Are Work Friends…Friends?

Posted on October 30, 2018

Tiers of friendship depicted by number of people on a mountain with you at the top.

What I’m listening to – all Neko Case, all the time. It’s a cold weather thing.

What I’m watchingChilling Adventures of Sabrina. In the same Riverdale universe, it’s part teen rom-com angst-party, part American Horror Story fright-fest. I’ve very here for it, particularly this close to Halloween.

What I’m readingColor of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Totally compelling and appalling. I feel like it should be required reading for anyone in government because it highlights the complicated (often complicit) role of government in creating barriers to opportunity for communities of color, specifically African-Americans.

About 3.5 years ago, I moved to California from Kansas. I was born and raised in a small town, went to college in a slightly bigger (and substantially more awesome) town, and continued to live in Kansas until I got a job in LA. I lived in LA with my partner and my dog (not the same being, I promise) for almost three years, living the local government dream. This June, I moved to the Bay Area for a bigger organization and a great career opportunity. We hadn’t made a lot of friends during our time in LA (this NYTimes article about making friends in your 30’s really lays it all out there for you, in case you’ve ever tried to make “adult” friends and wondered what was wrong with you) and to compensate, I had really come to depend on my work friends. We didn’t necessarily hang out during non-adjacent work hours – mostly happy hours or after meeting drinks with an occasional yoga or spin class thrown in. But as I reflect, I realize they became my best friends in LA.

My new workplace is completely different. I know that, culturally, there are huge differences between the Silicon Valley suburbs and a well-to-do beach town, but I still walked into this new gig ready and excited to meet my new “best friends.” I was armed with a natural enthusiasm and optimistic outlook. I was going to Leslie Knope my new coworkers into a beautiful friendship that made us all cry when one of us moved away. Needless to say, that is not what happened.

Father from That Seventies Show saying he doesn't love people unless it's legally required.
Actual footage of coworkers.

So I started thinking about whether “work friends” are the same as “life friends” and whether the same rules apply when you’re making them. As someone who moved far away from her formative communities and doesn’t have children (my dog is the worst, so she is zero help making friends), the people I work with are a huge connection to this new community. Turns out there are some important ground rules to being “work friends” that I may have missed in my enthusiasm (after I wrote this, I realized how similar it was to the post by Daniel Soto when he started a new job – good thing we’re already work/real friends):

  1. Be cool. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are most friendships. You have to set the foundation of trust before you start opening up to people or expecting others to open up to you! When you’re young, your friends are the ones who live within biking distance – the girl who lived five houses down the street from me in elementary school was my best friend, even though she was kind of a terrible person. So it’s normal to assume a similar mindset at work, especially with those in your immediate department or division. But geography ≠ friendship, so just chill out already.
  2. No one gives gold stars for unsolicited advice. Even if it’s really good and totally warranted. I have already fallen into this trap by trying to share my insight into this new work culture with a prospective work friend. It didn’t come off as helpful; it came off as presumptuous and probably a little condescending, which sets my friendship goals back significantly. In my excitement to participate in the lives of these potential friends, I moved too fast and really threatened the foundation I’d already built.

    Dwight from The Office in spin class.
    They teach everyone who moves to LA how to do this, don’t worry.
  3. Don’t go for the spin class first! Try something lower impact (literally and figuratively – those classes are rough) to jump start your outside of work interactions. It could even be something work adjacent, like a happy hour or conference. Some of my new coworkers and I went to a conference recently, and it was a great way to learn more about them as individuals, as well as demonstrate my openness to friendship. We aren’t best friends (yet) but we are primed to collaborate more, which I hope to use to my friendship advantage. ELGL also has these amazing things called Supper Clubs that you can host yourself!
  4. Be confident AND ask for help. It’s a delicate balance in a new organization. I think about the Buzz that Kirsten Wyatt wrote about crying at work pretty often and as her last point, she said, “we can either look at emotions as anathema, or as our own superpowers.” We are not robots, people, and neither are our workplace personas. When I was hired, I knew that the people who hired me had seen my work and qualifications and deemed me the most appropriate candidate for this position. But it’s hard not to feel like you have to prove it when you’re here, which can often translate into not being vulnerable. It’s not a zero sum game – you can be confident and need help, just like you can be a weeping superhero.
  5. Learn the ghost stories of your organization. All work environments are not created equal. Often times, there are skeletons hiding in the closet, probably on your own team, that impact the willingness or capacity of your colleagues to bridge the friend gap. In my organization, particularly with my department, there is a complicated history that I didn’t learn until weeks after I started. A lot of the folks I met early on had even applied for my position, only to see it go to an “outsider.” That’s a lot more than blind enthusiasm can cure, so make sure you know what’s behind that curtain of reluctance. 

    Tiers of friendship depicted by number of people on a mountain with you at the top.
    Welcome to Life Mountain.
  6. Accept your place on the mountainWork-life balance often implies that there is a separation of the two, so lots of folks prefer to accept that division and move on.  And that’s okay. Even though the people-pleasing part of me wants to be everyone’s friend, I know that’s unrealistic. Not to send you down an internet rabbit hole but this article about the different types of friendships blew my mind when I read it a few years ago. Don’t click on it unless you’ve got a few minutes – I warned you. But if you use that illustration, most people would put their work friends at the bottom, and whether you’re able to make that climb to the top depends on a lot of factors.

Ultimately, it boils down to understanding that you can’t change others, only yourself. No one wants to be forced to be friends with someone, work or otherwise, and trying to do that will only make everyone uncomfortable. I do think that while work friendships aren’t the SAME as regular friendships, it depends on where you’re coming from. And since I’m coming from Kansas with very little existing community in CA, I’m a little more open to bridging that gap than others might be. So if you’re out there trying to scale the mountain of friendship with your colleagues, I hear you and share that struggle. And if you prefer to keep work and life separate, I hear and respect that choice. But I’m still always down for a spin class.

Amy Schumer at spin class in her movie, I Feel Pretty.
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