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How to Talk to an Artist

As a universally misunderstood lot, artists tend to hate talking to people. Whether you're in the industry or a layperson, our best friend, family member, or colleague, we don't want to talk to you. It's not because of rampant introversion or elitism in creative people. It's because you're not good at talking to us.
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I'm a writer. I live with a comedian. Our friends are cartoonists, actors, authors, filmmakers, and other professional misfits. As a universally misunderstood lot, artists tend to hate talking to people. Whether you're in the industry or a layperson, our best friend, family member, or colleague, we don't want to talk to you.

It's not because of rampant introversion or elitism in creative people. It's because you're not good at talking to us.

We know most of the time your intentions are good, but it's just coming across as condescending or annoying. In order to have the respectful and interesting conversations you'd like with the artists in your life, take this advice:

Don't ask us to do the thing we do.
"You're a comedian? Tell me a joke!" Bugger off, Harry. An artist goes to a bar, cafe or party for the same reason as everyone else: to relax. Not to work. And art happens in a context. When you ask us to do it out of context, it's going to be an awful experience for everyone, guaranteed.

Do ask us when or where you can see our thing.
Instead of an impromptu unpaid performance, ask where you can experience our work in the right context. Say, "Where are you playing next?" or "Where can I find your books?" It's an easy way for you to show support -- and, if you actually don't care, you never have to follow up.

(Oh, but don't say you're going to go to a thing or buy a thing if you're not. Just say nothing.)

Don't pretend to understand.
"Oh, I know how hard it can be..." No, Jane, you don't. You work in an office and you have three kids, and you watched that movie about that painter once. You don't actually know what my day looks like, and I don't expect you to.

Do ask genuine questions.
Most of us are artists because we relish self-expression. Give us an opportunity to talk about our lives, and we'll stick by you all night.

Don't liken us to a celebrity who does the thing we do.
"This is my friend, Dana. She's our own own J.K. Rowling!" No, I'm not! We know that most people don't see artists until they're on TV or in the New York Times or something. But we all start at the bottom, and if your friend hasn't heard of us, that's probably where we are.

Our lives and work actually look a lot more like yours than J.K. Rowling's -- we're living paycheck to paycheck and trying to work our way up the ladder under the imposing thumb of The Man.

Do talk about who or what you like and why you like them.
If you love a famous artist in our industry, feel free to talk about it! We love to talk shop, and we'd be happy to hear why you enjoy that person's work. As long as the artist you're talking to isn't a total douche bag, he'll respect your genuine interest, even if he doesn't agree with your taste.

(If he is a total douche bag, stop being friends with him.)

Don't offer unsolicited advice.
"Well maybe if you cut your hair, you'd get called back more often." Mom, I didn't ask you. There are myriad ways to do any kind of art right, and every artist does theirs a little differently. And we study and practice our asses off, so we're getting plenty of advice on our own, thank you.

Do provide honest feedback or critique if we ask for it.
When we do want your opinion on our work, we'll definitely ask you for it. And when we do, we're not just asking for a reassuring pat on the back -- we actually want to know what you think, because we want to make our thing the best it can be. Be honest about what you do or don't like.

Don't think you're also this thing if you're not.
"I've always thought about taking an improv class!" Is that what you think I do: professionally dream about being an actor? A lot of people have artistic dreams or fantasies. Artists actually do the work. Whether we're successful or full-time, or whatever, we've taken that leap of pursuing this thing somehow. Your dreams and recreational pursuits are just fine, but they're not the same.

Do talk about the thing you love.
You live the life you live for a reason; there's probably stuff you love about it. Don't feel like you have to pretend to be more artistic than you are just because you're talking to an artist. We respect passion. If you're passionate about accounting, listening to you talk about that is going to be much more interesting than listening to you talk about your pretend love for film.

Don't ask if we have a day job.
"So, do you do that for a living, or... ?" Honey, I do that for a life! If you ask, "What do you do?" and we answer with this art thing, assume that's important enough to focus on. It doesn't matter whether something else pays the bills, or whether we're unsure where this career might go.

(Think of it this way: If you ask a woman what she does, and she says oh-so-sweetly, "I'm a full-time mommy!" it would be rude to follow up with, "So, what kind of man are you sleeping with to keep the lights on?")

Do celebrate whatever we're excited about right now.
If you leave money out of the equation, we can have a delightful conversation about whatever cool stuff we're working on now. It's not your job to worry about whether it will sell well or how we're paying the rent. Just enjoy the little wins we tell you about.

Don't quote Stephen King, Steve Jobs, or Steven Spielberg.
We read that thing, too. It's, like, the most popular thing in our industry.

Do share a cool resource and tell us why you loved it.
Artists and lay people alike enjoy a good inspirational book or documentary. Feel free to share! Just remember: You may be the only person in your office who cared about it, but if it's about our industry, we've probably already heard about it from everyone in our industry, so don't be offended if you can't blow us away.

Don't perform for us.
"I've got this joke -- wanna hear it?" No. And we don't want to read your book or watch your film or see that shaky YouTube video your girlfriend took of your concert four years ago. You might be good, but we're inundated with this shit every day, and we've become hard to impress. Also, you're not us, and our thing is pretty much the only thing we care about.

Do stay in touch if you're actually into the thing.
If you really are interested in pursuing this art, and you're giddy with excitement about finally meeting a kindred spirit, just be our friend. Stay in touch, and keep doing your thing, and we'll probably, eventually, come out to see it on our own.

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