Every so often, I end up in a frustrating mental merry-go-round ride over a single sentence. It will start when I hear the third or fourth person express the same sentiment. I start seeing the sentence as a societal script that comes out almost like a verbal tic. I dissect it and analyze it in my head at length. I start parsing the literal words from the intended meaning. “Overthinking” is an understatement; I’m aware that the level I read into these statements would seem crazy to most people, but I can't help it.
All that to introduce the particular sentence that has been driving me up the walls: “You should start an Etsy shop!”
I know, I know. Of all the statements that have potential to offend and disgust, I picked the well-intentioned compliment people pay to those who make things. Even tumblr activists would have to huddle for a few minutes to find the ills of this comment. And yet, it makes my jaw clench as I force a smile and silently calculate if it's worth my breath to explain why I'm not going to do that.
This cues my disclaimers. I'm aware that this sentence is meant as a compliment. I'm aware that people who say it may not be aware of the maker’s specific industry or craft. I'm aware there is no intended malice in these words. I'm aware that the underlying message being conveyed is, “I think your creation is lovely and has value that others will easily recognize.” I get it. My goal is not to take a steaming dump on this verbal token of appreciation. I simply want to explain why I, and I alone, twitch when I hear or read this sentence.
For the record, I have had an Etsy shop since July 2011, but it's been effectively closed since January 2013. I stopped generating inventory because working as a one-woman sweatshop, cranking out the same products repeatedly, didn't feel creative for me.
For starters, this statement makes simplistic assumptions about the maker and their industry, the first being that the primary goal of the maker should be to profit financially. Guess what? Not everyone who makes things wants it to be their job! A lot of creatives pursue their craft as a hobby, purely for their own enjoyment. Additionally, some makers can't bear to part with their creations. When you labor so long on an object, it can be impossible to consider selling it. When I painstakingly make a quilt for myself with my favorite fabrics, it can be irksome for people to tell me I should sell it instead. Am I not a worthy owner of my own creation?
But what about professional makers? What's wrong with telling them to open an Etsy shop if their goal is to earn a living? The short answer: it's condescending. Paying the “Etsy compliment” to makers with professional aspirations has only two possible implications.
The first possible implication is that you're stating the obvious. The compliment assumes that business plan is to make a thing, sell that thing, rinse, and repeat. If that is the case, it seems pretty patronizing to tell the maker to do the obvious. People don't tell doctors, "You should practice medicine!" If you're in a STEM field, I'd wager there aren't a ton of people outside of your industry trying to give you career advice. But if you are a student of the humanities, the visual, or performing arts, you're obviously a dumb-dumb who needs someone with no working knowledge of your field to tell you how to earn a living. While creativity is easily praised, it's also easily dismissed as something innate to the maker. Yes, some people have natural talent, but that doesn't mean we makers pull this stuff out of our asses. We study, we practice, we research, we work hard, and we work many hours to get to the point when we can make badass things. Our creations don't happen by accident. Simply stated, we are not dummies. Realistically, I know that people who pay this compliment are not trying to call me stupid, but that's how it can feel when you hear it over and over.
The second possible implication of the Etsy compliment is that you're making incorrect assumptions about how the maker plans to monetize their creativity. Selling handmade items is not the only way for makers to generate revenue. There are tons of makers who earn a living through their work as designers, authors, educators, and bloggers, not as purveyors of handmade quilts or knitted scarves. It would be like telling a Julia Child to get a job as cook, when she's dreaming of writing cookbooks and hosting televised cooking shows that would teach consumers how cook for themselves. I'm no Julia Child, but when people keep telling me to start selling on Etsy, I wonder, "Is that all you think I'm capable of?"
So with all the ranting aired out, what would I prefer people to say instead? This is actually something I'm working on improving on a personal level: stop making assumptions and try asking questions. There are tons of things you ask that can spark meaningful conversations: Is this something you do for fun or would you like to pursue this as a profession? What would your ideal creative business look like? What is your favorite aspect of what you do? Who are your entrepreneurial inspirations?
So what do you guys think? Do you hear/read the Etsy compliment often? Does it bother you?