LONDON (Reuters) - (Mary Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette" and "Class Acts." She is also the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website www.themitchell.org. The opinions expressed are her own.)
I doubt if Shakespeare was thinking about our 21st Century workplace when he penned that "parting is such sweet sorrow" yet the oxymoron surely is not lost on anyone who recently has lost a job or retired from one.
Conversing about such news from an individual whose position has been made redundant or one who has just retired is, for sure, a challenge to our compassion and civility.
Losing one's job can be construed as a blessing if you hated the job and considered each day spent in it purgatorial. In a perfect world, severance payment can kick start an alternative career one previously only dreamed of.
For most, though, the experience brings up all sorts of fear and insecurity, both emotional and financial, and the process is painful at best - especially when there is a household to support.
This I know from personal experience. I also know from personal experience that it's best to have a good cry before trying to figure out what to say to others.
Let's rule out bashing the individual and the organization whose decision it was to end your run. We never know when our paths might cross again.
So, practice saying (in front of a mirror, if possible), "It's raining outside," and in that very same non-judgmental, unemotional tone, state: "My company eliminated my job last week," or, "there was a restructuring and now I'm out of a job." Then follow it up with something constructive like: "I'm doing my best to put a good face on the news and pursue every avenue open to me. I plan to take some courses to buff up my skills in the meantime."
When you are on the receiving end of this news, it's more important to stay present with the individual than to share war stories. After all, this is not about you.
A compassionate response might sound like: "Ouch. This must be a really trying time for you. I hope you know that I'm in your corner, and that, if I hear of anything that might be helpful, I will be sure to let you know. I wish I could make this process easier on you and your family."
Resist the temptation to try to fix the situation with unsolicited advice, which is human nature, and do not make promises you cannot keep. For example, "I'll call the HR department at my company. I'm sure they'd love to talk with you." That could lead to unfulfilled expectations and big disappointment, as well as a fractured friendship.
Retiring from one's job is an equally loaded piece of news to hear. For one thing, not everybody retires by choice. For another, irrespective of whose choice the decision was, imminent retirement is life-altering and can be fraught with as much trepidation as losing one's job.
It's human nature to want to say something in response. A friend observed recently that when he announced his retirement, there were four recurring questions -- 1. What are you going to do with all that free time? 2. Will you travel? 3. Will you spend more time with your grandchildren? 4. How does your spouse feel about it?
My friend further observed that such questions beg amusing replies: 1. Do you assume that without my job I have no life? 2. Since I was traveling 40 miles a day each way to and from work, I hardly can wait to do something more constructive than commuting. 3. I have 5 grandkids under 5. I emphatically will not be spending more time with them. 4. Actually, I have not told my spouse yet. She has a long enough to-do list for me already.
It seems to me that when we hear that someone has either lost a job to "downsizing" of one kind or another or has retired, the most compassionate response might be something like: "Congratulations. This new chapter should hold lots of adventure, and I know you are up to the challenge, if anyone is."
We need not ask questions that my newly-retired friend described as alternately inane, obtuse, knee-jerk, or laughable. Wouldn't we all be better served by viewing the situation as a commencement, a new beginning?
Writing by Mary Mitchell, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith