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What to say when a friend gets the heave-ho

  • Story Highlights
  • Etiquette experts have had outpouring of people trying to cope with down times
  • They advise being honest with laid-off friends or family members
  • "You don't want to be the voice of gloom and doom. You want to be supportive"
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By Karin Caifa
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- From mass layoffs to overall cost-cutting, the worst economy in decades is putting many Americans in social situations they've not encountered in their lifetimes.

Etiquette experts say that if a friend has been laid off, you should be honest and supportive.

Etiquette experts say that if a friend has been laid off, you should be honest and supportive.

"We don't have experience with it, and so they don't have something to fall back on as a reference point," said Cynthia Lett, president of the International Society of Etiquette and Protocol Professionals.

That's why Lett and etiquette consultants like Nancy Mitchell, who operates the Etiquette Advocate, have seen an increase in inquiries about how to deal with the most delicate of recession scenarios.

"I have been receiving a lot more interest in getting answers on how to handle the frustration that people feel, the fear that they feel and the interactions that they have with people who are losing their jobs," Lett said. "People are very concerned about saying the right thing, doing the right thing for others, but they don't know what words to use." Video Watch how to handle laid-off friends »

CNN asked Lett and Mitchell to answer some of the etiquette questions on the minds of Americans:

CNN: My friend, family member or neighbor has been laid off. What do I say?

Mitchell: My advice is, don't pretend you don't know. If you've heard that about a friend or a family member, say privately ... "I've heard that you were laid off. I've heard that you've lost your job. Please let me know if there's anything that I can do to help."

You don't want to be the voice of gloom and doom. You want to be supportive, caring, and you want to be the safety net for people.

CNN: I'm out of work, and I've started the search for a new job, but I could use some help. Are the social functions I attend appropriate times to network?

Mitchell: If you're a smart networker, you do that every hour of every day, and you do it subtly. Maybe it's not the first thing that comes out of your mouth, but you let it be known in the conversation. You're not pushy. You're not tacky. You're not saying, "here's my business card" or ask, "do you know somebody?"

Don't make it the only topic of conversation, but don't be afraid to let people know that you're looking.

CNN: My friends and family have offered help with the job search, perhaps too much help. Is there a polite way to decline their assistance, even though they're aware I'm still looking?

Mitchell: I think you do yourself and others a favor by being honest. How much help do you want? It's a fine balance between caring, showing your concern and showing pity. People don't want that. They don't to want to be considered a charity case. If you have lost your job and you're a person who is very independent, who doesn't want that kind of outpouring, don't be afraid to let that be known.

CNN: I've just been laid off. I've been invited to my friend's wedding but don't think I can afford a gift. What can I do?

Lett: Remember, with a wedding invitation, you have one year in which to give a gift. So if it's not possible now, don't apologize. Just keep in mind that by the first anniversary, you have to give a gift.

CNN: I'm planning a wedding or birthday party, but I'm afraid some of my friends and family won't attend because they're on a tight budget. Should I leave them off the guest list so they don't feel obligated or uncomfortable about attending or sending a gift?

Mitchell: Please, please, don't do that. Don't leave people off of the list.

Recognize that it's not the time to go to the five-star restaurant, or it's not the time to plan the bachelor party in Las Vegas. It's time to cut back in general and think about others. Go ahead with your plans. It is your once-in-a-lifetime if it's a wedding. But just know, some people may have to regret; some people may not feel that they'll be able to attend.

And also, I would sincerely hope that no bride, no honoree of any sort, would ever equate a friendship with a gift.

CNN: My friend is in a tough spot and has asked to borrow some money. How do I respond without losing a friend?

Lett: If you feel that you have enough [money] that you could actually lose -- meaning you'll never see it again -- then that is what you should think about lending.

If you are in a position where you're a little tight, certainly better off than the person who's asking but still not feeling totally flush, don't lend anything. And if you decide to lend money, you have to have a written agreement: when it's going to start being paid back, if there's going to be any interest involved and how much that's going to be, and when the final payment needs to be due. It has to be a business transaction. If it's not, you will lose a friend over it. History bears that out.

CNN: My company just experienced a round of layoffs. I was spared, but my co-worker was not. We were fairly close -- shared a cubicle and often went to lunch together. What do I say when I see him again?

Mitchell: Respect someone's position. You don't say every time you meet them, "Are you still out of work?" Instead, you ask something that's very sensitive and caring. "How are you feeling?" That's the kind of support that people want. They don't want your pity. They don't want that to be the only topic of conversation. That's not their identity. That's not supposed to change your relationship.

CNN: Is there one underlying rule for recession etiquette?


Lett: The bottom line of good etiquette is making other people feel comfortable around you. And making them feel included.

Mitchell: Thinking about the needs and the comforts of other people before your own. That's the bottom line. Money should not be the No. 1 topic when you're meeting with friends and family in these times.

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