I knew when I moved from Chicago to New York, at the age of 29, that making friends would be difficult. I didn’t know it would be impossible. After all, I was moving to the city for a job, a place where 82 percent of people say they have at least one friend.
A few months in, I was happy to discover that I clicked with several people on my team. One person also listened to true crime podcasts, another liked award show fashion, all of us watched “Queer Eye.” But most importantly to me and my sanity: We shared a sense of humor, an ability and willingness to acknowledge the absurdity of our industry (advertising) and the futile task at hand (humanizing corporations through our words and design).
Naturally I assumed we were ready for the next step in our office friendship: hanging out outside of work. But, then, every time I proposed a date and time, I’d get a kind, but firm, thanks but no thanks.
I was confused. And a little hurt. If we got along at work, why couldn’t we become actual friends? The kind of people who made weekend plans and had significant others meet while sharing a meal and several bottles of wine at a restaurant far from our office.
That was the kind of all-encompassing friendship I had with my colleagues in Chicago, so not only did I know it could be done, I came to expect it. I believed no true bonding could happen if we stayed in the office, never seeing each other after 5:00 p.m. on weekdays.
At my previous job, we were all in our twenties. For many of us it was the first real salary with benefits job. Through a combination of dramatic office politics and sloppy, late-night confessionals, we bonded and navigated this new unknown together.
When the workday was over, we’d stay in the office drinking wine and when that ran out, someone would do a CVS run and pick up a few 6-packs of shit beers. Once the sun went down and the cleaning staff came through, we’d jump on the L and take the party uptown to a favorite neighborhood bar that celebrated C-grade karaoke. Finally, when the last coherent “Counting Crows” song was sung, we’d stumble across the street to a late-night mac and cheese “restaurant.” In the morning we’d come into the office, hoods up, swearing at the overhead fluorescent lights, and willing away the hangover.
What we had was special but also a product of our age. The intensity of a FIRST job with actual stakes ties you to your colleagues in a way that is hard to ever replicate.
But this was what I knew of work friendships, and so going into my New York job, I held everyone to that same standard.
My New York work “friends” told me I was not the problem. But because I am a person who craves universal love and acceptance, I asked them to give me the specific reason why. They told me this: They had long commutes on trains that ran infrequently and at the end of the day, they just wanted to be back in their home, spending the precious few hours before bedtime with their partner or kids, before waking up at dawn to do it all over again.
Fair, I said. I didn’t and don’t like it, but this is a reality for many people who work in New York. In order to afford a house with a yard or one big enough to raise a family, you need to move outside the city. There are people on my team who commute 2 hours each way to get into the office. The more I thought about this, the less I realized it had nothing to do with me and the less I resented their stance.
Another truth I hadn’t yet accepted was that I had emotionally matured since Chicago. I wasn’t as interested in marathon happy hours and violent weekday hangovers. What I desperately missed was the bonding opportunities they gave me.
I began wondering if it was possible to create a deeper connection in the constraints of our 9 to 5, and I realized how valuable these work friendships were. So if I was going to become work-only friends, I didn’t want our talks to only be about the weather. That would make me deeply sad. But if lunch and coffee breaks were the only time I got to bond with them, then I would aggressively, and soberly, make the most of this time.
Acceptance and gratitude. That’s what rooted my new friendship campaign. My coworkers make the workday bearable, fun even, and that’s not nothing.
We spend the moments in between work talking about a number of disparate things, ranging from silly to very useful. Politics, “90 Day Fiancé,” the gender binary, in-laws, Billy Porter’s cape collection, and what kind of dog you’d be if you had to choose (which you do).
The year I got engaged, they were there for every messy step of my wedding planning “journey,” including the desperate 2 weeks before the wedding when I thought I could DIY centerpieces from the discarded pastry boxes in our office. It was illogical but they championed me all the same, because that’s what friends are for!
Whenever I need career advice, they are an invaluable and gracious resource. Running scenarios by them provides the gut check I need to “go confidently in the direction of my dreams,” as the quote on my desk calendar says. And in turn, when they need advice, I am there to offer my perspective.
Society has conditioned us to be tough or die trying. This mindset is even more encouraged at work, where revealing any weakness could jeopardize your career.
But that means the 8+ hours a day you spend at work may feel very lonely. For women, people of color, or anyone who feels like their experience is singular, people who feel they cannot be their best selves at work, this can be especially true.
Having someone you can trust, who won’t judge you, and who will have your back, is the key to surviving work. This holds true now more than ever. I had just started understanding my in-person work friendships, when I was challenged to redefine them again, thanks to this global pandemic that’s forced a large percentage of people to work remotely.
And while I miss the camaraderie we had, I’m trying to do what I did before: Meet people where they are instead of where they might be.
From a practical perspective, that means meeting people digitally — in chat rooms or video conferences or emails. But from an emotional perspective, that means meeting people with patience, empathy and an endless stream of unlikely animal friendship videos.
I’m using the tools at my disposal to reestablish the connections I had in person. And whether it’s organizing a “virtual happy hour” or allowing each other the space to vent our fears for the future, my coworkers and I are there for each other just as we always have.
Ali Kelley writes about office politics, teen angst, and the suburbs for publications including The Washington Post, Slate, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can find her online at alikelley.com.