I shared a story a few weeks ago about a man who, when applying for a janitorial position at a large corporation, literally brought three personal references with him to the interview. What was so remarkable about the story was how strong a friendship these men had cultivated in the workplace in an era where Americans have only two close friends and are spending more and more time at work in lieu of cultivating a social life.
But if Americans are spending 40 – 80 hours a week in rooms with hundreds of other people with similar income, education and interest levels, how come they have less friends now than they did a decade or two ago?
Why aren’t Americans making more friends at work?
Forming intimate relationships with the people you work with is often informally and sometimes even formally discouraged by management.
Some companies go to extremes to keep employees from forming relationships outside of the professional arena. A woman wrote into the Evil HR Lady, a human resources blog that I frequent, asking how to handle her company’s strict anti-fraternization policy:
“I have no interest in dating my co-workers, but I’m not sure how to handle pre-existing friendships. The policy applies not only to romantic or sexual intent, but to all socializing outside the context of work. If support-staff encounter non-support staff at the grocery store, or the pub, or the local folk festival, there is to be no interaction at all.”
“I know it isn’t easy, but I think I’m aware of the potential conflicts and can work to keep my job and my personal life separate. But I’d be expected to have absolutely no outside interaction at all with people I’ve known for years, who I’ve invited to my home, who I have friends in common with outside of the company, and who are part of my attachment and commitment to this company in the first place.”
When companies regulate friendships by policy, the result is workers who sit just mere feet from each other day-in and day-out that co-exist practically as strangers. There is no sense of community for workers to belong to and people feel less sentimental and professional attachment to the places for which they work.
I personally have no problem treating work like a second home. It is no secret that most Americans spend just as much or more time at the office than they do at home and in their communities.
Why is work treated as a separate entity rather than an extension of our existing communities?
Li Yuan, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, offers an explanation. In a recent article, Yuan exposes the differences in attitudes between Americans and her native Chinese. She explains that the Chinese treat their co-workers like an extended family, with a distinct interest in the personal details of their lives.
“While young Chinese working at multinational companies do tend to keep some distance from their colleagues, in more-traditional workplaces you almost have to consider your officemates a surrogate family. The first few days with a new company are filled with personal questions: age; hometown; parents’ professions; marital status; monthly salary; profession of your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend; income level of same; value of your apartment; cost of renovating that apartment; stocks and mutual funds you’re investing in; and so on. And you’re expected to update your colleagues about changes.”
In contrast, many Chinese working for companies in the United States find American workers to be friendly but shallow in their relationships with co-workers.
“Jie Luqiu, an architect in Boston, told me he’d gone to bars with his colleagues a couple of times, but was disappointed with how little he learned about them as individuals. “Americans seem very open,” he says. “But in fact, they guard their personal information very carefully.” Lijun Zhang, an analyst at a big financial institution, says that he always feels closer to Chinese after a few rounds of drinks, but doesn’t have that experience with his colleagues in the U.S. And after a night at the bar with her co-workers, a friend in New York asked me: “How could they spend a whole evening talking nonsense?””
Why are Americans so scared to bring their personal lives into the office?
I agree with Yuan’s theory that political correctness and fear of litigation play a large factor in the ‘silencing’ of American voices in the workplace. It’s just not ok to talk about sex, race, religion or politics in American workplaces.
I understand that the point of banning offensive conversations, behaviors, materials, etc. is to create a peaceful, non-discriminatory environment so that everyone can feel comfortable at work. That is good! However, such policies necessitate a certain sacrifice of the self for the greater good of the group. And perhaps our staunchness in keeping the personal from the professional is having an adverse effect on both.
“To be honest, I’m ambivalent about this political correctness. When I first got here, I thought it was silly and hypocritical. But after a while, I had to admit it might be one of the reasons that this diverse country hasn’t fallen into chaos. I still believe that an excess of political correctness has turned American social interactions bland and boring because people are often scared of speaking their minds. Yet at the same time, I can’t imagine what this country would be like without it.”
If companies discourage it and our culture discourages it, why bother making friends at work at all?
Feeling a connection to others around you is not only a critical part of being successful and happy in the workplace but also in life as a whole. The New York Times best-selling book, 12: The Elements of Great Managing written by members of and published by the prestigious Gallup organization, lists having a best friend at work as one of the 12 essential elements of great managing. Why?
“Human beings are social animals, and work is a social institution. Long-term relationships are often formed at work — networking relationships, friendships, even marriages. In the best workplaces, employers recognize that people want to forge quality relationships with their coworkers, and that company loyalty can be built from such relationships.”
In my own experience, I’ve been fortunate enough to develop close relationships with co-workers at all the companies I’ve worked at. I’ve signed sympathy cards for a co-worker whose parent was ill, attended softball games played by teams of co-workers, participated and hosted movie nights both at the office and at home, and in one extreme case, watched donations pour into a college fund, set-up by the company, for the children of a co-worker who passed away unexpectedly at a young age.
I feel a little sorry for people who don’t have close ties to their co-workers. They’re missing out on so much fun, support and richness of experience both at the office and in their personal lives. Next time you pass someone you don’t know very well at the coffee machine or at the water-cooler, spend a few minutes getting to know them better. You never know, they might just become your future spouse, best friend or networking contact.