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."

"Oh."

(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up on all the celebrity news before settling in to surf the Internet for endless hours while eating an entire bag of out-of-date Cheetos I bought at the dollar store.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?


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