How To Talk About Work With Your Loving (Prying) Family During The Holidays

Illustration by Abbie Winters.
Spending a lot of time with your family over the holidays can be an exercise in emotional excess and restraint.
On one hand, if you tend to get fussed over in familial gatherings, it can be nice to have people persistently looking after your needs. On the other hand, it is frustrating to be babied about your career choices. (Especially when you don't have the option to bolt.)
Asserting yourself as a capable adult to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the spectrum of relatives plying you with questions (and sometimes criticism) can be overwhelming. Here are ways to deal with a few common scenarios, whether your relatives have good intentions, or not.
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If You're Under/Unemployed

Group gatherings can be especially difficult for people experiencing professional hardship. If you aren't working, or are cobbling jobs together, don't beat yourself up just to prove to them that you aren't 100% happy with your current situation. Start by making it clear that you aren't just sitting around tweedling your thumbs, content about the state of things. You know things aren't ideal and you haven't given up. (Ideally, that is true!)
Many people suggest using the phrase "I'm transitioning" to talk about gaps in your résumé in social situations. While that can work on a date, in an informational interview, or at a cocktail party, family members won't always let you off so easily.
If you know your relatives well enough to assume they'll press the issue, come prepared with other talking points about how you are using your time. Discuss volunteer work you're doing, as The Job Network suggests. Doing so can be a "graceful way to answer the question and discuss interesting projects close to your heart."

If Your Job Is Too Newfangled

Many jobs today didn't exist 10 years ago, which can make talking about your job with people who haven't entered the workforce within the last five years a chore and half. When you engage, do your best to stifle any ageist retorts, and think of it as an exercise in good communication.
As suggested at The Muse, a solid approach can be to explain the outcome of your work (rather than every granular task) and avoid using jargon. "Simplify your everyday responsibilities [and] highlight how your job contributes to the organization’s overall mission." After all, if this were an interview situation and you talked about what you do in a confusing, overwrought way, the other person would probably roll their eyes behind your back, too.
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Consider telling a story about your work, too, The Muse also suggests. That can be a more engaging way of sharing your life, that also invites them to share stories of their own.

If You Have To Work During The Holidays

You don't want to come off as antisocial, but you've been asked to work from home for a few days. The best solution: Tell your family and friends. Some of them may have choice words about you being attached to your phone or computer, but don't let that bog you down. You may have agreed to take on a shift in person or remotely, pitch in outside of the office, or be reachable by phone for a certain amount of time. Explain the importance of what's happening and make it clear that you may be a little distracted, but you have a few things to do.
Some people will assume you are avoiding them for an unknown reason, so tell them you're keeping to your room and aren't hanging out because you have a few things to get done. Find out if there are any family outings and do your best to plan ahead, explaining that if you get peace and quiet now, you'll be able to join in later. And, if there are any hurt feelings about you texting or emailing instead of giving your undivided attention, promise to banish your tech later but say that you have to be "on" for a little while at the moment.
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If Your Work Doesn't Look Like Work

It can be easy for people outside of the sphere of freelancing, gig-working, consulting, co-working, Skyping, and social media influencing to assume that the laptop warrior in the café or working from home isn't doing anything at all. If someone makes a comment about you "playing around on your computer," take a deep breath, hold onto that holiday clapback, and think of world peace. You may not want to pull out the receipts just to prove that your career is viable (or even thriving!), but sometimes you have to let people know.
So brag! Not obnoxiously, but confidently. Humor can help smooth over your annoyance (and their smugness) even as you stand up for yourself. For example, "I wish I could sit around in my PJs, but I actually had to do ____ last month when I was working on ____." Talk about your recent accomplishments, or ones from over the last year, that are measurable and have clear metrics your relatives can understand.
If you're a writer, you might share some of the places you've published work that you're excited about, or how many people read a piece that did well. If you booked new projects and got great feedback, you could describe what the process was like, how you accomplished it, and even any images. Or, in general, you could even talk about what it's like to work in a co-working space, interesting people you've met there, or how you schedule your days.
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If You're Still Figuring Out What You Want To Do

Discussing one's hobbies, interests, and work is often fun, but it can also be uncomfortable if you're still figuring stuff out. Go from job to job and you may be labeled a dilettante; stick with one thing too long, and you're rigid and risk averse; declare your indecision and you don't have it together. It's like you're expected to have complete certainty about the rest of your life — but still be absolutely open to anything. Real life happens in phases, and priorities can change.
If your relatives get agitated about your perceived lack of direction, try to keep the focus on what you are currently doing and why. Explain that you may still be open to other things at the moment, but what you are doing now is helping you hone x skill, or get y connections, which you'd love to parlay into z opportunity.

If Your Family Hates Your Job

Remember that your boundaries matter. Alison Green at Ask A Manager counseled a woman whose mother went so far as to tell someone at a party that she was okay with her daughter not wanting kids, but that she "really [needed] to return to school to get a 'real career.'"
The woman was satisfied with her life and marriage (even after having taken an expensive detour to earn a master's degree in an field she later realized she didn't enjoy) but her parents couldn't let go of their idea of success. Many people's parents are the same, and Green rightly acknowledged that the reader "can't make your parents stop doing this" — though she can draw a respectful line.
One of Green's tips was to call it out directly, with some version of "I've told you that I'm not interested in discussing that. Can we talk about something else?" They might forge ahead regardless, but continuing to establish that you have had this discussion many times, are choosing not to engage with them about it any longer, and will leave them to their thoughts if they are unwilling to give it a rest for the moment, will hopefully bring a reprieve ... in time.
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