Unemployment Benefits

Dear Helena,

Three of my close friends have lost their jobs recently, but mine is secure. When I have drinks or dinner with my buddies who just got laid off, I always offer to pick up the check. One of them refused and said, “Look, I may be out of a job, but I’m no charity case.” Did I commit a faux pas? —Gainfully Employed

Dear Gainfully Employed,

You did the right thing. When a friend gets the ax, you should indeed treat him the next time you meet. Most people won’t find this gesture patronizing. In a casual survey of my newly unemployed acquaintances, all but one said they would like to be treated.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. First, invite him to an inexpensive or midrange restaurant rather than Le Bernardin. It’s one thing to let you buy him sushi or a sandwich, but even if you’re loaded, he might feel uncomfortable letting you treat him to the chef’s tasting menu. Plus, if you choose somewhere your friend can afford, he has the option of paying his share if he really wants to.

When the check comes, don’t throw down your platinum AmEx with a flourish. Instead, says Doug Wilkinson*, a journalist in Minneapolis who recently lost his job: “[D]ownplay it. Don’t make any reference to their situation or call attention to it. Just be like: ‘Hey, my treat tonight.’”

If your friend demurs, Wilkinson suggests inserting an “optional non-job-related justification … such as, ‘You paid for me six months ago.’” This approach, says Wilkinson, is “kind of a fig leaf … I’ll know you’re taking me out because I’m poor on some level, but having another reason proffered makes me more comfortable about taking it.” The reason you give need not be financial. For example: “I owe you since you listened to me complain about my snowboarding injury all night.”

While I’m on the topic of unemployment etiquette, here are a couple of other tips. First, when you get together, be sure to tell your friend you’re sorry he lost his job. That might seem obvious, but people sometimes forget to say these basic things. Ask: “How are you doing?” But ask it in a meaningful tone, so your friend understands you’re not just asking as a social nicety. Then let your friend guide you as to how much he wants to talk about it. He might want to launch into a tearful tirade, or prefer not to discuss it at all, in which case you should not press him for details.

Also, if you’re financially secure, be sensitive about rubbing it in your friend’s face. I was in a career slump once and confided to a friend over beers. Later in our conversation, she started talking about the new floor she was putting in her house. Since I was worrying about paying the rent, I wasn’t in the mood for discussing the problems of selecting the right architect. Even if your friend is getting a free lunch, it may stick in his throat if he has to listen to you talk about your upcoming Caribbean vacation.

Ultimately, if you really want to cheer up a friend who has been laid off, instead of picking up the tab, invite him over. In times of hardship, a simple plate of spaghetti fixed by someone who cares is far more sustaining than any dinner out.

∗This name has been changed at his request.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.