“Whose Wife Are You?:” The Problem of Being Artistic in a Traditionally Professional World

So I have a new job which means I have new coworkers. And it also means getting to know said coworkers.  I have the interesting situation now of being extremely diverse in skill set and professional interests in comparison to my coworkers.  In the past, I was surrounded by a small core group of other creative types who I could call across the room to if I ever needed an opinion or help.  Now I work in an building with Economics faculty who, while impassioned and interesting people, are unlikely to know the answer to my problem of determining the best way to aesthetically animate line graphs in After Effects.  It’s a different setting for me to be working in so it’s taking some adjustment, but I wanted to share one anecdote that revealed a truth to me about the difference between creatives and most of the rest of the professional world.

On a recent weekend, the Economics department held their yearly Fall Gathering with the intention of alcohol flowing freely and introducing new faculty and staff to the rest of the crew.  Suffering from sometimes debilitating social anxiety, I was skeptical of going, but eventually decided to attend (even though I was getting over a cold and illness has always made a perfect excuse for bailing on social events) because I knew it would be good to socialize with my new coworkers in a non-work setting.  (Plus free alcohol and food. Who can turn that down?)

First, I learned that these people are amazing and have done some pretty cool things. Many of them have traveled quite a bit–Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Caribbean islands.  Second, everyone is fascinated by the entertainment industry.  So an easy talking point for me is movies, my film education, and if they’re on the technological up-and-up, YouTube and other online content.  All of this is to say, “Hey! They’re just like me!” With perhaps a bit more educationally-funded, exotic travel in their repertoire. How we differ though is usually in how we look.

I am an eccentric dresser. I love bright colors. I love trying trendy statement pieces. I love wearing something that makes my outfit POP!  And despite what one might believe, I don’t love these things for the attention these things sometimes bring me. (In fact, sometimes I wish I didn’t love them so I didn’t bring so much attention to myself).  I love being an eccentric dresser because the bright colors, the trendy pieces, the POP! of textile excitement brings me joy.  However, it usually sets me apart from your Average Joan.

At the Economics Fall Gathering, I wore a bright purple pleated mock-neck shift dress with southwestern-inspired embroidered heels.  I wore my hair in my signature “Victoria Secret” waves with some super-long, dangly earrings and gold jewelry.  I felt out of place the moment I walked in the room. (I hadn’t known if this was a classy event where we were supposed to dress up or a casual event. So when in doubt, I tend to opt for “Artistic Kaitlyn” which is LOUD and colorful and dangly.  It turned out to be a “wear whatever you want” with people in ties and dress pants and others in jeans and unbuttoned shirts over t-shirts.) But after a glass of wine and a fun conversation about the normalcy of people walking around dressed in colonial garb when attending The College of William & Mary, I had forgotten I was dressed any different or was any different professionally then they were.

And then the party came to an awkward halt when a new arrival looks to me and says “And who’s wife are you?”

(NOTE: From an outsider’s perspective, the situation I’m about to recount might sound very rude, but I will say it was entirely amusing from my point of view.)

The introduction of new faculty and staff (there are 3 of us) occurred at the beginning of the event.  The lovely and boisterously Italian woman who burst into the room an hour late had missed this announcement and she was the one faculty member who I had not met at all yet.  She first assumed I was the wife of one of the other male faculty members that I was standing beside at the time. He quickly corrected her, and so that’s where the “Who’s wife are you?” came from.  It was followed by, “You look like someone’s wife! And we haven’t met before so….”  I think at that point she started to see the horror on some of the other faculty member’s faces who were standing near me.

While both comprehending the implication of what she’d said (I look like someone’s wife not like a Economics faculty member who should be here of her own right) and trying to encourage a laugh with her rather than a laugh at her faux paux, I told her I was the new Learning Media Specialist for the department.  She later pulled me aside and profusely apologized in her very amusing Italian accent and demeanor (I mean, really guys, it was like someone pulled her out of a classic gangster movie). I told her I knew she didn’t mean anything by it. And in fact (though I didn’t tell her this), I completely understood why she would think I was someone’s wife. I certainly don’t look like a professor of economics! I might be able to pass for a professor of Art or Visual Media or something like that, but I generally don’t think I have the “look” of the average professor. Not that professors can’t be eccentric, of course. But I know that wasn’t what she was expecting when she came to the Economics Fall Gathering and she may  not have known there was a new staff member yet.

So instead, it all became this big globby mess of confusion and embarrassment and the realization that creative professionals, while just as skilled in their respective fields, almost always will feel like outsiders in the traditional professional world.  It’s in our general make up.

But that’s okay. I kind of like being the eccentric one.  It’s fun when I can forget and just be “one of the crew,” but I wouldn’t give up my “one of a kind” status for anything either.

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