How Many Work Friends Do You Really Need?

- Rob Walker

Sep 3, 2018-

I have an interesting job with a company that makes me proud. But even after six years, I don’t have any friends at work. There are a few people I exchange pleasantries with, but no lunch or coffee pals. This had never happened to me in my three decades in the work force; I still have close friends from all of my previous jobs.

My department is very small and isolated from the rest of the company, and our work doesn’t allow for much socializing. What’s more, I don’t feel a connection with any of my three direct colleagues. I’ve joined a sports club at the company, which has been fun but hasn’t yielded the social bonds I hoped it would.

My question is: Is this OK? Is it enough to enjoy the work but not

the environment? Should I look for a job where I’d feel more comfortable? I have a family and plenty

of friends outside the office, but it’s not fun to feel alienated for 40-plus hours a week.

—SB

Having some degree of social bonding at work can be good for both your career and your well-being. At the same time, I think many people drastically overrate workplace friendships. Yes, it’s best if everyone gets along, but expecting colleagues to be genuine friends may set the bar too high: The point of work isn’t socializing. It’s work.

Still, some elements of your situation do seem a little extreme—most notably that you say you feel not just uncomfortable but even “alienated.” That’s such a harsh word that it seems almost at odds with the rest of your description.

For some perspective, I spoke to Morra Aarons-Mele, author of “Hiding in the Bathroom,” which is, in part, a career and workplace guide for the introverted or socially anxious.

“Here’s what’s really important at work: feeling good at work,” Ms. Aarons-Mele said. “If that, for you, is having people to eat lunch with, then that’s important.” This can change at different points in a career, she added. When you’re in a new city, or just new to the work force, for instance, job pals may be more of a priority.

It doesn’t seem that you have trouble making friends generally. But given your situation, you could experiment with some of the “baby-step strategies” that a socially anxious person might use, Aarons-Mele said. Pick the one person you’re most comfortable with and reach out with some simple gesture that signals openness and interest: “I’m going to go out and get a coffee. Would you like one?” The idea is to take a small step and see where it leads.

Similarly, you might give some thought to what you mean by “friendship” in the workplace, and whether you can define it more modestly. If your deeper social needs are met outside work, maybe on the job you could just aim for a slightly heightened version of the cordiality that already exists.

If you like your job, it seems to me like a drastic step to leave it because you don’t have coffee pals. It’s not as if you can somehow guarantee you’ll have that in a new gig. I’m an advocate of always staying open to new opportunities, and if you really feel alienated, it’s worth seeing what’s out there that might make you happier. But it’s also worth seeing if you can find little ways to slightly enhance your relationships with a peer or two, and see how that feels.

—©2018 The New York Times

Published: 03-09-2018 07:52

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