Whether you’re headed to a wedding (even your own) or just a barbecue, you may interact with someone who is unemployed. Do you offer a hug? Should you feign laryngitis and walk away? It can be stressful for the employed, or otherwise economically stable, to know how to respond.
Trust me. Since I was laid off, family, former colleagues, and especially, strangers, (albeit indirectly and always unsolicited) let me know how challenging my joblessness is for them. These rules of thumb will help you handle the unbearable lightness of being around the non-working class.
JUDGE: If someone admits to being laid off, fired, let go, or otherwise not working, let her know that her current situation is directly related to her defective character. Use strong simplistic (not to be confused with simple!) terms. Cloak statements in the form of questions like, “What did you do wrong?” or “Who can blame them (insert: corporation here)?” If the unemployed person seems defensive, remind her that you have a job for a reason.
PROGNOSTICATE: Even if you’d never say anything negative, you can still pass judgment—especially about another person’s fate. “In six years, they’ll be begging you for work,” or “You’ll have a better job in a month. I guarantee it.” Fortune-telling may make you seem prescient, except if your prediction doesn’t come true. But why wait to see what the future holds? Who needs a friend who merely listens? If you guesstimate correctly, charge the person! Better yet, charge in advance.
PITY: Sure you can empathize, but the jobless prefer to be treated as helpless, hapless leeches. Respond to the unemployed like they’re unemployable. If you can’t bother to throw a pity party, pepper your conversations with phrases, like “You poor dear!” or “You’re so brave to be you.” (If you need examples: Look at how some people treat the elderly or handicapped.)
TOUGH LOVE: Set the jobless straight. You know the unemployed sleep in ’till noon and re-watching Homeland in Spanish, assuming they can still afford electricity. You, however, know what it’s like out there in the real world. It’s like ‘Nam. (This holds true even if said unemployed person served in Vietnam). Politicians, pundits, and WWF wrestlers get tough love. Refer to anything you offer your unemployed friend as a benefit (and not just a subsidy or coffee).
FIX IT: Unemployed people should be grateful for whatever you offer. Don’t waste your time (or reputation) reading your friend’s resume, pro bono, helping them set up a website, or connecting them with folks in their field who might offer job leads. Suggest general resources that are easily Googleable, like Craigslist, or advise them about alternative revenue streams, such as the lotto. You can introduce them to others who are unemployed or flailing—the more bitter the better. If words fail, kiss your jobless pal on his forehead or make sad eyes. If you have trouble mimicking “sad eyes,” watch a dog begging for food.
AVOID: The most important thing to do is to shun someone who has been fired, unemployed, or otherwise let go. Don’t invite her to parties, weddings, barbecues or dinner. Why worry about having to pick an affordable restaurant? Will you find any common ground now that your lives, however temporarily, are so different? If the answer is yes, don’t take any chances. Delete her from your phone, un-friend her on Facebook, and avoid eye contact, except at a funeral.
If all else fails, ask your unemployed friend to join you in volunteering for the needy. This way, you’ll both have someone else to judge, prognosticate about, pity, fix, offer tough love, or avoid. Of course, you could dismiss the above and just grab a drink together.
Catie Lazarus is a writer and comedian. She has contributed drivel to The Daily Beast, Slate, Cosmo, Bust, Gawker, and edited the “Kvetch Section” for Heeb Magazine. She also hosts the podcast Employee of the Month, which is taped live monthly at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.