5 things you should never say to a small business owner


Here's a good-humoured look at some of the terrible things that have been said to me since leaving academia and running my shop full time...

But what's your real job?

Someone said this to me a week after I'd finished my PhD (hugely stressful) and launched my business full-time, in France (double hugely stressful). The phrase 'but what's your real job?' brings together so many harmful stereotypes and assumptions. Being self-employed isn't a 'real job'? If I enjoy it, does that invalidate how much of a 'real job' it is? The 'but' was also a bit of a kicker - the phrasing implies that I must have a 'real job'. It's time to change the idea that you need to pick a career when you're in your early 20s and stick with it until you retire. You have a choice!

You can't copyright 'cutting out some fabric and sewing it together'

Usually it stems from someone else asking how my new collection is going. As it happens, it's going very well, and I'm so proud of it. It's taken a long time to develop the line and it feels amazing that they've been so well-received. But then someone feels like chiming in with a comment like this; it’s so strange and out-of-the-blue. Firstly, there is SO MUCH MORE to creating a unique product line than 'cutting out some fabric and sewing it together'. Secondly, no-one was talking about me trying to copyright 'cutting out some fabric and sewing it together'. It felt like months of product development and creative thought was being invalidated because one person didn't think it could be copyrighted. But mostly, it felt like they person wanted to belittle me and my business. NOT TODAY, EBOLA!

Have you been managing to keep busy?

I haven't been keeping myself busy, I just am busy! Running your own business in your second language is pretty time consuming. It's also important to address the glorification of 'busy'. When I say I am busy, I mean that I'm filling my life with things I enjoy. That includes watching Netflix and sending funny photos to friends who live abroad. 'Managing to keep busy' implies that being busy (for the sake of being busy) is the goal, that if you're not close to burn out then you're not working hard enough, or maybe you're lazy. I absolutely do not subscribe to that philosophy.

I bet it's boring at home, waiting for your husband to get back from work.

I do miss my husband while he's at work. Just as much as he misses me while I'm at work. But if you think I'm sitting at home just waiting for him to come home, you've clearly never met me. Except...this was said by someone who knows me quite well. I think now my husband and I are married I've had a lot more people treat me like 'the wife'. Not Becky, who has a name and a personality and a life, and happens to be married to Tom. I think 'wives' get a bad rep and I'm having NONE of it. Ain't nobody got time for that shit.

So, there are some telescopes up there in the sky, and also they can be on the ground

This comment is fairly specific to my situation, but it leads on nicely from the 'wife' business. A bit of backstory: I finished my PhD in Astronomy last year. I made the controversial-but-100%-right-for-me decision to leave academia, but that doesn't mean that everything I learned just dropped right out of my head. Here's the (only slightly) abridged transcript of a conversation with one of my husband's academic colleagues when we first arrived in Paris, at Friday night drinks:

Me: So what are you working on at the moment?

Him: (thinks for a while - he only knows me as Tom's wife at this point, so I suppose he doesn't know where to pitch his explanation. No problem, I let him know my background)

Me: I just finished my PhD in observational astronomy, you can tell me what you're really doing.

Him: Well, um, you know the universe? Well if we look at it, with some telescopes... (I know what field his group works in - this still seemed to be some sort of 'dumbed down' version)

Me: What survey are you using? Planck? (I thought that referencing the survey he might be using would nudge him into talking to me at an appropriate level. Telling him my actual qualifications didn't do the trick, so I was getting creative)

Him: No, but we do take observations...I mean, looking at the sky and taking measurements.

Me: Yes, okay, but which telescope do you use to make the observations? (if he gave me the name of the telescope or instrument this would at least give me an idea of the data he was getting. On the other hand, he'd just explained the word 'observations' to an observational astronomer, so....)

Him: Well, there are two types of telescopes. There are some that are up in space, and also some down here on the ground...

At this point I was about to lose my mind. I'd told him I had a PhD in Astronomy and he was talking to me like I'd never heard of telescopes before? What?!

At this point Tom and some of our friends came back from the bar, and the colleague went to talk to some other people. I never did manage to get to the bottom of what he actually does, but no doubt he was able to tell the tale of Tom's moron wife who doesn't know that you can get telescopes in space and on the ground! This was my first experience of being treated like 'a wife', and I did NOT care for it. Top tip: if you're talking to someone about a specific subject and they tell you their level of qualification in that field, listen! Even if they're married.

So there we have it: five things that may be well-meaning, but also might be the rudest thing you've said that day.

I *would* like to round off this post by saying that the majority of people are decent humans, and are very nice indeed. However, the fact that each of the above was said to my face, with witnesses there, and seemingly no idea at how rude they were being, tells me how much I needed to write this post. When each incident happened I was too shocked in the moment to tell the person how rude they were being. As with so many moments in my life, as it was happening I just thought that they were well-meaning but misguided. But that doesn't mean it was okay! I'm getting much better at speaking my mind, but things like this from friends still leave me too stunned to call them on it. So, if you've said something like this to a pal and they haven't told you you're being rude, or mean, or damaging, that doesn't mean that what you said was fine. It probably means they were too shocked or embarrassed to tell you to get a hold of yourself. Becky OUT!