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Who are you? The name of the freelance game

Exploring the title and language maze of freelancers, contract workers, on-demand talent, part-time workers and gig economists, to find out what is, after all, the name of the freelance game.

Sticks and Stones

What’s in a name? Does it matter? Well, to some people it matters a lot – and to others, not at all. It all depends on your priorities. Which brings a joke to mind — well, a kind of joke.

A considerate HR person wants to make a new candidate feel more comfortable and thinks that moving to first names might help:

HR person: What would you like us to call you?

Candidate: You can call me anything you like! As long as you pay me — ok?

This is less a call for masochistic name-calling and more an illustration of the fact that, for most of us, earning money at any level is our No.1 priority. It is not that titles don’t matter — it’s just that worrying too much about their importance is kind of a luxury for most of us. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t think about them a bit! So we wanted to dig deeper into the name of the freelance game.

Naming the [insert here] game

Recently the subject of what to call the people on the Work for Impact platform came up. Why? because in some cases words can be ‘loaded’ — the very sound of them giving off a slightly denigratory, dismissive or demeaning air. And the question was simply ‘Are we using the right titles and language when we speak about and to our talent/freelancers/contractors/workers.

Granted, the nature of the underlying emotional impact of a word depends on the intention of the speaker – but we suddenly thought that  it might be necessary to just check in with the world and explore whether we’re using the best ones – and not unwittingly insulting someone or putting them down.

Free who? Free what? Free why?

Freelancer is a common title for a self-employed worker, or contracted resource who does not ‘sit’ on the fixed cost section of the OpEx chart.

It is used by millions worldwide as a perfectly correct title or description.

But for some, Freelancer is not OK. They see freelancers as people running a very ad-hoc ‘lifestyle’ employment model, potentially at the less experienced end of the scale. For some coming from and representing the talent recruitment for more uptight corporate environments, there is a whiff of ‘off-beat/uncommitted/slacker’ culture about the ‘freelancer’ world.

There is even a rather sneery viewpoint that jokes about how the answer to the question: ‘how much should we pay them?’ is in the name — free or as close to free as you can effectively get them.

For older people there is also a disparaging legacy from the original Rise of the Freelancers in the Nineties and Noughties due to cut-backs, austerity, market crashes and bubbles bursting which put a lot of previously fully employed people on to the open market. The narrative at the time ran along the lines of ‘if you did not keep your job in the purges, you are probably ‘not quite good enough’.

My name is…

Does all this stuff about titles and language really matter? Well. We live in times of heightened anxiety and scrutiny regarding how we communicate, the language we use and the nature of how respectful or otherwise we are in how we engage with others — times where misuse of language, names and identifiers can become very volatile and very contentious very quickly.

The hyper-vigilance allocated to personal pronouns and gender identity as well as those of common titles [both professional and personal] might make us think that all language should be policed that way — to ensure that all those involved are being respected, heard and engaged with as they wish. But in regard to just pronouns alone, there are hugely dissenting voices for and against and as for corporate job titles, well that’s a whole new level of crazy.

Vice-President Business [to pimp a Lego movie title]

In professional environments, there has always been a lot of personal and social politics, power and status around work titles and positions. Sociologists even have a clinical name for it — Occupational prestige.

The culture the organisation is founded in can have a huge effect on the language they use – for example, the culture, language and idioms of the digital tech sector from the Bay area on the West Coast USA are utterly different to the old heavily Germanic Industrial Pharmaceuticals culture of middle Europe which is in turn very different to the service industry support culture to be found in southern India.

Almost all start naturally with the spoken culture of their regional birth — and until the scale of the organisation starts crossing societal and cultural borders, that’s how it stays. Until the organisation goes global that is.

[Which brings us to our first language example – some academics insist that there are currently no truly global organisations – and therefore they should always be referred to as multi-nationals.]

But even then, surely, navigating language should be easy, no? When it comes to communicating in the virtual world the answer is English now what’s the question? Well, yes — we are indeed all in thrall to IBM-computed ‘machine’ English [English is the largest language on the world wide web with over 27% of users]. With its incumbent spell check, autocorrect, and syntactical and grammatical functions, English Language software applications are a remarkable tool to enable people from radically different cultures and regions to communicate using a lingua franca.

Rainbow Nations

The small flaw in that plan though, apart from the arrogant assumption that everyone should feel super happy using US English, is that it depends on what you mean by ‘to communicate?’ Sending functional command + serve communications? Sure. Basic transactional workplace messaging — where the process and systems are fixed in a linear and modal framework. Of course. But exploring the nuance of an idea or a concept — mining the richness of it? Especially one rooted in a local idiom? Not so easy.

We might then say ‘Who needs words? Let’s use colours, pictures, glyphs, symbols. Easy.’

Some would indeed have everything in pictures with no more big words, long sentences or anything to read whatsoever. In blind and reductive pursuit of rationalisation and efficiencies, all written stuff would disappear entirely. But this hyper-rational efficiency drive to remove the ‘barrier’ of language or the written word can equally rob us of the richness that pours forth when people seek to express themselves and their ideas in more than just an animated gif or funny avatar.

So, though it may correct your language functionally, computer language software cannot account for how you were raised, though it will certainly try and correct for any of your idiosyncrasies that deviate from its hyper-rational computed English. Though we are increasingly being told that, eventually, Natural Language Processes will surpass our own grasp of the common language and develop a greater understanding of nuance that exists in the average human being. Who knew.  

The cultural and societal behaviours, traits, beliefs and idioms you grew up with are deeply ingrained in you. Every word, name, title, and position brings with them kaleidoscopic layers of meaning around personal identity, status, recognition, value, appreciation and power.

Vice-Concierge of ML Fusion

The language thing can get even more problematic when you venture into a professional environment where the myriad cultures, lexicons, characters, idioms and natures of multiple sectors and markets are added into the mix, all topped up with the shifting sands of multiple national and regional identities.

For example, the American model of professional work titles is dizzying, combining the old corporate realm of Vice Presidents, Co-Chairs and all the permutations in between with the more ‘fluid’ Silicon Valley job titleslike Ninjaneer, Humbly Confident Product Designer and Meme Librarian – which basically sound like some students were put in charge of a large ‘multi-national’ for a day and had a laugh [which is not too far from the truth] and, to be fair, our American cousins do seem to do a fine line in some rather crazy job titles.

Anyway, these titles and the multiple cultural iterations and the interpretations of them creates a labyrinth of meaning and possibility, even in places with deeply embedded universal structures, frameworks and lexicons to help people navigate where they are and who they are in any given workplace structure.   

To freelance or not freelance

This brings us to our little old world of the Freelancer [if we might call it that for the moment] — and the name of the freelance game.

Now, imagine putting all of the complexity and nuance and expectation we’ve just explored into the outlying atmospheres of the remote contract worker and their gig economy world.

Who’s to know whether Sian in Hong Kong feels Freelancer is ‘demeaning’ or not? We know loads of people don’t ultimately mind the word, they’ve other priorities to worry about – back to that joke at the beginning of the piece.

The fluid approach can work — up to a point. On the Work for Impact platform, we flip-flop mainly between Talent [On-Demand or otherwise] and Freelancer. But at some point trying to define one universal fixed word to describe the talent we represent would be useful and make like simpler. Is there a single name for the freelance game?

Even in the language of ‘On-Demand’ lie subtle issues around the finger-snap need them now nature of being picked and put back, being actively disposable and always eventually obsolete. Does On-Demand make workers just another de-humanised cog in the relentless On-Demand world in which we now live? Is it better to prefix Talent with an attribute more akin to the Dynamic world of work both clients and workers find themselves in? If hyper-flexible contract terms are desirable then so is the flexible talent that can fulfil them.  

You only had to ask.

Even if the On-Demand bit feels a little dismissive, the feeling certainly is that Talent feels less diminutive than freelancer. But if we’re respecting the consensual process, how do we decide what we think when dealing with a world of talent from over 170 countries?

How do we to find out whether Australasian workers prefer contract or agency worker?  What’s the best way to see whether the folks in Colombia prefer being called on-demand talent, independent contractor, freelancer or freelance specialist?

How will we know whether the folks in Latvia have a whole different freelance culture going on compared to a more contracted worker vibe in Brazil?

Simple – we ask. And that’s where you come in.

What is the name of the freelance (or other) game?

At the bottom of this article is a poll that asks your opinion on what one of the 3 or 4 names works for you and why. We’d love to hear what your thoughts are, as we’re frankly a little lost as to whether there is a right or better word to describe us all [and whether anyone even cares] and truly figure out the name in the freelance game (or is it “independent worker” game?) 👇
Keep an eye out in our Community where we’ll share the results.