Most of My Friends Are My Co-Workers (And Apparently That's Normal?)

Though most people still refer to a person they met in school as their “best friend,” more and more people seem to be relying on their colleagues for input on the day-to-day drama of boyfriends and “Parks and Recreation.”
Publish date:
August 13, 2012
friends, boundaries, codependency, dead poets society, work friends

Do not befriend thy coworkers, for they will take photos of you sleeping on your commute home.

Last January, my work department had a team-wide meeting. Just like we do every Monday, one by one, the handful of folks on my team tromped in. Most of us were in our twenties, some of us were clutching coffee like a panic button, and all of us were breathing shallowly and practically swimming in the bags under our own eyes. It had been a Weekend.

“So,” my boss asked, looking at each of us as we tried to hide behind our computers. “How was your weekend?”

There was a silence.

“It was … good!” I finally chirped. In this case, “good” meant less “good” and more “We ended up at a scary cowboy bar in the suburbs and somehow ended up puking up tequila on a mechanical bull.” “It was fine!”

“Fine!” my colleagues echoed, visibly trying not to side-eye me. One of them shot me a Look. It said, I have witnessed you dancing in a cage to a country cover band’s rendition of Super Bass. These are things I cannot unsee.

Needless to say, the rest of the meeting was a little awkward.

When I first moved to the Bay Area from college, I expected to make friends in 1 of 2 ways. Most of my codependent BFFs from college were the results of happy accidents: We’d gotten placed together in student housing, or we’d gone on an orientation trip together, or I’d accidentally gone on a lesbian date with one of their housemates and shown up on their porch too many times to ignore. I had met a few on purpose, but that was the culmination of intensive digital stalking, followed by covert, strategic compliments on their Threadless shirts.

So after graduation, I kind of figured it would be the same deal. I hadn’t been assigned any housing, of course, but I was living down the Peninsula with a couple of affable frat bros who were all too happy to introduce me to their engineering buddies. And I still entertained vague notions of walking around with my nose in a book, only to bump into someone reading the same one.

But after a few months, I realized that though I liked the people I’d met so far, there were only a couple with whom I’d been “clicking” in that Empire Records/Dead Poets Society way that made me giggle behind the wheel of my minivan hours after leaving their company. Conveniently enough, they were all people I’d met at my workplace.

The best thing about spending 9 hours a day, 5 days a week with people you actually enjoy being around is that it begins to feel like you’re actually living in all of those horrifying post-collegiate working girl movies that I watched like crazy when I was about 14. Even when work wasn’t fun, I knew it would be a positive place to be -- that even when my freelancers had mixed up “under” and “fewer than” yet another time, I could go across the office to scream at Dawn about the newest Harry Potter movie.

No wonder Business News says inter-office friendships are good for business and that CNN claims friends can help with a promotion. Unlike some of my other jobs, I actually felt like I would be noticed on a personal and professional level if I didn’t show up with my game-face on every day, if only because my friends would get concerned. I genuinely wanted to do a good job so I could contribute to the team they were on.

According to the Daily Mail, this tendency to glom onto one’s co-workers for mutual declarations of love and affection is not unique. One-third of Brits, a study commissioned by Samsung Galaxy reports, say that they made the majority of their friends at work. Though most people (myself included) still refer to a person they met in school as their “best friend,” more and more people seem to be relying on their colleagues for input on the day-to-day drama of boyfriends and “Parks and Recreation.”

The Daily Mail suggests that this is because people are just too busy in this tech-obsessed age to stop and smell the friendship of strangers we meet on trains or at kickboxing class. “'I’d like to join a football team and play guitar in a band and make mates that way but I’m just too busy meeting my boss’s demands,” says one business consultant, which suggests that his boss is physically breaking into his apartment and destroying all his hobbies. No fun on this workplace’s watch! Good luck learning "Slow Show" on the acoustic now, sucker!

I have to call shenanigans on that, however: When I asked the older adults in my life how they'd met their closest friends, most of them had befriended them at the workplace. Lots of the men had also made friends their neighbors, which goes to show that while all the women of the 1980s were Melanie Griffith-ing it up, their hubs were earnestly channeling Tim Allen.

For one thing, when was the last time a single person, anywhere, made long-lasting friends in their pottery class or their life drawing workshop or whatever?

Before you protest, believe me: I am QUEEN of the almost-sincere “We should do lunch sometime!” I always mean it at the time, of course, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to keep dates with people when you look at their faces every day.

I also think, though, that work friends have a distinct advantage of familiarity. Just like you can always talk classes with college friends, there’s the constant conversational crutch of “Can you believe what Work Jerkwad did today?” to fall back on in a pinch.

This matters less once you move into brunch-eating codependency, but it can be really useful at the quivering, pinfeathered beginnings of a friendship, when a single misfired small-talk question can shove the whole lot out of the nest for good.

At my workplace, well-known for its progressive politics, it was even easier: Because one of my job duties is, among other things, to know just how ridiculous Rick Santorum is being on a given day, it was nice to know that my colleagues would be similarly incredulous (perhaps at length, and over margaritas).

Of course, this all has a downside, too. As I said before, when the line between personal and professional friendships is thin, sometimes you'll be watching a co-worker give a presentation on synergy when you suddenly remember her flashing her boobs at a bartender for an extra whiskey ginger. Nothing like the CFO making a surprise break-room entrance in the middle of a story that started, “So, after I left the bar with that dude, I was totally hammered --"

It’s often easy to forget that just because some of your work-bros were out on the town with you, that still doesn’t make it appropriate to recap the scene in grisly detail in front of, say, one’s boss, no matter how cool he may be. Relatedly, it’s occasionally difficult to keep things normal over drinks when you’re pissed off at a friend for screwing you over on a professional level.

Which is not even to mention the day-to-day weirdness of realizing that between the dancing on Saturday and trips to the park on Sunday, you've seen the same people for 16 days in a row. Saying "boundaries get blurred" is an understatement.

The other possible issue with having work friends is the long-term sustainability of the relationship. I don’t think it’s insignificant that in the Mail’s poll, most people said they’d had their friends from school the longest. Friends from school have the flexibility of circumstance on their hand, while I think a lot of work friends believe they’ll be around each other forever. Obviously, this is not the case.

Since I started working at my company, I’ve had 3 close friends leave the establishment for greener pastures. Though I still love them all deeply, it’s definitely been challenging to keep up that kind of fervent, enthused, breathless enthusiasm for each other’s company that came from seeing them every single day.

Now that we don’t have the common denominator of our professional lives, we’ve had to rely on the strength of our other connection to keep up the spark.

My 3 friends and I have kept it up so far, but I’m sure there’ll be people whom I meet at future jobs, fall in deep, helpless friend-love with, and inadvertently forget the name of as soon as they turn in their ID badge. And that’s a little sad for me to even contemplate.

What about you guys? Are most of your friends work friends? If not, did you meet them on your sweet football team? Let me know!

Kate is looking for friendship at @katchatters.