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Unemployment etiquette

Eve Troeh Dec 30, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Unemployment wreaks havoc on the economy as a whole and certainly on household finances. But there’s another effect that’s a bit harder to quantify: The social cost. People who are out of work often struggle to maintain ties to friends and family as their financial status changes.

Marketplace’s Eve Troeh has our story.

Eve Troeh: About 18 months ago, 30-something Dina Gachman lost her job in Los Angeles. Her identity disappeared along with her paycheck. Gachman was an up-and-coming creative executive at a film company.

Dina Gachman: I felt really cool. Had my little swipey card to get into the building, and had a little expense account — nothing crazy — but I was going on meetings. Drinks meetings and lunch meetings. So that was… I miss that expense account.

We met at a cafe, where she now frets daily over the two bucks for coffee. More than the expense account, Gachman misses normal conversation with her family in Texas. Even her 94-year-old grandpa’s been pessimistic about her prospects.

Gachman: And his reaction was, “Honey, do you have any hope?” And I just didn’t even know how to answer it… I… hm, I don’t know if I actually do or not.

She’s deferred her student loans. Can’t afford health insurance. Pessimistic grandpa? Too much. So Gachman made a 180 — started laughing about her lack of job in a blog.

Gachman: Called “Bureaucracy for Breakfast: The continuing saga of one girl’s plight with unemployment.”

The name came after a morning spent on hold with the unemployment office. Here’s Gachman reading a post about her dad’s suggestion that she follow her sister’s lead and become a phlebotomist.

Gachman, reading: “Don’t know what that is? I didn’t either. That word sounds a wee bit like taxidermist so I was a little worried. Imagining my baby sister in a musty, dark room stuffing owls and raccoons and some crazy lady’s pet poodle creeped me out. Once she explained that a phlebotomist is the person that takes your blood at the doctor’s office I relaxed.”

Well-educated professionals are the smallest group of unemployed. But they have a harder time replacing their jobs, says Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. And, they suffer more stigma.

Karen Sternheimer: One of the biggest measures of class is something called “occupational prestige.” Part of our status is based not just on how much money we have or make, but on kind of what other people think of what we do.

When professionals lose jobs, she says we’re more likely to blame them — even though we all know that layoffs in recent years happened across the board.

Sternheimer: There’s still a lot of antipathy towards people who don’t have jobs. The myth of the American Dream says that you’ve either succeeded or failed based on your own merit.

Her research on the Great Depression shows that in tough times, we cling more closely to that dream, that our own hard work determines our fate, rather than blame bigger economic forces.

Dominique Browning worked for decades at big name magazines, most recently as editor-in-chief of House & Garden. It had nearly a million readers when it folded, and Browning lost her job.

Dominique Browning: You feel as though you don’t really belong in the places that you used to be in.

Restaurants, parties and especially anywhere work-related.

Browning: I went to a conference that I had signed up for while I still had my job. And when I got there,they didn’t have my name tag. So somebody sort of scribbled my name, and then when she said, “Where are you from?” I didn’t know what to say to her, ’cause I wasn’t from anywhere. I felt very embarrassed.

That kind of embarrassment turned toward depression. Browning stayed home in pajamas in the dark for days on end. Some friends were angry that she could no longer help them. Others with jobs avoided her.

Browning: Unemployment is not contagious. Don’t worry, you can come around.

Browning wrote the book “Slow Love” about re-building her life that first year of unemployment. She’s now an environmental advocate and touring as a writer.

Etiquette expert Peter Post at the Emily Post Institute says relationships get ruined over a job loss. Even generous offers have to be made carefully. Say you want to take your unemployed brother to lunch:

Peter Post: “John, listen, I’d really like to take you out to lunch. It’ll be on me, I would really enjoy it. It’d be great to have you come have lunch with me tomorrow.” Rather than about “I know you can’t pay, John, but gee, I’ll take care of it for you.” There’s different ways to phrase things that either make the person feel honored or make them feel two inches tall.

Or say you’ve lost your job, and you’re too broke for a plane ticket to a friend’s wedding.

Post: I don’t think you need to say, “I can’t afford to make it,” because now you’re making it about you rather than about the other person.

Offer sincere regrets, and leave it at that. He says communication gets harder the longer someone’s unemployed, but social ties also get more important.

And, progress can be made. Blogger Dina Gachman says about a month ago, her dad stopped asking about phlebotomy. Instead, they talked about her plan to turn her blog into a book.

Gachman: He’s like, “Oh you’re my little entrepreneur.” That was actually really cool.

It helped them both of them see her life in a different way.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace Money.

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