The holidays are a time to gather and be merry with loved ones. But unfortunately, they can also be a time you are unable to escape hearing someone’s unsolicited bad opinion about your work and career choices.
Instead of “Pass me the bread rolls,” you may hear, “Have you thought about getting a real job?” or “People pay you for that?”
First off, when you hear these hurtful comments, understand that someone’s disappointment over what you are doing to make a living or your career trajectory often says more about them than you.
“When people say, ‘You should do X’, what they’re really saying is “I think you should do X,” said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and the author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.” “When someone makes a snide comment, rather than park it in your head under the category of ‘things I’m doing wrong,’ park it in your head under the category of ‘things that this person would do differently with the limited knowledge they have of my circumstances.’”
Don’t let an insult over your career choices derail your holiday fun. There are effective ways to diffuse the tension and even make a good comeback that will move the conversation onto safer ground. Here’s how.
If you want to engage, you can embrace the conversation.
If you believe the person who is sharing their harsh opinion is genuinely trying to help you, one option is to take their insights in good faith. If you are OK with a quip turning into a 30-minute discussion that lasts into dessert, you could say, “That’s interesting. I’m less sure about X, though. What’s your take on Y?” Ng said.
Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist at the consulting firm Gallaher Edge, said that when people make statements that question your career choices, they are projecting their own fears. Common rude comments she has heard include those that question a person’s judgment, such as, “Wow, you’re going to take that kind of risk with your family’s income?” or “When are you going go to back to school?”
If you know where you stand, “Sometimes the simplest thing to say is just: ‘I feel really good about my choices because they’re right for me. It sounds like you would make a different decision for yourself, is that right?’” Gallaher said.
One of the most common types of comments you may hear boils down to someone not understanding what you do, and jumping to the wrong conclusions as a result.
Katheryn Perez, a licensed family and marriage therapist, said that, for example, one of the most common statements that the Latinx clients she works with report hearing from family members during the holidays is the question of “Why are you not doing more?” meaning, “Why are you not working at the level that I expect you to be working?”
If you want to engage with a family member who misunderstands the work you do, you can try to help them understand by sharing your recent projects and work accomplishments, or by simply saying that you enjoy what you do.
If you want to move on, redirect the conversation.
But if you are tired of hearing about your career, then feel free to say something like “That’s an interesting idea ― I appreciate it!” before moving on to talking about something else, Ng suggested.
Keep in mind, though, that playing dumb can backfire.
Ng said that he has used “I hadn’t considered that before, thanks for bringing it up!” as a comeback to these kind of snide comments, but cautions that it can make you come across as though you haven’t thought things through, inviting even more commentary.
That’s why it’s important to offer a different topic to talk about if you want to move the conversation elsewhere. Ng’s advice follows the similar “swivel” formula recommended for when people want to dodge nosy personal questions. To swivel, you acknowledge what the person is saying, showing appreciation and empathy, and then use ‘and’ or ‘while’ statements to introduce a new topic so the person is forced to move on in conversation.
In other words, if you hear, “Won’t it be hard to be there for your kids with that kind of job?” you might say something like “I appreciate your concern. And while we’re talking, I wanted to ask you about the holiday cookies you’ve been baking ... ”
Perez noted that you can also have a buddy do the redirecting for you if you know that someone is going to say something unpleasant about your job over the holidays. They can assist by “stepping in and removing you from the conversation, or reiterating that you do not feel comfortable talking about your career,” she said.
It’s OK to set a firm boundary to stop the comment from becoming a conversation, too.
You can also directly call out the person putting you down by telling them firmly that this isn’t a topic about which they can criticize you.
This can be said simply by stating something like, “I trust that when you comment on choices in my life, it’s because you care and you want to express your concern. I appreciate that, and I’d like to request that you accept the choices I’ve made,” Gallaher suggested.
Acknowledging someone’s positive intent, she said, helps someone actually hear what you are trying to say.
“Without this, they’ll probably go straight into defending and justifying their actions by focusing on their intentions instead of the impact,” Gallaher said.
Or your boundary can be as simple as saying, “I’d like to request that you keep those comments to yourself,” Gallaher said.
If you want to stand up for yourself after a hurtful comment, you can always say how their words made you feel. “In the end, it’s not about being a pushover. It’s about asking yourself what you’re willing to spend your valuable time and energy on,” Ng said.
Know that standing up for yourself isn’t easy, and you deserve time for yourself after making it through a marathon of 20 questions about your job and career choices, no matter if you choose to engage, redirect or reject the comment.
After these exhausting conversations, Perez said, it’s important to take time for yourself when you get home and do an activity that gives you joy, like a warm bath or reading a good book.
“Remember that you won’t always meet everyone’s expectations, and that is absolutely OK,” she said.