Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sound familiar?

I had to chuckle when I read this article in today's Globe & Mail. Something sounded awfully familiar -- just substitute "bereavement" for "unemployment" and "grieving parent" or "infertility patient" for "job hunter" and see if you agree...!

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Cliché comforts
Just don't tell me to make lemonade
Think twice before offering cliché comfort to someone looking for work - the last thing they want to hear is empty platitudes

Sarah Boesveld
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Jun. 16, 2009 06:36AM EDT

"Everything happens for a reason.”

It was borderline offensive, the line Olga Cordeiro's boss sputtered when he laid her off from her job as a lab assistant 20 years ago.

She took little stock in his motivational words back then. And she has little patience for the same brand of cliché comfort and career advice she gets now as she navigates the bitter economic climate in search of clients to help launch her career as a certified business coach.

But she takes it with a smile.

“When somebody tries to give me that kind of advice, I [think], ‘Thank you very much, but it's not going to work,'” the 44-year-old Hamilton resident says. “I don't tell them that because they mean well. They think they're being encouraging.”

Clichés – as frowned upon as they are – have become such fixtures in our everyday chatter that we fire them off without thinking. And that's a problem when it comes to serious matters such as unemployment, career experts say. Something else may indeed “come down the pipe,” as job hunters hear from well-meaning friends and family, but such stock reassurances are often unhelpful and misguided, and, frankly, seem like a snub.

“They can be irritating and sometimes harmful,” depending on how a person is coping with the situation, says Alan Kearns, founder of CareerJoy, a national coaching company. Take “‘So many people lost their jobs, I'm sure it'll all work out, you'll end up in a great situation.' If I'm struggling, [that] may not be the healthiest thing to hear.”

It is tough to find new ways to send the same message, acknowledges Gerard Van Herk, a sociolinguist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Clichéd suggestions often come from the gainfully employed who don't know what the job search is like, he says, and by saying something general, they're effectively letting themselves off the hook.

“Part of it is probably just convenience. We can't say nothing and at the same time there's no really good thing to say and this is what we've got available to us. We're definitely trying to make ourselves feel better.”

Job hunters are usually grateful for the gesture, but get tired and, at times, annoyed by the constant flow of useless guidance.

Lyndsay Rush, 26, who writes “Diaries of a Temp” on the blog Unemploymentality.com, vented recently about the “sage wisdom” and motivational shoulder squeezes she's received ad nauseam.

“If I get one more encouragement that involves lemons and lemonades I might totally have a cow,” the self-professed “underemployed” Chicago blogger and part-time waitress wrote last week.

People are always asking if she's thought about going back to school, if she has cold-called multiple companies or if she's been making good use of her networks.

She simply tells them: “It's so nice of you to say, but I'm doing all that.”

“It used to really frustrate me just because [the advice] wasn't helpful. Now I just kind of brush it off as people are just trying to help. One in every maybe 50 people I talk to have something helpful or something concrete.”

It's tricky to try to help someone who's laid off and looking, but we often feel the need to, says Silvia Bonaccio, an assistant professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

“People like to feel helpful. Advice giving is a way to feel helpful, so we do see a lot of people who get a lot of advice from people who are not experts in the domain,” she says.

A better move is to ask an unemployed person what they could use a hand with, says Tim Tyrell-Smith, who runs Spinstrategy.com, a website that offers tips for job hunters. This is where job hunters can be specific, asking the employed people in their lives to keep their eyes peeled for jobs in certain fields or to suggest recruiters who handle a target market.

Directing job seekers to websites and job resources can also help them feel empowered, Mr. Kearns adds.

“Let them drive it. It's about understanding, but [also] saying ‘I'm not by any means an expert in this area.'”

Perhaps the best way to help is just listen, says Mr. Kearns, who likens the clichés that job hunters hear to those showered on someone enduring a breakup.

But there is a reason job hunters hear the same advice over and over, says Doug Schmidt, president of CareerPlus, a career counselling practice in Mississauga. Much of it actually works.

“They're perceived as clichés because they're the standard answers you're going to get from a career coach or a career counsellor,” he says. And that ounce of truth can motivate people if the line is delivered in the right context to the right person, says Elaine Gold of the University of Toronto linguistics department. Clichés are useful for conveying a bigger idea or concept in few words.

“In some situations, [a cliché] carries more force than your own words might because it has this idea that there are centuries of wisdom behind it,” she says.

Though she cringed at the time, Ms. Cordeiro now believes her boss was right to say her layoff happened for a reason. Had she continued to work in the lab, a better job working in the office of a Hamilton insurance company might never have come her way.

But she is still wary of advice from people who just don't have their heads in the game.

“I think that to give advice, one has to walk a mile in one's shoes,” she says.


  1. Yes- sounds very familiar! People say the "darndest" things when they are uncomfortable. Sure they mean well but they often make the situation more uncomfortable.

  2. I used to firmly believe that everything really did happen for a reason, until I had a dead baby. I've never found a reason that has made that ok. And I've stopped believeng that things do happen for a reason. Things happen and you learn to live with it or you don't. End of story.

  3. I just wrote about cliches on my blog. When it coms to other people's problems, I now know to pretty much shut my mouth, listen and then ask if there's anything I can do to help. I cringe at the cliches that used to pop out of my mouth. Yeesh.

  4. Oh, man, this is good. I wonder where I can line up for infertility benefits?

  5. SO glad I'm not the only one that kept finding similarities! I've had a blog post brewing in my head ever since the NY Times ran a story debating whether or not it was easier to lose your job knowing so many others were too, a kind of comfort in numbers. I often wonder if our losses are made lighter by the community that has developed around them, or if its just plain awful that so many of us hurt.

  6. Cliches in any circumstance are awful.

    I'm sorry that I had to have a baby die to realize how awful. It's true though- whether directed towards the grieving, the sick, the unemployed- we need to watch what comes out of our mouths. Thanks for the article.

  7. Sounds way too familiar. Like Kalakly, I used to believe everything happens for a reason. Today, I do not believe in that, but I guess that's self serving. But it's easier to think everything is just chance.

    And beautiful post on the Kansas doctor. I just read it and I couldn't agree more with you.

  8. Thanks for posting this article...I happened upon this while doing another search.