So I was going on, ranting I suppose, about some of the horrible clueless things people have said to me about my long term unemployment and an acquaintance asked, "Is there any good way to have this conversation? Other than offering a job?" She went on to say that she didn't think that not mentioning the job situation at all was a good idea, because it was too pollyannaish, but suggested that it was a bit of a mine field. I agree it is and humbly offer some suggestions:
- I think that people often - with some justification - feel that no matter what they say or do it's going to be taken the wrong way, that they just can't do anything right in these circumstances. Some people will want you to mention it; some not. Some want offers of help; some feel that offering help is presumptuous. I do think that when people are in distress - of all kinds, not just financial - it's easy to offend. Just the same, I think it's better to try to help and do the best you can and kind of accept that you might strike the wrong note.
- I don't think not mentioning it comes across as pollyannaish. I think it comes across as unfeeling or uncaring and I don't advise it. What does come across as pollyannaish is "I know you're going to find something good real soon" and similar sentiments. I don't advise that either.
- I think the best (or, least bad) thing to do is to express sympathy for the predicament (e.g. "I'm so sorry you're still going through this" or "I'm so sorry that job with XYZ didn't pan out" if you know more specifics) and then make clear that you're willing to talk about the job stuff or not, that it's their choice. I'm mostly someone who does want to talk about it, and even when I don't I push myself to because nobody's getting jobs except through contacts so I feel like I have to use every opportunity. Still, I have so appreciated it when people didn't assume I'd want to talk, when they said "Do you want to talk about the job stuff? I'd like to help if I can but if you'd rather not discuss it right now I understand."
- If they do want to talk, offer whatever help you're comfortable giving, depending of course on your relationship with the person and your level of desire to help. Obviously with people you're closer to you're going to be willing to do more, but being willing to look at a resume and keep the person in mind in case you hear of a relevant job is something I think everyone should be willing to do for anybody. Offer more in the way of help if you are closer and/or feel able and willing to give more of your time and energy.
- If you have ideas for someone's job search, don't assume you're the first to think of them or that your idea is the solution. Make your suggestions saying "Have you considered..." "Have you tried..." "Do you know about..." "Do you think it would be worth..." as opposed to "You know what you should do?" I hear the latter one a lot and it drives me crazy that someone just thinks s/he has the answer to my predicament and is going to tell me it. Of course if it really were the answer I'd feel differently, but what are the chances? It hasn't happened yet.
- Invite unemployed friends to your house - or elsewhere. Recognize that a lot of people are feeling pretty stuck at home and would love a change of scene. I'm writing this from my friend's beach house in East Hampton. I am sooooo happy to be here for the weekend. I was very down on Thursday when I was supposed to come out here. I didn't really want to come and mostly didn't cancel out because I thought it would be rude, but I'm having such a wonderful, relaxing time. Obviously not everyone has a beach house to offer a weekend at, but everyone can offer hospitality of some sort. Someone at shul recently told me ("You know what you should do?") that I should bring home leftover egg salad from kiddush, since it's just being thrown away. It was a humiliating suggestion, would in no way solve my unemployment, trivializes what I'm going through. Plus I don't even like egg salad. I think of how much kinder and truly helpful it would have been for her to invite me to her house for a meal. And really, how much work is that?
- Be sensitive to people's reduced incomes. Don't suggest they spend money on expensive entertainment, etc. Make clear if you are offering to take someone out to lunch or whatever that that's what you're doing. Say "I'd like to take you out to lunch" not "Let's get together for lunch."
- Do talk about other things as well that you know they're interested in. Show you value their opinions, if you do, on subjects other than work. It's very easy to feel worthless when you're long term unemployed. Let people know if you don't view them that way.
- If you want to and are in a position to offer financial help to friends or family in financial distress, try to do so in a way that preserves their dignity. Don't assume they are so desperate and so humiliated already that anything offered (even egg salad about to be thrown out) will be gratefully accepted. Offer gifts, loans, etc. with an acknowledgment of times the recipient has given to you, and a question as to whether it would be okay and/or helpful.
- Small luxuries imo make for great gifts to those in financial distress, because they often have cut those out or aren't considering spending money themselves on them. I can't say enough about how much I appreciate the gift of a Netflix subscription from a dear friend of mine. The kids and I enjoy it so much and at least one of us uses it almost every day. For $10 a month he's made a difference in our lives. I think if I'd realized how much we'd use it I would have spent the $10 a month.
- Sort of counterpoint to above - don't make disparaging remarks about how people in financial distress are spending their money. You might think that a Netflix subscription (or cable tv or a manicure or an android phone) is not something to spend money on when you're unemployed, but you really don't know what calculations went into that decision or what else someone has cut out of their spending to make way for it.
- Think of the kids, too. If your kids' friends' parents are unemployed, maybe you can help out by taking the kids for outings or a weekend or whatever. Not being able to pay for camp for Zara this year makes me feel really lousy, but I'm so happy that her friend's family had her to their country home for a week and that she's vacationing with my sister now. If the kids are older, also think about any way you can help them with occasional employment - dog walking, baby sitting, etc.
- Check in with your unemployed friends or family from time to time, even if they don't initiate contact. When you're long term unemployed it's easy to feel that any time you call someone up they're going to think you're asking them for something; it's easy to feel that no one wants to hear from you; it's hard to make the first move when your circumstances are bad and you feel like you're going to come off as complaining. It's very easy to feel that "nobody knows you when you're down and out." Make the first move, even if it means putting on your calendar "Call SoandSo" as a recurring appointment every three weeks.