3 Rules for workplace friendships

I was a latchkey kid with unlimited charge accounts at all the local stores before there were charge cards. As a kid I worried I was annoying, because people always rolled their eyes when I said “charge it please”. Now I understand that I was the only person in the city with a charge account at each of these stores. And they thought I was a spoiled brat.  Oblivious to this social nuance, my parents had the idea that if there were no limits to what I could buy then surely I would be taken care of.

You know what’s coming next: kids don’t want money, they want nurturing. I am a very take-charge kind of person, though, so I used my open charge system to buy caretakers. For a while it was the clothing store. But when my mom saw that I owned more than forty sweaters, mostly never worn, she yelled so much that I knew my friendship with the clothing store owner was over.

Then I broke my glasses. And the optometrist was so nice. So I broke them again. Sometimes I’d go to the optometrist to pick frames “because I’ll probably break another pair of glasses soon.” After years of many, many broken glasses, he told me that I could just sit in the waiting area with him. I didn’t have to need new glasses.

But it felt weird to me just sitting there and not being a customer, so I went back to being especially careless with my frames.

So now I’m pretty much an expert on workplace friends because, at their core, workplace friends are like regular friends except someone is getting paid to show up.

1. There are many ways to mix money and friends. All are worth exploring. 
When the Farmer met me, I spent a lot of time trying to turn our relationship into a financial transaction. I bought him plane tickets to come to NY and San Francisco with me because I was tired of traveling alone. I bought him gas so that I didn’t have to make the drive to his house. I bought him clothes so I could pick what he wore.

After only a little of that he said, “I don’t work for you. You don’t have anyone in your life who doesn’t work for you. But I don’t want to be a person who works for you.”

I was crushed. Pretty much everyone in my life works for me. Even when I’ve had an assistant who was hourly, I’d pay her to stay late with me and have dinner. So it was hard for me to stop operating this way, and the first time we had a fight—and the 900 times after that—he’d say that the only people who can put up with me are people I pay.

That is mostly right. My brothers are pretty loyal, though. But I’m pretty sure they couldn’t spend more than a week with me.

2. Realize that you are both there because someone’s getting paid.
The thing is that most people who have big jobs spend most of their time with people who are paid to be there. Even if you are out to lunch with a co-worker, it’s not like they are spending their vacation time with you. They’re salaried, so they are essentially getting paid to eat with you, and they are networking.

I used to think I’d know really who is my friend when I change companies. That doesn’t work now, when I work for myself, but earlier, when I was working for companies, it didn’t work either, because you are always a networking opportunity for someone you used to work with.

But let’s say, hypothetically, that the person who I used to work with has dropped out of the workforce. Let’s say he decided to make documentaries instead of have a paying job.

You know what? I’m not that interested in him. I don’t actually want to spend that much time with people who are not related to my work. I’m a very driven person. And I have a husband who I have left so little time for, that we have to schedule once-a-week sex or else we won’t do it.

3. Workplace friends are just real friends with real boundaries. 
So you know what? It’s true that I’m most comfortable buying my friends, because then it’s a clear cut relationship where I won’t have to spend any time doing something I don’t want to.

Being with the Farmer is very complicated for me. In my first marriage, I was the clear breadwinner, so I could fix it in my mind that he was just another person I was paying to be with me. I tried to set that up again, with the Farmer. But in fact, he has this million-dollar farm with no debt, and I have pretty much zero money in the bank at all times, so it’s hard to say that I’m buying him.

It’s easier to say I’m buying Melissa, to be honest. Like, careerbags.com is advertising on this site, and I negotiated to get five free things on the site because I love shopping there, and I let Melissa pick one. And she was so happy. And Melissa is so happy being my teammate for webinars. I like to think she likes being my teammate because we have so much fun, but I know she likes being my teammate because she likes the money. Melissa doesn’t have friends, actually. Now that I think about it, she just has people she works for.

So, I guess I’m saying that Melissa is an example of someone who is probably my friend. My true friend, but she works for me. She edits all the photos on this blog. She does all the logistics and moderating for the webinars. And she finds links for me that I love. And even when she traveled to China, she sent back photos of goats for my blog.

I have spent a lot of my life trying to figure out who is my friend and who is my work friend. But now I’m thinking that I’m much more comfortable having everyone as a work friend, because then there’s a clear delineation of the relationship. and in the cases where it has to be a mushy, ill-defined emotional exchange, I have to keep it to just a few people. Which is why, I guess, I’m monogamous.

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  1. RA
    RA says:

    This post treats “work friends” and “paid friends” as if they are the same. Work friends may not survive outside the office, but at least they are sincere in context. One isn’t paying the other. A paid friend merely provides the illusion of friendship for as long as the bucks keep coming.

  2. Brad
    Brad says:

    “Even if you are out to lunch with a co-worker, it’s not like they are spending their vacation time with you. They’re salaried, so they are essentially getting paid to eat with you, and they are networking.”

    Wow, that is cynical. If all co-worker lunches are about networking, then 99.9% of them are a total bust.

  3. Paxton
    Paxton says:

    So nice to see the word ‘delineation’ used in this post. I just really like all the forms of delineate. It is so descriptive and has such a ring to it when said out loud (or inside my head).

  4. Jacko
    Jacko says:

    Excellent post. Here’s my three rules for workplace friendships:

    1 Don’t
    2 tell
    3 on me


    Nah, seriously I think there should be a firewall between work friends and at home play friends.

    Too much to risk too little to gain.

  5. Mel
    Mel says:

    Your childhood sounds so dysfunctional Penelope. Why don’t you just throw a Christmas party with kris kringle like I did yesterday? It was so much fun and everyone was so happy it made me happy!

  6. Ryan Chatterton
    Ryan Chatterton says:

    Three things.

    First, I know exactly what you mean. Some of my best relationships are work relationships (not at my job, but on projects I’m involved in). I guess I like the idea that we are creating something together; you know what I mean? I like having something to DO with the people I’m with other than just shoot the breeze and share a bottle of wine.

    Second, I have a few relationships that aren’t work related that I love. For example, my roommate (though you could argue that this is a “work” relationship as he is sharing half the rent and other expenses) and I have been friends for over 10 years and we’ve never worked on anything together. We’ve only lived together since June 2011 and before that we would hang out all the time and do… well, nothing.

    Lastly, I find that some conflict comes out of these two different types of relationships for me. Sometimes I confuse one for the other. I want to take my non-work friends and find things to work on with them (in fact, this is how I prefer to start all relationships). On the other hand, work relationships can get a little weird after I’m done working with somebody, because then it’s like, “Okay, what now?” There’s a tendency to want to linger longer, but also no basis for it. In those situations we usually end up talking about work or projects anyway.

  7. Professionaldawn
    Professionaldawn says:

    Another thought-provoking article, Penelope. Thanks. I appreciate how you share your perspective on work and relationships.

    And to all those who make negative comments: Penelope is forthright about being on the spectrum. People with Asperger’s, just like just about everyone, have feelings, want to be loved and give love, and to know people are there for them – they just aren’t able to reach out and connect with people easily. It’s hard work.

    I’m not an expert, but I do have two quirky kids (one on the autism spectrum, one not), and work with individuals who want to succeed at work but need some specific social tricks, tips and tools. Just had to share my two cents! Happy New Year, Penelope, and keep on doing what you do.

  8. Roberta
    Roberta says:

    Interesting post. I think a real friend is someone that would give a blood donation, come see you in the hospital, or you’d trust to check on the plants while you were out of town. I was raised that you will probably only have enough true friends to count on one hand. Everyone else is an associate. I come from a family where they don’t seem to have made friends unless it involves purchasing them otherwise they have no use for the person. Cheers to the farmer because there’s obviously the emotional component you can’t get around.

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