I’m a writer,” because that makes people think I have a desk full of unpublished novels and screenplays. (I actually do have that, but I also have a track record of legitimate and published pieces.) And I don’t list all my jobs — I just pick the one that’s most prominent in my life at the time, the one I think the person I’m talking to will be most interested in, or the one that’s most relevant to the event where we’re meeting.

For example, if I meet someone at a tech conference, I’ll say I’m Communications Director at a web development company, because that’s true. But if one of my former customers from Church Street Coffee & Books and they ask what I’m doing now, I might mention that I’m working as a book reviewer, because that’s also true and it relates to how they know me.

I don’t lie to people; if anyone asks follow-up questions, I’m happy to explain what I do more fully. But most people are asking to be polite; they don’t want my resume. And, given the choice between boring someone by talking only about myself and leaving them wanting more, it’s probably best for my reputation and my business to choose the latter.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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