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`Still out Of work?` How to handle holiday small talk

2012-12-26 13:13:02Source:THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.Author:

Holiday gatherings can be anything but festive for people who are out of work. Even an innocuous 'How's it going?' can feel like a tender topic -- especially for the legions of long-term unemployed Americans whose ranks have swelled since the last recession.

Frustrated job seekers may find it awkward to explain what is going on, or not going on, in their lives. (Especially dreaded: the new-acquaintance query 'What do you do?')

On the other hand, hosts and partygoers trying to catch up with an out-of-work friend or relative may find themselves unexpectedly in a conversational minefield, since research links long-term job loss to other problems such as depression and declining health.

Some partygoers shy away as if unemployment were contagious or tiptoe around work-related topics for fear of hurting feelings or being asked for help. Many people feel like, 'I'm busy trying to hang onto my own job. I don't even want to enter into that conversation,' says Frederick Hairston, a training specialist with National Able Network, Chicago, a nonprofit that works with job-seeking adults.

Common conversation-starters -- such as, 'Have you found a job yet?' -- can make an unemployed person feel cornered, says Marie McIntyre, a Monroe, Ga., career coach and author. 'It's a logical question. But if they have, they'll tell you. If they haven't, then the conversation starts out on a sad note,' forcing an admission of failure.

When job seekers are on the defensive, casual inquiries become loaded questions, says Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on conversational skills. She recommends framing questions in a way that gives job seekers choices about how to respond. Instead of asking, 'How's the job search going?' say, 'What's keeping you busy these days?' she advises. This enables the job seeker to focus on what he or she wants to talk about, whether it is pounding the pavement, raising kids or doing volunteer work.

It can help to put questions in an empathetic context, for instance, prefacing a query with, 'I know this is such a hard time to be looking for work. I wanted to check in and see how you're doing.'

If other guests pry too much, a job seeker might say, 'You know, that's not the happiest topic right now. Let's talk about something else,' Dr. Curzan says. Or they can try the diversionary approach: Smile and toss out a non sequitur like 'Have you seen 'Lincoln'?'

Hosts and other guests may be relieved, because many are anxious about being put on the spot with a request for help. Experts say the awkwardness of an inappropriate request can be defused by listening briefly, acknowledging the request and perhaps exchanging business cards, then changing the subject: 'Hey, let's enjoy the party and connect again after the holidays.'

But hosts and other guests shouldn't assume a jobless guest is at a party to network, says Annie Stevens, managing partner of ClearRock, a Boston leadership development and outplacement firm. She once heard a host introduce a guest by saying, 'This is John. He's out of work.' Not only was it uncomfortable, she says, but it disclosed information the job seeker may have wanted to keep private. Her advice: Hosts should ask privately how a guest wants to be introduced.

'Unemployment is the elephant in the room' at holiday gatherings, says John Fugazzie, a New Jersey-based marketing-and-sales executive who has been laid off twice in the past two years and who founded Neighbors Helping Neighbors USA, a job-search support group with 26 East Coast chapters. Many people still 'believe that if you don't have a job, it's your fault, that it's because you're not doing what you should do,' he says.

Tim Houston, a San Diego-based financial-services software consultant, says he has faced 'all types of awkward social situations' since being laid off last year. He has applied for numerous positions, volunteers regularly and is starting a job-search group at his church. Still, one friend implied he isn't doing enough, and should apply for lower-paying jobs. (He has tried, and was told he was overqualified.) Another friend suggested volunteering was a waste of time. When you're struggling to get interviews, says Mr. Houston, 'being criticized is especially tough.'

Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, job seekers say. One relative at a family gathering told Mr. Fugazzie, ' 'I see Home Depot is hiring. You should apply there,' ' he says. 'I ran a $1.2 billion business. I'm sure when I go to Home Depot and fill out the application, they're going to hire me in a heartbeat.' After all, he says, he knows skilled tradespeople who haven't gotten past the application stage there.

Abby Snay, executive director of JVS in San Francisco, a nonprofit that teaches employment skills, recommends job seekers take control of the conversation by describing what kind of work they do want. She advises clients to write upbeat, 30- to 60-second responses to common remarks, plus questions to draw helpful information from others. Then, she has them rehearse the lines in front of a mirror, or with a friend.

Dr. McIntyre recommends that unemployed partygoers have 'a party plan.' Regard gatherings as a way to meet people who might help with the job search. Dress well, don't drink too much and keep the conversation positive. 'As much as you might want to go off on the idiot boss who fired you, or the rude interviewer who never called you back,' she says, avoid using parties to vent. Beyond the wet-blanket effect, spouting anger or frustration suggests 'you're not the kind of person someone might want to work with or hire,' Dr. McIntyre says.

Mr. Hairston has members of his job-search support groups practice with each other brief versions of their 'elevator pitch' summarizing their skills, experience and goals. He coaches them to attend parties ready to converse about sports or current events, and to ease into talk of the job search if an opportunity arises, without allowing it to dominate the conversation.

During an 11-month jobless stint last year, Renee Real says she fought off feelings of depression and worthlessness. At social events, she tired of hearing platitudes such as 'Don't worry, you'll land something soon' or veiled jabs such as 'You haven't found a job yet?'

The Denver marketing communications manager practiced upbeat responses, such as, 'You're right, I don't have a job yet. I'm really re-evaluating what I want to do. Here are some things I'm exploring,' she says. She also took classes, began working out, lost a few pounds and volunteered as a marketing manager for a professional group, giving her meaningful work to discuss. Keeping a healthy self-esteem and a positive focus, Ms. Real says, 'usually shuts critics up pretty fast.'

It also helped her land a new job in her field.