Gustafson: The Etiquette of Unemployment

April 2, 2009

Posted by contributor Mary Gustafson.

For the newly laid off, one of the coldest comforts is that in this economy being laid off doesn't carry the stigma it used to. And chances are good that if you lost your job, you don't have to look very hard to find someone else in your situation. In fact, if anyone were to ask me for advice on handling unemployment, I would tell them to immediately begin looking for a layoff buddy, whether that person is another victim from your company or industry, or even someone who's currently employed but has been through it before. This is important for me partly because I can't seem to find any clear cut etiquette guidelines for being unemployed. I keep hoping someone else will teach me the ropes.

Before this recession started to affect me and my friends and colleagues, I might have advised against discussing the layoff at length in public forums such as this blog. But since unemployment is cutting across so many income levels and tax brackets in this recession, talking openly about it seems like a win-win for everyone.

But this new openness has its drawbacks too. I was relieved to find out that another one of my friends has been struggling with the same etiquette-related conundrums I have been. One of our biggest bugaboos is trying to figure out how much whining and complaining is allowable and expected.

It's only natural to react strongly to losing your job early on, as you figure out what you have to do to make ends meet and launch your new job hunt. But at what point, or after how long, does your worrying become excessive and wearying for others? The statistics seem to report that American workers are facing longer bouts of unemployment than in the past. It's fine to confide your worries and frustrations to friends and family, but it's hard not to feel guilty about dragging them as well. But, at the same time, like my friend said "I know I'm not exactly starving to death in Darfur, but I need to vent too!" There must be a socially acceptable happy medium.

And then there is the delicate issue of what to do with your social life when you lose a big chunk of your livelihood. Your friends --  who most likely are facing economic worries of their own --  aren't going to be able to buy you drinks for the duration. And you shouldn't want or expect them to. Sure, you can entertain at home more, but having the spare time to catch up with friends for lunch or drinks is one of the upsides to not having a 9-to-5 job anymore --  at least in the beginning.

So, again, the layoff buddy comes in handy for these kinds of troubles. But the one area of unemployment that you kind of have to navigate on your own is the tricky business of figuring out what to do with the residual anger that latches on to you when you lose your job. After all, nothing is more impolite than walking around with a chip on your shoulder. Commiserating about the circumstances of your layoff ad nauseum won't help you much in the long run, either. Doing this can lead to an "us-versus-them" mentality, which can sabotage your efforts to land a new job.

One of my tricks for combating this is by practicing what I call Therapy By Proxy. When money is tight you're less likely to run out and hire a therapist to guide you through the recession. But that doesn't mean you can't listen to the advice your friend's (who may or may not be your layoff buddy) therapist gives her! For example, a friend's therapist advised her to journal all of her angry thoughts, telling her that once she gets them all out of her head, she'll figure out what to do with them.

I decided to do something similar. Since I'm planning to be confirmed on Easter, one of the hurdles I had to clear was going to confession for the first time in many, many years. I thought that if I was able to vocalize to a priest all the anger I felt towards my company, I could be free from it. I kind of expected to experience a flood of relief after he assigned my penance, or that I would feel "shiny and new" as one friend put it. But it wasn't that dramatic at all. I finally just realized sloughing off all the resentment is more of a process than I thought.

So I guess the moral of the story is this: don't feel guilty for having a very emotional reaction to losing your job, and don't feel like you must be a robot if you find yourself feeling kind of detached. Also, flood "Dear Prudence" and "Ask Amy" with emails begging them to write an etiquette guide for the newly unemployed. Someone's got to do it.