As a bulimic in college, the cafeteria was my focal point. At first, it was where I gained fifteen pounds. Not that anyone saw those pounds on me. In college I had the body of a model. Not that anyone saw that, either, because I wore an A-line skirt down to my ankles and an extra-large sweatshirt. Every day. A guy once asked me if I was an Orthodox Jew because I was so covered up all the time. I thought he was an idiot. That’s how big an idiot I was.

I taught myself to throw up without a mentor. I just read about it, somewhere, when there was no Internet and definitely no one talked to me because (see above) I looked like a nut job. It got to the point where I was eating for hours and hours every day, because you can do that if you are going to throw it all up.

And then I realized that if I was going to be in the cafeteria so often then I should get a job there. So I took a job in the dishwashing room. There were five people, working at a conveyor belt of dirty food. We talked the whole time. Well, they did. I found I had nothing to contribute until we got to baseball. In high school I won fantasy baseball league by becoming an expert on base stealers and relievers because everyone ignored those stats in the draft. I was conversant on Rickey Henderson and Steve Bedrosian. I picked Vince Coleman up from the minors.

The problem was that my only topic for talking was one where I displayed way too much knowledge. People don’t want to chat about stolen bases by obscure rookies when they are washing dishes. People wanted to talk about dating. Or whatever people are doing in college that was dating. And I had nothing to say on that topic, not for lack of interest, but for lack of knowledge.

So I jumped at the chance to move to the kosher dish room for washing. The best part of the kosher dish room was that only two people wash dishes there. When the other girl saw me, she quit. And I got my best friend the job. We spent two years washing dishes together three nights a week. I loved the job. We talked the whole time. We made a system where we’d let everything pile up and then blast through it in a half hour. Which means we got paid to eat dinner and talk. And I realized that the most important thing I learned in college is that you’ll love your job if you have a friend.

I’m going to give you some links for that: Tom Rath got famous at Gallup for doing studies like the one that shows that people who have two good friends at work like their job. I loved that research when I first read it, but now I wonder: are all his co-workers the ones doing the research for the books that made him famous? Because they are not famous and I can’t help thinking that his co-workers loathe him for his success and he is still happy at work but only because he’s so rich and famous.

But there are other people who presumably make very little money, like Cynthia Kong, who spends her days filling my inbox with research from her PR firm about about the workplace, and she sent an infographic the other day that said that co-workers are most grateful for their co-workers. I think it’s true, you need friends at work. Here’s how I know.

After college I was still throwing up. A lot. It is not uncommon for rich, white, professional women to be throwing up at work. Just statistically speaking. Because 10% of college women are bulimic and then college women go to the office, then 10% of office women are throwing up. And most bulimics are rich, white women. And most women can’t stop throwing up completely—it’s like alcoholism. Which means it’s maybe more than 10% of the rich white women in your office who are throwing up.

You can’t tell a bulimic has a problem. You can tell an anorexic has a problem. And you can see that a fat person has a problem. But bulimics usually look fine. It’s just that they have no friends.

It’s a lot of work to throw up during the work day because you have to sneak out and get all the food, and then you have to wait a little bit to throw it up, and then you have to redo all your makeup. Even if you have a routine that makes things fast – like you really need a bathroom that is close to the food source, generally empty, and very well lit — it’ll still take at least an hour.

So if you’re going to throw up for an hour a day you have to have no friends. Friends will notice and then you’d have to face the fact that you are living the life of a drug addict and something has to change. I know because I had no friends. I worked for the first five years of my career having no friends at work. Or having only sort of friends, because I had to hide so often. I was pretending so much.

Most of you are not throwing up. But many of you are hiding. At some point you need to realize that you are the only person who can make your job good. By being honest with yourself about who you are and what you need. And then taking the responsibility to get it. Friends come as the result of this type of behavior.

And the truth is that in order to get to a place where you have friends at work, sometimes you have to take a chance and change to another dish room.


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32 replies
  1. Kat
    Kat says:

    Has anyone ever mentioned to you how much your husband looks like Otto from the show “Alaska Last Frontier”? My husband was watching it the other night and when Otto came on screen I thought I knew him from somewhere! Then it occurred to me that he looks like your husband. Check it out.

    I had to ask. Sorry, I know it has nothing to do with this post.
    Great post btw….

  2. Steve Mielczarek
    Steve Mielczarek says:

    “Just Desserts”
    Steve said,
    perspicacious insight clawing at his haploid set of chromosomes,
    the ones responsible for the molecular neurodegenerative
    disease preying upon him.
    Steve’s brain’s flaws cut like shrapnel, lying here before you, naked,
    like so many spent cartridges,
    candy wrappers of PEZ.
    Liquorice flavoured.
    He walked away spent, humbled.
    “My amygdala is full of peccadillos”
    He said, muttering to himself.
    “Gold’s nice.”
    “I ain’t
    no punk.”

  3. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    Now I am in London with my first job that I got by myself and not from my dad, I have realized that my biggest strength in the office is making friends. Our team is made up of 8 people, but we work in the same building as the media agency we use and there are about 100 of them. First I made friends with the receptionist, which is my savviest work move so far because he tells me all the gossip and passes my notes to the guy I have a crush on (very fifth grade but also very romantic, right?). Then I slowly made friends with everyone else, which is the second savviest move I’ve made because I can get favors done really fast when my bosses need something, like, NOW from one of the departments in the media agency. So I look really capable even though all I’m actually doing is promising to buy whoever a beer later.

    But the luckiest thing that happened at work was that I clicked immediately with a girl on my team, at my same level. We ask each other our dumb questions so we can direct just our intelligence and curiosity to our boss, and we help each other out on projects so our work is always very good and very efficient, but we sneak out for gossip breaks at least twice a day which keeps us sane even on bad days. That way when we’re in the office we’re there with our warpaint ready for battle– but we’re having fun too.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Harriet I really enjoyed reading about you and the girl on your team. It’s so fun to have a close friend at work. It’s so intimate to find someone who is at the same spot in life you are. I like how you describe that.


    • Claire
      Claire says:


      It sounds really encouraging but I wonder what would happen when promotion time comes and realistically only one of you would be promoted (or promoted first) since you are more or less on the same level…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      My eyes got watery and my mascara would run. Also, it was really hard to not get random splashes on my face. And I worried that if I didn’t use soap to wash them off someone would smell my secret.


  4. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    In school, I usually ate by myself because I only eat with someone if they asked me to eat with them. It’s easier at work because I automatically eat with my team mates.

    Most of my friendships are more functional than personal. The people I meet are my friends when I take classes or work with them. Then I befriend them on Facebook and greet them on their birthdays. But after being with them at school or work, I don’t miss them. My Myers Briggs type is INFP if it helps.

  5. B
    B says:

    Every week I look forward to your writing, and I am continuously not disappointed. This is short and sweet but to the point. Many points. As a fellow ENTJ I can relate to many of these that you express far better than I ever could. :)

  6. Maria
    Maria says:

    Uhh… I am confused! I have been taught all my life that the workplace is not to have friends, just colleagues. But no friends. There are politics, and envy, and “I need to save my ass” type of mentalities… Isn´t it too risky to open up yourself to make friends at work?

    • Lindsey
      Lindsey says:

      Maria, I thought this for a long time, too. Especially because the first company I worked for was re-structuring and for sale, so it was a really mean, back-stabbing mess.

      But, then I realized that most people want friends and they’d help someone they like rather than someone they just know. I think you do have to be careful about being vulnerable, but usually vulnerability leads to friends leads to success. It’s weird in some ways, but doesn’t it make sense, too?

  7. Dana
    Dana says:

    Awesome article Penelope.

    I’m in the wrong field with no friends and this has been going on for years so I know exactly what you mean.

    Thank you do being so open about your life.

  8. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    Ahh! This is so true.

    I’ve been thinking about because I’m considering two jobs: one is totally my passion and I’ll have great friends there, but lower level with bad pay; the other is higher level, better pay, path to advance, but my co-workers won’t understand what I’m really excited about.

    I was whining about it and then I realized, it’s my job to figure out a way to get what I’m not getting at work somewhere else. So, whatever job allows me to fulfill my needs in other ways is the job I should take.

    Everyone says, “take the passion project! duh!” But, I think you take the job with the money and do the passion on the side, right?! I’ll love it that much more because it doesn’t have to pay my bills.

    Thanks for a great post. I’m also glad that you are healthier now.

    • Lindsey
      Lindsey says:

      I realize this doesn’t make my point about friends…which is, it matters what type of work friends you need.

      People need friends to talk about relationships, or daily life, or whatever. Or, friends that advise or just listen.

      I’m weird, and I just need work friends to critique my ideas and think I’m smart. So, friends that get my passion isn’t so hard to give up.

  9. mh
    mh says:

    Must disagree.

    My three favorite jobs were all as a contract employee brought into a larger organization to accomplish a specific goal and then go away. Avoided most meetings, all dopey HR initiatives, and best of all, did not have to get along very much with my colleagues.

    My ideal work environment is one where I do not have to know the names of my co-workers’ significant others.

    I’m there to work. I go home to have relationships.

  10. anon
    anon says:

    Penelope, what should you do when your close work friend stops talking to you/gives you the cold shoulder ? We used to be extremely close– messaging daily, doing lunches, sharing personal stories, socializing outside of work (birthdays, parties, etc). But all of that stopped in the past month and a half and I don’t know why. I invited her to lunch to see why this was happening but she asked if she could invite another coworker and I agreed so we all just chatted. I still don’t know why this is happening and if I should let it go.

    • laura
      laura says:

      Hey that sounds painful. Unfortunately as I’ve realised in my own life, sometimes you can have it out with people and resolve things, but not always. Friendships sometimes “complete” and taking the hint can be a more graceful way to deal with this change in your friend’s behaviour.

      Sometimes people feel hemmed in or misunderstood or simply want space for other relationships to form. If you can expand your circle of friends to include other people this might be the healthiest step.

  11. karla
    karla says:

    I started my fourth job last summer stepping back from middle management at a really messed up company where I literally talked to nobody 8 hours a day. The first two years I focused on my job, which I loved and was challenging and new. Then I started to get frustrated and eventually isolation hurt my self esteem.
    After seven months in the new company, I feel my job is too easy and sometimes repetitive. But I have the best boss of my working life so far and great co-workers, so I am trying to focus less on the work (which from my experience in the end is always frustrating) and more in making friends.
    I am getting on good terms with myself again and totally back this opinion. When you get along with the people around you, you laugh and do some small talk, you feel better and more satisfied with yourself. Even if you think you don’t need that.

  12. Alta
    Alta says:

    I make a habit of reading your articles twice as often I missed most important information first time. My take away is “At some point you need to realize that you are the only person who can make your job good…..”.

  13. Gita
    Gita says:

    There is this tv host – Anja Fonseca – in Denmark, which I always thought looked a bit like you :-) recently she wrote a book about her bulimia.. and now you write about yours… Just a thought: wonder if you would be friends if you worked together… :-)

  14. Camille
    Camille says:

    I started my current job as a 25 year old temp admin in an office where almost everyone was at least 10-15 years older than me with a house and kids. I learned really quickly to put on an interested face when they told me about their weekend landscaping projects because this was their way of flirting, and it was way more tolerable than the flirting at anywhere that I’d ever worked. But I didn’t have anyone to talk about what I did on the weekends, which was usually an illegal warehouse party or messaging a guy in a band with whom I had very vivid, unrealistic relationship fantasies that in reality turned into me blowing him when they came to town and refusing, again, to have unprotected, unlubricated anal sex.

    I finally made a friend with one of the CSRs, and we would take cigarette breaks and compare which of us had more relatives die from drugs and/or alcoholism, and what crazy texts we got from guys we drunkenly gave our numbers to. After three years as an admin, I got what most people who consider an “entry-level” job in a different department, and about a year or two after that there was another opening. I encouraged my friend to apply, and they hired her, in part because they knew her because I would take her as my date to all the company parties (I didn’t trust my boyfriends at the time to not slap me in front of my boss, or talk about their job marketing teen bondage porn).

    Once we started working together, everything changed. When I was out for a cigarette, I could let all my weirdness hang out, but my desk was a refuge from all the shit that goes on my life. My professionalism is impeccable and I never let on that when I said I needed off “to run some personal errands” I had to be my deaf sister’s interpreter at the abortion clinic, or had to move out in a hurry because my boyfriend threatened to kill me and himself while cleaning his guns. I’d like to say I’m ambitious, more likely I’m an escapist, but in the end I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a pretty dedicated employee.

    My friend, not so much. When she got the new job, it became pretty obvious that she was on the mommy track, even though she had no kids or husband. She would walk out of meetings if it was the end of her day (3:30), with no excuse. She doesn’t get her shit done, she doesn’t self-advocate, she doesn’t look for “big wins,” she can’t manage her own projects. She’s likable enough and better with social connections, something that I struggle with, but she’s clearly not looking to move anywhere.

    That’s fine if she was an out-and-out slacker, except she’s also weirdly competitive, and gets mad when people go to me instead of her. So to make her happy, I started really pushing people to go to her (after talking with the boss), which is great except she sucks. It sucks when people call me in a panic because she said she’d deliver something and hasn’t, and I have to tell them I can’t help them. At the same time, she talks about me to the office mean girl, whom she meets with after work regularly. She passively-aggressively never answers my e-mails and doesn’t do her part on projects we have together.

    So thank you, Penelope, for making me write all this out and realize: F**k her. Seriously. Friends at work make work fun, but when friends and work compete, it makes everyone miserable.

  15. Maree
    Maree says:

    Hi Penelope. An extraordinary story beautifully written without a whiff of self-pity.But there was so much hurt and aching aloneness in all of that. With thanks for your honesty and respect for all that you have overcome.

  16. Sara Stein
    Sara Stein says:

    This is probably the shortest comment I’ve ever made, but most likely the truest.

    I want to be the success story I keep reading about. Tired of feeling bitterness and self-pity when I hear about others and attribute it to the fact that it must be that they’ve got better chances or more money or some other convoluted idea.

    Glad I have a blog like yours to follow to remind me where I am, and that things are never as bad as they seem.

  17. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    I think this is yet another reason why women don’t ascend the ranks at work–because it’s lonely. When I worked as an assistant or in sales in my 20s the work was boring but the camaraderie was good. In a management position in the tech world it’s lonely as hell.

  18. Janet
    Janet says:

    One part of being an adult that I love is you can move cities or states or even countries to find your place. A move to the right dish room can change everything and yes having a friend at work means the world. I remember this and how most women want to work part time, that’s what you’ve been telling us for years and what I’ve found to be right on for me.

    I have a friend at work and she helps but it’s not enough and it’s time to change. I really felt those last few sentences. Thank you Penelope. Your perspective helps and moves me. You also have the most beautiful comments on your posts.

    Blog on, please never stop

  19. Sunshine
    Sunshine says:

    Some interesting points in this article but I work alone and have done for over 10 years ago. I find friends at work are generally not true friends, people seem to attach themselves to others when they can see it could be useful for their career progression.

  20. Cititorul
    Cititorul says:

    Well, obviously this advice works for for the extrovert type of people. A shy woman, like me, will find it quite difficult to make friends, mainly because nobody needs a friend who’s afraid of human interaction. So, I agree that a job could be better with some friends beside, but… it’s not for everybody.

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