Thursday, February 5, 2009

When "What Do You Do?" Makes You Want to Punch Something

"So, what do you do?"

While this seems like a fairly harmless question, if you're unemployed, it can have the impact of a freight train.

"Well, right now," you respond, "I'm laid off."


(Sound of crickets chirping.)

It's tough to lose a job. Your work has probably been a big part of who you are and may even color how you see the world. When you don't have that any more, you may begin to question where you fit in. You're confused, angry and depressed. You may begin to withdraw into yourself at the very time you need to be out there at every opportunity.

You don't want people giving you those pitying looks, those guilty glances that you're unemployed and they're not. You're sick to death of people asking you "what you do" and have begun to reply with some rather, er, forthright answers.

"Well, I sit home all day sending out resumes to evil trolls who won't even return a phone call, and then I watch Ellen and Oprah, to make sure I'm up on all the celebrity news before settling in to surf the Internet for endless hours while eating an entire bag of out-of-date Cheetos I bought at the dollar store. And you?"

OK. It's time to get a handle on how to interact with people now that your circumstances have changed. No one expects you to wear a big "J" (for jobless) on your forehead, so stop expecting it of yourself . Remember: Even without a job, you're still you. You're still valuable. You're still worth getting to know.

It's time to:

1. Gird your loins. People can't help but ask "What do you do?" when meeting for the first time. It's human nature, so get used to it. But you don't have to be snarky, or pitiful or embarrassed. They're also going to ask you how your job search is going once they know you're looking for work. Be honest, be positive and be confident. Remember: Most jobs are still achieved through personal contacts. The guy at the cocktail party or the woman you meet at your son's pre-school may be just the key person you need to know to get an interview or promising lead on a job.

2. Seize the day. When you tell someone you just got laid off, an awkward silence can follow. Once you make the statement, someone will feel compelled to say, "Oh, sorry," and then the pity party starts. Jump in before that happens and say something instead like: "I'm a financial adviser but unfortunately just got laid off because of deteriorating market conditions. I'm taking the time to think about what I want to do next. What is it you do?" The key here is that you show you've got talents and you're carefully deciding what to do with them -- and the person is immediately reassured you're not going to start bawling into your martini.

3. Keep your antenna up. When you're depressed and angry, you're not really thinking straight. You're more focused on your emotions rather than on information that might be helpful. So, once you've got your story down pat about your circumstances, then turn the focus back on the other person. Find out not only what they do, but how they do it. There might just be a nugget of information that you can use to help you find a job or land a useful contact. Being seen as professional and able to handle adversity with aplomb will make a lasting impression on those you meet -- and that can also be very helpful to your job search.

4. Get people talking. It's ridiculous in these tough times to try and hide the fact you're unemployed and looking for work. Tell everyone. Network like crazy: "I'm looking for work and I'd like to send you my resume and give you my contact information, and please feel free to forward it to anyone you think might be interested." Give a brief rundown of your top skills, some "highlights" they can use to promote you to others.

5. Send yourself to "me" school. Instead of visiting gossip sites and playing games online all day, figure out what skills you'd like to improve. Teach yourself more about building a website, or start a blog that shows off your skills. Volunteer at a charity that can teach you about community outreach and help you network with others. Check out books at the library that teach you how to be better organized, how to give a better presentation or how to improve your writing skills. These are all positive steps that will not only help you feel better about yourself, but help you when that job does come along.

What are some other coping strategies when you're unemployed?

Lijit Search


Anonymous said...

Anita: Great post! In an etiquette course I once heard that you should never ask this question unless you've met someone at a professional event where employment is assumed. Networkers may also want to give some thought as to how they can start conversations without this question, to avoid putting someone in this uncomfortable position.

By the way, what do I do? I'm freelance writing and developing my online brand while I pursue my next career step. ;)

David Benjamin said...

Another solid post.

In addition to all your great suggestions, I would recommend to 'Thank' each contact that is willing to help with a special note. Actually mail it, if you can find your way around a stamp. :)

Think about getting a note from someone you were trying to help. Wouldn't you want to do all you could and more for someone who has gone out of their way to express their appreciation.

Anita said...

I'm sure it's not considered polite in a lot of situations, but that usually doesn't stop people from asking! :)
As for your question, I think you answered it perfectly: "I'm freelance writing and developing my online brand while I pursue my next career step." You sound focused, intelligent and self-motivated. You can always offer specifics about what your brand is and how you're developing it (blogging, guest posting, studying SEOs, etc.)

Paul Copcutt said...

Anita - great point about mentally updating skills etc. One area that can get neglected when unemployed is physical well being.

We are not good at sticking to an exercise routine at the best of times when employed, but it can be a real life saver when out of work.

- It gives you a goal/task to check off every day

- Physical activity is proven to be a stress reliever

- When you have spent a morning on the phone or computer - getting out for a brisk 20 minute walk- (even when its -22 like here today!) sets you up for the afternoon and clears the home office cobwebs

- It will keep you alert as well as looking and feeling good

- If you end up going to a gym to do it - its another networking opportunity

Just my toonies worth

Anita said...

An excellent suggestion, especially if you personally write and -- gasp! -- snail mail it! It's another way to show you're a class act and reinforce a positive image with the other person. Thanks!

Anita said...

You're absolutely right. Not only has all the research shown that it helps your emotional well-being, but you want to make sure you stay really healthy so that you don't have to face illness (and medical bills) on top of unemployment. And, who knows who you might meet at the dog park or gym? Contacts, as you say, are everywhere!

Anonymous said...

This is terrific advice and food for thought. When you're at home, it's easy to get caught in the Pajama Game. It makes you feel not exactly at the top of your game. So keep up your regimen of personal hygiene, decent dress, and generally just pull yourself together each day, no matter how blah you feel. It will help you feel immensely more confident in your job search, which can come across in your e-mails and phone calls!

Anita said...

You're right -- you've got to keep yourself together physically in order to deal with the emotional and psychological challenges of job hunting. The basics come to mind: eat right, get enough rest, exercise, etc. And, as you said, get out of those pajamas!