The Pain of Being Ignored

I would have figured that by this stage in my career, I wouldn’t be ignored so much. Yet, when I sent a proposal for my next book to a dozen publishers, most of them didn’t even give me the courtesy of a rejection. When, a week ago, I left a voicemail asking my supervisor at the Chronicle to call me, I’m still waiting. I emailed my daughter a week ago and even she hasn’t responded!

Being ignored is dispiriting, even to someone who has a pretty darn good life. You feel like you don’t count. Imagine what it must feel like for a job seeker who’s been looking for a job for months, who works her butt off crafting a careful job application, and gets no response. Silence. As though she’s not even worth a rejection letter.

And imagine one of the millions of low-level employees, doing an unglamorous, thankless job day after day, year after year. How often would you imagine he gets praised? How often would you guess someone notices when he comes in wearing a hangdog expression? Or a new shirt? Or when she’s sighing, frustrated with a task?

Even big shots get ignored. Many of my clients are executives, college presidents, doctors, lawyers and the like. Guess what? They too feel bad when they got a nice haircut and no one notices. Or that their supervisees, clients, or customers rarely ask how they’re doing. Not just a perfunctory, “How are you?” but asked in a way that shows they really want to hear an honest and full answer.

As we enter the holiday season, I can’t think of a better time to promise yourself that you’re going to be nice. Can I ask you to look for opportunities to pay attention to the human side of coworkers, customers, and bosses? Bosses need love too.

Hint: consciously look for changes in people. If a person seems more upbeat than usual, say something like, “You seem particularly up today. Anything special happen?” Or if they seem unusually blue, “Hi Joe. You look a little down. Anything going on that you feel like talking about?” If you notice an overweight person looking slimmer than the last time you bothered to notice, how about saying, “Hey, you’re looking trim.” Tip: If an overweight person looks fatter than usual, that’s something you may want to ignore.

The holiday office party offers particularly rich opportunities to pay attention to people. For example, walk up to a wallflower, say hi, and ask a question that invites a personal interaction such as, “Are you looking forward to the holidays?” At parties, I make a point of striking up a conversation with the least attractive person in the room who is alone and looking uncomfortable.

Yeah, I know that sending rejection letters to job applicants won’t improve your bottom line, but at least during the holiday season, might you want to be nice, even if it doesn’t pay in dollars and cents? And can I push you even further? Add a line or two of feedback in that form rejection letter, for example, “David, we were really impressed with your ability to think on your feet but we needed someone with a lot of industry connections.”

And if you’re one of those people who feel ignored, please take solace in knowing that unfortunately, in our ever-faster-paced society, the human touch is often a casualty. There are plenty of unquestionably worthy people who too are being ignored. The best thing you can do is to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get out of your head and keep your antennae out for opportunities to bring a little humanity into other people’s lives. You’ll feel better, I promise. It’s corny but true that it feels better to give than to receive. It may even help your career.

I’m all for efficiency and productivity, but it’s a little sad when so many of us feel ignored, especially around the holidays. The answer is simple. It’s embedded in the holiday spirit--make an extra effort to treat others as you’d want to be: with a little love.

© 2008, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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