10 Things Not to Say to an Unemployed Person

While I’m fortunate to say I’m currently working, as a freelancer, I know what it’s like to hunt for work. When companies aren’t hiring, contacts are holding out, and income has stalled, well-meaning friends and loved ones sometimes put etiquette in the corner when trying to “help you out.” But more often than not, the well-meaning reactions and responses to “I’m out of work,” fall neatly into the bin labeled Crass, Clueless, and/or Just Plain Obnoxious.

First, there are a few things to understand. When hearing a friend or loved one utter those four dreaded words (alternatively known as, “I’m looking for work,” “I got laid off,” or “The band broke up.”), recognize that:

  • Your unemployed friend already knows they have to treat job hunting like a full-time job.
  • They know they need to network “more.”
  • They know they need to tweak their resume(s) and write customized cover letters for each application.
  • They know they should apply to headhunters, Monster.com, career coaches, etc.
  • They have thought about going back to school or taking continuing ed classes.
  • And more importantly, they are very likely sick to death of thinking about finding work!

Here, then, is a short guide to chatting with unemployed people. It’s intended to help employed folks (like you) avoid embarrassing yourselves in front of such citizens, and, moreover, to help you avoid embarrassing, annoying, or angering them with crass, clueless, and/or just plain obnoxious comments. In contrast, you can then shine in your ability to respond to the dreaded four words with grace, compassion, and cluefulness. Yes, I made up that word.

Ten Things NOT to Say to an Unemployed Person

1. “Oh, you poor thing.”

Condescension does not usually engender kindness in response. Your friend is a grown-up, not a kitten that got stepped on.

2. “That’s awesome! You don’t have to work!”

Best to leave it to your unemployed friend to decide whether it’s awesome or not.

3. “It would suck not to have health insurance.”

NO KIDDING.

4. “But don’t you have money from your stock options / dead grandfather / ex-husband / etc.?”

Unless you are your friend’s personal financial advisor and you work on a retainer, it is best never to make assumptions or ask questions like this about anyone’s financial situation (this also applies to employed friends, retired friends, etc.). You might think they have a lot of money on the side, but they also might have student loans, medical bills they don’t want to tell you about, or $100k in debt to the mob. Plus, it’s just really rude.

5. “Well, do you have to work?”

See #4, above. Also, unless you are explicitly offering sugar daddy/mama services, it is best to trust that when your friend says they’re looking for work, they mean it. It’s not up to you to care about their reasons why.

6. “What about blogging?”

Often asked by (and I hesitate to sound snotty here, but it’s really true) people who don’t actually know the difference between the unemployed person’s website, blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook status updates. What about blogging. Ultimately, it’s not really a question, but a philosophical musing better uttered as a statement instead of a question.

7. “Let’s go out to dinner! / go shopping!  / get manicures! / have a spa day! / etc.!”

Try to remember your friend DOESN’T HAVE AN INCOME. Unless the suggestion is immediately followed by, “My treat!” ~ be gentle with this one.

8. “My friend’s company is hiring. They do computer sales / dog walking / carpentry.”

When offering your unemployed friend work, consider their skills, talents, and, of course, what type of work they’re looking for. If your friend’s company is hiring software salespeople but your unemployed friend is a pastry chef, your offer isn’t doing either friend any favors.

9. “What did you get X and Y for their wedding?”

Even if it’s a super-casual conversation, and assuming your friend can even afford to go to X and Y’s wedding, don’t ask. Leave it up to them to offer any information about spending habits.

10. “So, what do you do all day?”

Your friend, if they are truly looking for a job, is looking for a job all day. Just like you are at work, they are also at work: revising their resume, writing cover letters, carefully crafting introductory emails, and budgeting out the remainder of their dwindling accounts. They are scouring Craigslist, Monster, Mediabistro (or fill-in-the-blank industry website). They are listening to positive thinking MP3s to avoid scratching their eyeballs out. They are wondering what to do next, when it will all change, and how. They are wondering why their employed friends are so clueless toward them. They are planning how to walk to the Financial District, to avoid paying $6 in MUNI and BART fees. They are busy! They’re just not getting paid for it.

BONUS: “How nice, you finally have time to spend with your kids / dogs / novel / Netflix account / etc.!”

Again, think first. YOU might think it’s nice not to work, but leave it up to your unemployed friend to tell you whether they’re enjoying their funemployement… or whether they would really appreciate it if you could write them a Linkedin recommendation, instead.

Well, I hope that helps. If nothing else, maybe I’ve been able to reach a few of you who teeter on the edge of speaking without thinking and/or who have lots of unemployed friends. One size, of course, never fits all, so take what works for you and your personality and leave the rest. And if you’re currently employed, I sincerely hope you get some joy out of how you spend your days. Thanks for playing!

Have you ever had someone make a comment that made you just scratch your head in wonder?

Have you ever been unemployed? What are some ways you’ve dealt with it?

Posted by

Writer and editor in San Francisco. Lover of all things healthy & wise. Blogger, runner, yogi, author of books available @Amazon!

6 thoughts on “10 Things Not to Say to an Unemployed Person

  1. Thank you!!
    All are right on. I have been out of my “real” job for three years. Took a retail gig
    that lasted one and a half year, till that company too, has gone out of business.
    Now I have been preparing to go back to school to get a master. No I don’t want to go
    back to retail again…after all, the last retail gig did nothing to impress prospective employers
    (of my real vocation). I saw my neighbor today. The first thing he asked me was “so, What do you
    do now?”. He probably meant by no harm, but I was utterly annoyed. He KNOWS my last retail place
    has gone out of business, thus putting me completely unemployed status again. Really, “most” unemployed people want to get back on their feet as soon as opportunities are available. Naturally,
    most of us are doing something such as…looking for a job/enhancing job skills via school etc/volunteering.
    Really, no need to ask “what are you doing now?”. I don’t want to be asked the same crap that over and over again,that’s why I no longer visit my neighbors.

  2. Bravo! Perfectly written. It had been almost one year for me.

    I would add for myself “so have you had any great leads this week”? I want to strangle the person every time I get asked this.

  3. Andrea – thanks for this. I’m unemployed (in Australia). Your blog is great. Can I borrow your word “cluefullness”?

    I keep myself sane with a blog titled: 50 Shades of Unemployment. Do you ever consider guest post requests, as what you write fits in so well with my content.

    Alternatively – I would love to re-post this on my blog – with your permission (and additional links back to your site etc).

    Thanks again, Cheers, Carmen.

    1. Thanks, Carmen! You are free to re-post with links, definitely! I’m sorry to hear you’re unemployed, but I do hope the best for you. Sounds like you have some cluefullness yourself, so hopefully that will work in your favor as you search 😉 Cheers 🙂

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