‘Tis the season to go to family gatherings and parties. Sometimes the small talk can be fun and interesting, and other times, it can be awkward or just plain boring. Career plans or employment are a natural topic of many party conversations, but not always a piece of cake to navigate. Even though many of these chats are positive or at least innocuous, I’d like to share a few tips on ways you can use to your advantage the ones that you don’t look forward to having.
Gather info, get curious. Instead of dreading the questions and focusing on yourself and what you’re going to say, change your perspective. Think, “How can I use this party to create something of value beyond the social experience, such as a lead or a networking contact?”
Awkward questions. You get asked “What do you do?” and you’re underemployed or lost your job a few months ago. This can be the question you most dread answering. If you just say, “I’m unemployed,” that will probably be followed by uneasy silence and/or anxious queries of all the gory details related to your job search. Or, you get asked how college is going followed by, “What are you going to do with that degree?” You may have lost count of the number of times that question crossed your mind and you’re tired of having to explain that there are a plethora of careers for English majors besides teaching.
How do you respond? Many people want to empathize and even offer some kind of help, if for no other reason than to feel better about themselves after putting you on the spot at a party. If you just allow the uncomfortable silence to linger, it is likely to get filled with anxious talk of job ”leads” – even though you may have decided a long time ago you would never work in another chain restaurant again….
So how do you turn this situation to your advantage? One thing you can do is put a positive spin on what you’re doing, and then take the focus off yourself by asking questions. An example of something the underemployed person can say is “My usual profession is a Medical Coder, and I’m redirecting my career toward Accounting. Say, your friend Bob is in accounting, how long has he been at his firm? Do you think he would be open to an informational interview?” Now you have a possible connection.
The English Literature major can enlighten those casting doubt on their choice of major by telling them most employers are looking for professionals who have excellent communication, critical analysis, and writing skills – abilities an English degree is ideal for developing. Conversation could even be started to discern how that applies for people in the different industries and professions represented at the party.
Using boring conversations to your advantage. You hear someone ask “What do you do?” and your friend Terry excitedly explains his new QA Analyst position, proceeding to “talk shop” with similar members of the tribe present at this social gathering. He begins rattling on and on and doesn’t notice yours and six others’ pairs of eyes glazing over. What can you do? Redirect the focus of the conversation with a question such as, “How did you get into your current field, Terry?”
Doing that will create a break in the monotonous drone of technical details and an opportunity for others to learn about a possible career path. In addition, you’ve opened a window to ask further questions that might actually lead to useful career or job search. After listening to this person, you might be sure you’d never want to be a QA Analyst, but there are many other jobs in the software industry that would find fulfilling.
You can ask other questions that might be relevant, for example: “What are some trends you see that somebody entering a software industry career should keep in mind?” “What kind of background would be best if somebody wanted to work in new business development within your company?” If Mr./Ms. QA has no answers to such questions, ask them to recommend someone to contact in their company or industry in order to find out more.
Before the person starts up again with shop talk, initiate similar conversations. “What about you Billy Bob – how did your career path lead you to your current profession?” You might get a whole trend started where people gain something of lasting value out of party conversations.
Stay focused on what you can discover. The more curious and adaptable you can be asking well-placed questions, the more you’ll uncover information you can actually use. Every uncomfortable situation is actually an opportunity to learn, if you chose to use it that way.