Thanksgiving Survival Guide: How to Talk About Your Career During the Holidays

by Kaitlin McManus | November 16, 2018

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Fall Table Setting

Let’s all be real with ourselves: Thanksgiving is a tough holiday to get through, for reasons that are unique to every family. My family gathering, for example, is no Norman Rockwell painting. We’re a group of about 60 Irish/Italians from Jersey. In other words, it’s loud and kind of insane. There’s an annual Billy Joel sing-a-long, which is at least two hours long. There’s a Bloody Mary bar and “shotskis” off a Jersey Devils stick. The kids play Super Smash Bros. and things eventually take a Lord of the Flies-esque turn.

I know, it sounds fun. But it’s also a lot. And even with all that going on, there’s no escaping my judgmental family members and their inevitable questions about my future: So, what are you doing these days? Are you still in school? Where are you working now?

I field these questions approximately 60 times each holiday season (sometimes more, depending on how much the hockey stick’s gone up), so I’ve got a few tips to pass along to all you dreading the imminent prospect of holiday chit-chat. Below are some various employment phases and how to discuss them with your more critical family members.

School

Around the holidays, I’m always grateful when I’m a student. Why? Because when someone asks what you’re doing with your life, school is a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Even if your work situation is a little tenuous, a simple, “I’m in school” will often allay the subject. Anything else you’re up to is gravy (Thanksgiving rimshot).

That said, students don’t always get off scot-free. I know it’s not just my family where everyone’s got an opinion on what you’re studying. Even post-grad education isn’t foolproof in this regard. When I told an uncle I was pursuing my Master’s in writing, he asked, “Why would you waste money on something like that?” When this sort of thing happens, stick to your guns! It’s your job to take your studies seriously, despite anyone else’s (often unsolicited) opinion. Self-deprecation is a good disarming strategy, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re selling yourself short. Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated”—that goes double for Thanksgiving.

Work That You Love

Why are you looking for advice on this? Go to Thanksgiving, gush about the amazing things you do, then go home and keep living your awesome life, bud.

Work That You Don’t Love

Working in a position that you can’t stand is tough, and we’ve all been there. It doesn’t meet our expectations, we feel unchallenged or put-upon, the pay is abysmal, etc. Sometimes it’s so bad we start Googling “How to Fake My Death and Live Off-Grid in the Adirondacks.” Or is that just me?

Your best play here is camaraderie. Everybody has things they don’t like about work, even people with their dream job (or your dream job). Pick something you can kvetch about with your cousins—your awful commute, or something crazy a customer said. Misery loves company, and so long as you keep it light instead of maudlin, you might end up bonding with that relative you dreaded talking to.

Part-Time Work/Freelancing

Most of my working life has been spent in part-time jobs and side-hustling—while I sympathize with the life, other people might not. Part-time work can give the impression that you’re doing it because you couldn’t find anything else. But part-time work is often a choice—you need the cash, but you’re choosing to focus on something else (family, education, an art, etc.). There’s no shame in picking a lower-pressure job to focus on something important to you. If this is the case, shift the conversation to what you’ve chosen to focus on. Try, “I took a part-time administrative position so I can be home when the kids get off school,” or “I’m doing some freelance social media to stay limber, but I’m taking the year to finish my novel.” Make sure your conversation partner knows that your work schedule was something you picked, not born out of necessity or defect.

Out of Work/Stop-Gap

I don’t think anyone dreads family gatherings like someone who’s out of work. Whether you’ve been laid off, let go, or you haven’t gotten your career off the ground yet, telling someone “I’m between positions,” can be embarrassing. Having a stop-gap is a good step (for a lot of reasons), but it doesn’t make broaching the subject of work much easier.

You might try the same tactic I offered part-timers—talk about something else you’re focusing on. You’re not working at the moment, but maybe you’ve gotten involved with the PTA or you’re volunteering at a shelter. Pick something that sounds productive, and talk about that instead. Your other option, if you feel comfortable doing so, is to network. That’s right—I’m bringing it home with networking. Thanksgiving can be a connect-a-palooza: all these people gathered in one place, where you can talk to them in-person instead of trying to get their attention on Facebook. Go ahead, tell them you’re in the market for a position. They’re family; they’re biologically programmed to want to help you—so don’t be shy! The holidays are tough, and family can be a handful at times, but they’re also pretty good at rallying when they need to. So even if you’re dreading talking about your job situation, just remember that, above all else, these people care about you. That’s something to be thankful for.

Filed Under: Job Search | Networking | Workplace Issues

Tags: awkward conversations | thanksgiving survival guide | holiday season | talking about work | thanksgiving family gathering

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