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Work Friends ? Guide to Relating to Others in the Workplace

By Aimee Whitenack

Different corporate cultures offer varied opportunities to form friendships at work. So to ease the transition, we've created a guide to the new, "not-lowered-just-different" expectations of friendship in the post-college workplace.

You don't have to go bar-hopping on the weekends with your coworkers; in other words, work friends don't have to be outside-of-work friends.
"I don't think I'm going to have work friends," a friend of mine once sighed after completing the first week of her first post-college job. She's a social worker in an eating disorder clinic at a local hospital and describes her coworkers, though only a few years older than herself, as real adults. They're married, a few have kids, and she simply can't relate to them.

My first instinct was to counsel patience, because, of course, building friendships simply takes time. But more than that, transitioning from the culture of college to the culture of work takes time. You need to reorient yourself, and you need to formulate a new set of expectations. Another sigh--my defeated friend immediately took "new expectations" to mean lowered expectations. But it doesn't.

So to ease the transition, we've created a guide (for you and her) to the new, "not-lowered-just-different" expectations of friendship in the post-college workplace.

Work Hard, Play Hard
In certain industries, and often in the bigger companies, there are large populations of recent college grads. In many consulting and investment banking firms, for example, entire recruitment classes are filled by people from top-tier schools. If you're starting out in these industries (particularly if you're working 80-plus hour weeks), companies are likely to encourage social interaction in the workplace. Training programs and company outings facilitate coworker bonding.

The real transition you need to make in such a scenario is to remember that just because your company culture is collegial doesn't mean that you can act the same way you did back in your fraternity basement. Have fun, but remember your professional etiquette. Warns one 25-year-old editor, "I once told a questionable story to a coworker in the office cafeteria. Just as the story reached its climax, a female coworker walked in and showed her displeasure that we were having such a conversation. I realized that I was with coworkers now, not friends."

I'm Not in Kansas Anymore
Okay, so your new company culture sounds more like the one my social worker friend encountered than any sort of young, hip place--you just don't foresee being friends with these people. A few pointers:

  • One of the foundations of friendship is shared interest. Simply by virtue of you and your coworkers' decision to enter the same industry, it's probable that you have a mutual interest. Once you get used to the idea of befriending someone outside your traditional peer group, you'll likely find it refreshing.
  • You don't have to go bar-hopping on the weekends with your coworkers; in other words, work friends don't have to be outside-of-work friends. If there are people-whether they're 40 or 15-who make your workday enjoyable, who offer humor, guidance, and interesting conversation, then you already have work friends-people whom you enjoy interacting with at work.
  • Boundaries can be a good thing. While we're not suggesting you fend off traditional friendships in the workplace, it may be easier to have some borders between your work and non-work lives. That way, outside tensions won't creep into your work, and you'll truly be able to leave work behind at the end of each day. Warns one experienced twentysomething, "I lived with a coworker and best friend. 24-7 was just too much. We ended up not being able to stand each other."
  • Lastly, if you're in the market for a new social scene and are disappointed by the lack of potential at work, there are other places to meet new people after college besides the workplace. Look into local sports clubs, volunteering, or outside classes (flamenco dancing? cooking? wind-surfing?). Your friends' new work friends can be great new contacts as well-and you won't be the one worrying about mixing business with pleasure.

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