The Deep Psychology of Unemployment Greeting Cards

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.


DE-EMPLOYMENT CARDS/Image: Michael Moffa

You might think that a greeting card for someone who has lost his or her job would be an off-the-wall concept, were it not for the fact that “unemployment greeting cards” have recently made the news as an “off-the-shelf” comfort item to send or give the recently de-employed. A CBS, Dallas-Fort Worth news story quotes the owner of a Dallas Hallmark retail outlet as saying of such cards that they “are flying off the shelves.”

Having already raised eyebrows of the incredulous and having sustained the hopes of at least some card recipients, the attention and sales these job-loss cards have generated might pale in comparison with the surprise and volume of sales that could be generated by tens of thousands of recruiters using them. Before falling down laughing or knitting your eyebrows in disapproval or disbelief, consider the possibility of such cards being used for sourcing candidates, e.g., elite executives, personally known to a recruiter and also known to have been made redundant, much as, but more tastefully and tactfully than the way realtors might use conventional sympathy cards to contact bereaved survivors about disposition of a house, apartment or land. Note that I said “consider”, not necessarily “pursue”.

A variation of the job-loss card that recruiters might consider is the job-hunting card (if one can be found—memo to greeting-card companies), for candidates who haven’t lost a job, but who don’t have one yet, e.g., recent graduates—perhaps with a greater emphasis on encouragement than on consolation.

A Landmark Hallmark Decision

Sensing both a trend toward greater unemployment and an associated need for healing, greeting-card giant Hallmark launched precisely such a card line in 2009, after numerous customer requests for job-loss cards. A  September 21, 2011 BBC News, Washington story describes the job-loss card format: “As the company’s creative director Derek McCracken explained this week in an interview with NPR, some (cards) adopt a sensitive approach, while others try to be humorous.” One of the cards says, “Don’t think of it as losing your job. Think of it as a time out between stupid bosses.”

Asked where the idea came from, McCracken said, in the NPR interview, “It was just that macro trend around the economy where there were layoffs and consumers were asking us for something that was more specific to the situation.” Also asked how the current line of six cards would be classified on sales racks or stamped, he suggested “Encouragement”.

Hallmark is not alone in entering this niche (which, in the jobless market, is a euphemism for “crater”) market; the BBC article noted that 123 Greetings has two job loss cards while Greeting Card Universe has no fewer than 17.

The Pros and Cons of Unemployment Cards

Like greeting cards themselves, analysis of their merits and demerits can be quite clichéd. But, as will be shown in what follows, the deep psychology underlying the clichés and the puzzling conflicts among them is anything but trite.

The top clichéd merits (my list):

1.       Humor: “Humor is the best medicine.”

2.       Connection: “Knowing someone cares (‘enough to send the very best’) helps.” (an application of the Hallmark slogan)

3.       Sharing: “Being able to share the experience is therapeutic”

4.       Dependency: “The friendship expressed through the card is a precious resource to draw upon.”

5.       Sympathy: “Sympathy is validating.”

6.       Public acknowledgment: “Open acknowledgement of joblessness is destigmatizing.”

7.       Re-focusing: “A fresh perspective from the card and friends can help.”

8.       Comforting: “Comforting helps boost morale and hopes.”

9.       Empowerment: “Cards like these can empower and motivate.”

10.   Playfulness: “A light touch can help prevent catastrophizing, panic and depression.”

11.   Validation as special: “A special card for a special person makes him or her feel special and positive.”

The top corresponding clichéd demerits (also my list). Note the precise correspondence between the preceding and the following, as somehow “opposites”:

1.       Anti-Humor: “Being unemployed is nothing to joke about.”

2.       Anti-Connection: “Joblessness is a private matter, not laundry to be washed with ‘friends’.”

3.       Anti-Sharing: “Sharing is like shearing—it’s for sheep that need their herd.”

4.       Anti-Dependency: “Depending on friends for emotional support fosters helplessness.”

5.       Anti-Sympathy: “Sympathy begets self-pity.”

6.       Anti-Public acknowledgment: “Calling attention to it stigmatizes it.”

7.       Anti-Refocusing: “Shifting the focus promotes delusional distraction.”

8.       Anti-Comforting: “Comforting leads to delusional complacency and losing the edge.”

9.       Disempowerment: “A jobless card can reinforce feelings of being a loser.”

10.   Anti-Playfulness: “A light touch may convey a lack of comprehension of the seriousness of the problem.”

11.   Invalidation of Specialness: “A mass-produced card trivializes the suffering of the jobless.”

Wow. Confusing. So what’s the right thing to do?—To send or not to send? And why is it so easy for attitudes to be polarized this way? Chances are that if you agree with several items in one of the two lists, you will agree with most or all in the same list of merits or demerits. Now why is that?

Since equally intelligent, caring, sensitive and reflective people can and will disagree about the pros and cons of sending or giving unemployment cards, even though they are talking about the same simple thing, the key factor or factors that make their evaluations clash must be something else. Otherwise your disagreeing with another recruiter or a friend about the wisdom of using these cards would be an inexplicable mystery.

Is there some way to explain such extreme divergences—especially when, as two opposed groups, these attitudes clash and annihilate each other like swarms of sub-atomic particles and anti-particles? There is.  It is to be found in what is called “reversal theory”, a motivational framework developed by British psychologist Dr. Michael Apter, in which motivation and emotions are paired and diametrically opposed as the two extremes of a spectrum of “meta-motivational states” along which we routinely navigate and flip-flop in “reversals” of attitude, feeling and motivation.

Conflict of Reversals

Reversal theory characterizes our behavior as being governed by these meta-motivational states, classified in terms of four pairs called “domains”. Each pair in a domain represents two opposite forms of motivation, with only one state in each pair active at any given time. We reverse between the states in each pair depending on a number of factors, including our moods, stresses, tasks and innate tendency to adopt one style over the other (the lattermost being a factor that would make reversals less likely, less frequent and more like permanent “traits” rather than transient states).

The four pairs (or domains) are described as follows:

  • Means-Ends – The two states in the first pair are called “Telic” (or “Serious”) and “Paratelic” (or “Playful”) and refer to whether one is motivated by achievement and future goals, or the enjoyment of process in the moment. [Note: Although closely correlated, “serious” and “goal-oriented”, “playful” and “enjoying the process in the moment” are conceptually distinct.]
  • Rules – The next two states are called “Conforming” and “Rebellious” (or “Negativistic”) and refer to whether one enjoys operating within rules and expectations; or whether one wishes to be free and push against these structures.
  • Transactions – The next two states are called “Mastery” and “Sympathy” and relate to whether one is motivated by transacting power and control; or by care and compassion. [Note: It can be argued that this category and the one that follows correlate with “dependence-independence”.]
  • Relationships – The final two states are called “Autic” (or “Self”) and “Alloic” (or “Other”) and refer to whether one is motivated by self interests (personal accountability and responsibility) or by the interests of others (altruism and transcendence). [Note: Although “transactions” and “relationships” overlap in terms of the elements of compassion and altruism, with the former often, but not always, motivating the latter, they remain psychologically distinct.]

For example, consider the two opposed attitudes toward sending a humorous card to someone in the very unamusing circumstance of having been de-employed. If you think it’s a great idea upon hearing it, you are almost certainly in the paratelic, playful state. Notice that this is a “state”, not a “trait”—which means that on another occasion, e.g., you’ve been laid off too, your attitude might flip to the telic, serious state, in which case you would agree that “being unemployed is nothing to joke about.”

Another example: “Sympathy” vs. “Anti-Sympathy”—If you agree with the proposition that “sympathy is validating”, your meta-motivational state is certain to be at the “sympathy” extreme of the “transactions” domain. If, on the other hand, you disagree, and maintain that “sympathy begets self-pity”, you value “mastery” over “sympathy” and are psychologically operating from that premise.

Comparable analyses apply to every one of the other paired conflicts in the two lists of merits and demerits.

Now, why do these attitudes tend to cluster? Why is it likely that if you are anti-playfulness, you will also be anti-sympathy? To see why, first look at the reversal-theory domain that most prominently characterizes the conflict in each of the eleven listed cases. The abbreviations “ME”, “R”, “T” and “RS” will designate the four domains of “Means-Ends”, “Rules”, “Transactions” and “Relationships”, respectively, and are assigned on the basis of my best judgment of best fit:

  • Humor: ME and R
  • Connection: T and RS
  • Sharing: R and T
  • Dependency: R and T
  • Sympathy: R and T
  • Public acknowledgment: R
  • Re-focusing: ME
  • Comforting: T
  • Empowerment: T
  • Playfulness: ME and R
  • Validation as special: R and T

My best guess is that if you are the independent, serious and goal-oriented type, you will be far likelier to be in the meta-motivational states of the demerit list, with a “tough-love” attitude toward humor, sympathy, coddling, relaxing and compromise. In more familiar terms, you will have these tough-love attitudes if you are a “Type-A” personality, i.e., fiercely goal-oriented, competitive, unrelaxed, uncasual, time-pressured, demanding with respect to yourself and others, serious and too impatient to be dependent upon others. That’s why holding one of the demerit beliefs and attitudes is likely to correlate and cluster with the others, in terms of which extreme of the reversal spectrums your state and attitude is likely to be located.

It’s also likely that if this Type-A profile describes you, your more playful, less driven colleagues and friends whose attitudes are the reverse of yours will all want to do something that you would never do.

Send you a sympathy card, even though you have a job.

Read more in Unemployment

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).