> A young person in my field cornered me at a professional event and asked for an informational interview. I saw a lot of room for improvement on his resume, but he didn’t ask me to critique it — can I offer unsolicited advice? And how can I avoid these requests? I do what I can, but I’m starting to feel a bit flooded by them. Also, in recent months, the interviewees seem to be angling for definite job prospects, which I cannot provide. How can I convey this in advance?
B.U. / Boston
Reclaim your power, B.U. The beauty of the informational interview is that it is intended to be an educational experience, and many things can be educational.
For starters, you can say no, or ask the person to contact you when tax season is over or the MacGuffin case is finally wrapped up. It’s good to help out young people who are just launching their careers, but, as with any worthy endeavor, you need to set limits. (And the few people who will keep track of the MacGuffin trial and call you when it’s over will be well worth talking to.) Learning to respect other people’s schedules is an important professional skill: Teach it!
Be upfront about what you can and can’t offer. There isn’t anything wrong with bluntness: “There aren’t any jobs in my firm right now, and all I could recommend anyway is that you go through the standard application process. But I’m happy to discuss local industry trends and what you can do to make yourself stand out” — or some more human version of such dreadful corporate-speak. Managing expectations is an important professional skill: Model it!
And just about anything, within reason, is fair game for critique in an informational interview, from the interviewee’s resume to his or her e-mail manners. Let your inner reality-show judge fly free.
> I am a cancer survivor and lost my mother to cancer. A dear friend has recently been judgmental about the fact that I use humor to cope. She disagrees that laughter is the best medicine and has accused me of thinking cancer is funny. I am so hurt that she would judge me. I do know cancer is very serious and affects many people, but the way I deal with it is my business, as it is my journey. Please let me know what to say.
D.M. / Westwood
It’s possible that nothing you say will make a difference. We have to start from that. But I think you need to give the issue another shot.
Sit down with your friend and explain yourself one more time. Tell her that your understanding of the disease cannot be challenged, and that the way you cope with it is healthy and your own business. Ask her whether she is in some way hurt by your jokes or whether she fears someone else is or would be. (It doesn’t seem likely that this is the problem, but maybe you’ve crossed a line — why has her behavior changed recently?) Let her know how much her accusations have hurt.
Maybe this will work. Or maybe your friendship with this person will fade. Or maybe it will become one of those relationships with a kind of lesion, a blank space where politics or religion or children — or cancer — ought to live. Those friendships aren’t whole, but they can still be worthwhile.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.