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What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Unemployed

Whether you’ve ever been unemployed or not, you can imagine what a trying time it is to have the rug pulled out from under your entire life — and your financial security. Then some genius comes along and says, “hey, have you found anything yet?”

Image Source | Getty Images

All it takes is one little well-meaning comment like that to get visions of committing a felony dancing in their head.

The problem, one unemployed person said, is that “how’s work going?” is one of our go-to icebreakers as a society. When you take “work” off the table, people don’t know what to do, so, after a long, awkward pause, they blurt out something like, “how’s the search going? Have you found anything?”

Jim Good, who’s been unemployed for many months, said unemployment is depressing so questions like that just remind him of his problems.

“When I go out to visit people, I want to forget … I’d rather talk about anything but being unemployed.”

What’s even worse is those well-meaning souls who try to be helpful or inspirational.

“I hate hearing things like ‘you just have to pound the pavement’ or ‘something will turn up’ said Holly Jespersen, a public-relations professional who’s been out of work since August. “OBVIOUSLY I am doing everything in my power to find a job – including moving to a different city,” Jespersen said.

And, while most people who are unemployed appreciate a job lead — don’t offer them a job lead unless you know what you’re talking about.

Izzy Goodman spent 30 years as a computer analyst. When he lost his job two years ago, he quickly retooled his personal web site (www.ccs-digital.com) to start doing some consulting work from home. To his surprise, he said, he’s making as much with his home-based business as she did at her corporate job. His parents, however, don’t understand that “in the 21st Century, things have changed,” Goodman explains. So even though he’s running a successful business from home, his parents send him every job listing they can find with the word computer in it. “Secretary with computer skills,” “intern with computer skills” — even “office manager with SOX knowledge.

“They figure if it has initials, it must be related to computers!” Goodman says, exasperated. “My mother even suggested I take the intern job and work my way up — It’s the same advice she gave me 30 years ago!”

Ros Gourvitz turned her two-year unemployment into an opportunity and started her own jewelry-making company and, like Goodman, her parents didn’t understand.

“I’m so tired of my dad saying, ‘You have a great hobby making jewelry but it might be time to get a real job!’” she exclaimed.

Oh, parents. They mean well, don’t they?

(Here’s the link Mr. And Mrs. Gourvitz — www.scottishlilyjewelry.etsy.com. Please note, that’s in U.S. dollars, not Barbie Dream House money.)

It’s particularly obnoxious when people assume that because you’re unemployed, you just sit around doing your nails or hitting golf balls all day.

When Rachani Suri got laid off last May, she took up Spanish (and she’s fluent now), started a blog and started working out plans to start her own business.

When people ask her how everything’s going, she replies: “Busy.”

No one can seem to wrap their paycheck-fluffed heads around an unemployed person being busy. So they look at her for a moment, perplexed, and then respond: “Doing what?!”

Perhaps your highest chance of eliciting a felonious act from an unemployed person is to imply this is a coveted status.

“What really drives me crazy? People keep asking me how I’m enjoying my ‘retirement’ or my ‘time off’ without regard to the fact that I lost a full-time salary and benefits including health care!” said JoAnn Cicale, who lost her job after 21 years as a lobbyist, PR and community activist.

You also want to avoid saying things like, "oh, so you're Mr. Mom now!"

People love their kids, but they will kill you — with their bare, unemployed hands.

Rosemary Ashley, who’s been unemployed for three years, offers this rapid-fire list of what not to say:

  • It's tough out there. "I know that, through three years personal experience!" she says.
  • Other people are going through the same thing. "Yep. I realize this middle class meltdown isn't a personal attack against me," she said.
  • Maybe you're asking for too much money.
  • Maybe you should go back to school.
  • When their unemployment compensation is cut, they'll find a job.

And, here’s the best one on her list — There are plenty of jobs out there.

“No, there are multiple people seeking work for every job opening. Many employers refuse to hire the unemployed. Many employers refuse to hire middle aged people. Many employers refuse to hire highly experienced/educated people unless they have exactly the combination (no more, no less) demanded,” Ashley said. “There is a serious imbalance between paid work and available workforce.”

So, quick recap. That’s: No, no, no, no, no and — oh, hail to the — NO!

So, what would they like you to talk about?

“Basically, I don't want sympathy or useless advice. I want information that will either help me with my job search, lead to a freelance position that will help tide me over until a real job comes along, or help me to get a full time job in my field,” Di Toro said. “If someone doesn't have information that will truly help me, then let's just talk about the weather.”

“What would I most like to hear from someone? ‘Here, I wrote you a check. Thought you might need it!’” Good said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Izzy Goodman as woman. He is, in fact, a man, and we offer him our humblest apology.

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  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

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