There are few gestures so loaded with simultaneous promise and peril as asking someone who’s been out of work for awhile how their search for a new job is going. It is, of course, very kind and considerate that your friends/peers/acquaintances are interested in how this big, important, possibly life-defining thing is progressing. So what could make an otherwise thoughtful question so fraught?
In a stupidly overbroad way, looking for a new job is a bit like recovering from major surgery. If you’re healing up from an emergency organectomy, the process is kind of awful. There will be some victories along the way, but the day-to-day generally sucks. Something similar can be said of job hunting. Especially if you’re currently unemployed, casting about for a new position is a slog. Not only is it a lot of work finding and applying for jobs, but you’re dealing with the constant anxiety of financial insecurity. You’re also trapped in a continuous loop of excitement and disappointment, psyching yourself up for each new possibility, only to face (another) rejection.
Until it’s done. Once you’ve got a job, you’re relieved and excited and the news is good. Up to that point, your progress is measured by small victories (job openings found, applications finished, interviews landed) and many more disappointments (jobs already filled, applications that never garner a response, interviews that don’t pan out). Would I rather be healthy and job hunting than recovering from surgery? Of course. It’s an analogy, and not one that’s intended to diminish anybody’s health challenges. I’m just saying that, in both cases, if someone asks you how it’s going before the process has reached something resembling a satisfactory conclusion, your answer is liable to contain rather more uncertainty and disappointment than is strictly pleasant.
All of which makes framing a response a considerable challenge. If you’re anything like me, you’re painfully conscious of not being too negative all the time. You’re desperate not to be a burden or a pain in the ass, and you really don’t want to bum out somebody who was kind of enough to show an interest in your situation. You’ve also completely internalized the idea that nobody gets a job without networks and connections and introductions, and come on, who wants to help out (or hang out with) some doofus who’s whining all the time? So whenever someone asks about your job hunt, you duck and weave, trying like mad to put a good spin on an otherwise stressful and depressing situation. Then you go home, and quietly (or not) freak the f@#k out about your latest “we heard from many talented applicants” letter.
The thing that you (and by “you,” I mean “I”) need to keep in mind is that most of the people who ask are genuinely curious about what’s going on in your life. A handful of the people who ask might just be making conversation, and will bolt at the first sign of negativity or frazzlement. But it’s far more likely that they’re asking out of actual interest/concern. Unless you’re shrieking or sobbing or somehow blaming them for your setbacks, chances are they’ll be able to handle some honest vexation without making a panicked exit. A certain amount of composure is a good thing, but if you’re pretending that everything is super peachy all the time, you’re doing friendship wrong, and slathering on a bonus layer of added pressure that’s both unproductive and unnecessary.
All of which is a long way around of me telling myself to stop being so scared to admit when I’m discouraged. The middle ground between utter stoicism and abject fatalism isn’t actually as elusive as all that. I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who care enough to ask how I’m doing; I need to trust them (and myself) enough to give them an honest answer.