Talking to Unemployed People

Tips on how to talk with unemployed friends and parents.
Hard times for families

If you’re still fully employed you likely consider yourself lucky. But chances are there are people on your block, in your social circle, in your family, among your children’s friends’ parents who weren’t so lucky. And you may be wondering how to talk to them about what they’re going through, particularly if their unemployment is of long duration. Do you ask about their job search? Do you offer suggestions on how to find a job? If it’s someone you’re close to and you’d like to provide them with some financial relief, do you do offer that? Will saying or suggesting or offering be received well, or will the recipient feel condescended to or judged as lacking? I think that people often 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.
It’s true that people in distress – financial or otherwise – are often emotional and easy to take offense. But don’t give up! Your friends and relatives want your kind words, your interest, and your help. As someone who was unemployed for a full year and feels grateful to be going back into the work force, I have some ideas for how to talk to the unemployed. Here are a few suggestions:
- Do say something. Don’t wait for the unemployed person to bring it up. You know and they know you know. If you don’t mention it you’ll seem uncaring.
- Let your unemployed friend or relative decide how much of a conversation to have. 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 didn't I pushed myself to because nobody's getting jobs except through contacts so I felt like I had 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."
- Don’t be overly optimistic. “I’m sure you’ll get a great job soon” or “With your skills you’ll be employed again in no time” are well-meaning expressions, but they sound hollow and denying of the real pain and real challenges the unemployed face.
-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 an idea for someone's job search, don't assume you're the first to think of it 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?"
- 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. Friends invited me to their beach house in East Hampton at a point where I was feeling particularly desperate and I had a great time and came home recharged and energetic and ready to try some more. Obviously not everyone has a beach house to offer a weekend at, but everyone can offer hospitality of some sort. Someone at my synagogue recently told me ("You know what you should do?") that I should bring home leftover egg salad from Kiddush (food served after the service), since it's just being thrown away. It was a humiliating suggestion, would in no way have solved my unemployment, and trivializes what I was 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 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 will be gratefully accepted. Offer gifts, loans, etc. with an acknowledgment of what the recipient has given you throughout your relationship, and a question as to whether it would be okay and/or helpful.
- Make clear what you are offering. Is it a loan or a gift? If a loan, at what interest rate and when do you expect to be repaid? Make the offer in writing, if you think that would be easier for the recipient and would give them time to decide whether to accept.
- Consider offering to pay a bill for a close friend or relative as opposed to just offering a cash amount. Saying “I want to pay your electric bill for the next two months. I can’t have you skimping on a/c in this heat – I know you’d do the same for me” may be received better than a check for $200, even if it’s the same amount of money.
- Small luxuries make for great gifts to those in financial distress, because they often have cut those out or aren't considering spending money 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.
- 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 summer camp for kids 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. Make clear that you are paying (“We’d love to have Molly join us on Tuesday when we go to Sesame Place – our treat.”). If the kids are older, also think about any way you can help them with occasional employment - dog walking, baby sitting, etc.
And lastly:
- 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 people 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.
Dale Rosenberg