Finding friends, anywhere
I used to hang out with a colleague who didn’t believe in forming close friendships with the people she worked with.
“We can’t really be friends,” she once told me, during a day spent sailing and picnicking. “At least, not good friends. We work together.”
I didn’t really know what to say to this.
For one thing, it seemed like the sort of thought you might just keep to yourself. Even if it was true, why point it out? But it was also the sort of comment that made me feel like just packing up and going home. Why would I want to spend the day with someone who could never be anything more than a good acquaintance? Wouldn’t I rather devote my limited energy for socializing to people I actually care about? And who care about me?
Not surprisingly, my friendship (or nonfriendship) with my colleague eventually fizzled out. We drifted apart, as people sometimes do, but the nature of our rupture was ultimately philosophical: I believe that you can be friends with the people you work with, and she does not.
If you Google the words “workplace friendship,” you’ll find countless articles and essays and blog posts on the topic. They have titles such as “The Three Rules of Workplace Friendships” and “Workplace Friendships: Asset or Liability?” and “The Top 10 Tips for Workplace Friendships.”
This last piece, from U.S. News and World Report, offers such tips as “keep your business and personal lives separate,” “use the friendship to your benefit” and “don’t complain about your boss.” Another piece, on The Daily Mail website, seemed to view workplace friendships as a tragic consequence of modern life, suggesting that our “work colleagues are our closest friends because we are too busy to keep in touch with old mates.”
I read the articles on workplace friendship with the same curiosity I might bring to an etiquette guide from an alien planet.
I’ve never followed any of the guidelines or rules they suggest, and although I understand them in principle — you don’t want your boss to be doling out favors to people who don’t deserve it, simply because they root for the same baseball team or play golf together or something — I view them as unnecessary and at odds with my values. My basic feeling is that life is short, and if you meet someone you really like and want to be friends with them, you should.
Of course, I’m speaking from a place of self-interest. If I eliminated workplace friends from my roster of friends, I would have a lot fewer friends. I’ve always made friends at work. In fact, I’ve made friends just about everywhere I’ve gone. This seems totally normal to me. It seems like the point of living is to meet interesting people and spend time with them. Why would I want to erect arbitrary barriers that prevent me from doing that?
Even my first job, at a local convenience store, brought me into contact with people I really liked. My best friend worked there, and two of our closest friends worked at the pet store next door.
Our co-workers were a mix of high school students and older women, and I got along well with almost all of them. They were nice people, and I enjoyed chatting with them during my shift; even the woman who initially frightened me because of her short temper eventually became something of a pal. I didn’t socialize with any of my co-workers (except my best friend) outside the convenience store, but I thought well enough of some of them to give them cards when they left for other jobs. And when the kindly cashier gave me a graduation present, I really appreciated it.
In college, many of my closest friends worked at the campus newspaper, and when I headed off to my first job I became friends with many of my colleagues. These friendships spilled over into all areas of my life. I went to concerts with them, and met them for drinks; I attended their weddings (I read at the wedding of my good friend Cindy) and depended on them for support and help after I was mugged.
Even people I wouldn’t classify as friends demonstrated their kindness and decency in various ways: I’ll never forget how my editor — who was a great editor, but could be very intimidating — listened to my story of being mugged and losing all my credit cards and money and said, “You know if you need anything, all you have to do is ask.” I fixed my money problem soon enough, but it’s always nice to know that the people you work with (and for) are good people.
When I arrived at The Gazette, I worked in the paper’s now-defunct Albany bureau, and quickly became friends with my co-workers. And when I transferred to the main office in Schenectady, I made new friends. Apparently, I’m hardwired to become friends with the people I work with. Which is fine with me. I suspect that I’d probably go insane if I had to spend 40 hours a week with people I didn’t like or care about. As I said, life is short. I’ll take good friends, and good people, wherever I can find them.
In a way, this is all a roundabout way of saying that I am really going to miss Gazette city editor Irv Dean, who died last weekend.
Irv was kind and compassionate and steady — the sort of person you could trust to be fair and have your back. Right off the top of my head, I can think of several small favors he did for me without drawing attention to them or even letting on that that’s what he was doing. I feel proud to have known him, and the office just isn’t quite the same without him.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.