What To Do When You Can’t Make Friends at Work

Collective wisdom.
Sept. 30 2011 4:55 PM

The Wrong Tribe

How failed work friendships helped me escape my corporate career and find my true calling.

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How do you make friends with colleagues when you find your work unsatisfying?
Photograph by iStockphoto.

On my first day of work at my first job out of college, I mouthed the words “I am a financial analyst” and told myself to feel grateful for landing a job in a recession. But in meetings about audits and quarterly results my mind wandered to happier days when I was a creative writing major devouring David Sedaris essays. Staring at the sea of beige cubicles, wearing a pencil skirt and stiff-collared top, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere along the way I had made a wrong turn.

Deborah Jian Lee Deborah Jian Lee

Deborah Jian Lee is a New York-based freelance journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her here.

I moved from Chicago to Milwaukee to work for an enormous U.S. industrial corporation in a rotational management program, which hires a crop of fresh college graduates twice a year. While my creative writing classmates scrambled for temp jobs at graduation, my second major in economics helped me bypass their fate. It also led me to a windowless cubicle, endless spreadsheets, and an emptiness I could not bear. I thought friendship could fill the void, but I quickly discovered that in this corporate world, true friendship was hard to find.

I was alone in Milwaukee. My college friends went on to lead hopping post-college lives in Chicago, nodding their heads at indie rock shows and sinking into greasy diner booths in the wee hours. I knew no one in my new city but took the job because the offer came early and accepting it seemed like the responsible thing to do. I landed the job before most seniors and negotiated a six-month deferral so I could spend time abroad in China, and then in Spain. I briefly considered a career as a writer, but the voices of my parents—and myself—told me that such a path was impractical, silly. I wanted to be a grownup. I took the job. I bought a car. I opened a 401(k). I envisioned throwing dinner parties that began with soft cheeses and bottles of wine.

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But in this new world, grownup life and grownup friendship had a different set of rules for which I was completely unequipped. Most co-workers seemed to be reading off a social script I had never laid eyes on. They gossiped about colleagues I barely knew, swapped inside jokes, and sized up each newcomer with a cheerful yet critical gaze. At a work barbecue I chatted up another recent grad who seemed genial enough, but quickly discovered we had little in common. My nerdy interests in obscure bands and Hong Kong film noir made for lousy conversation, I knew that much. Defaulting to common ground, I peppered her with questions about her job, which was a mistake. Three minutes into the conversation she heaved a big sigh and said: “My God! Can we please talk about something other than work? I’m here to have fun!” She picked up her plate of hamburger and chips and rejoined her friends.

I hadn’t always been this socially stunted. In my pre-pencil-skirt days, friendship had come easily. In college, I could run into an acquaintance on the quad, swap life stories, and we’d be best friends by day’s end. We were all cute puppies at 18, eager to cuddle and sniff each other out at first glance. And we lived spontaneously. Dancing! Indie shows! Poetry readings! I’d go with anyone who asked, and I made friends along the way.

Adulthood was a rude awakening. I thought if I just went to enough work parties, my luck in the friendship department would improve. I smiled, sipped cocktails, and tried to have a good time, but I struggled to connect. When colleagues bonded over frat memories, suddenly that experimental Flaming Lips listening party I went to (where the DJ played all four discs of the Zaireeka album at once!) sounded ridiculous.

At a corporate lunch, the CFO of one division nearly choked when I confessed to not following my Big 10 alma mater’s basketball games. “What do you do with your time?” he exclaimed, shooting a wild look to his audience for support. I laughed at his outrage and shrugged. “I guess I’m too busy reading books.” A pretentious response, I know, but I had spent one cold, lonely Wisconsin winter with Dostoyevsky and felt it counted for something.

Even though I knew it was the wrong move, I kept defaulting to work talk. I did it because 1) it was an easy common ground, and 2) I was surrounded by energetic graduates who seemed determined to build a future at this company. I wanted to understand that drive. What was I missing? How could I have the passion they seemed to possess? I thought if we were friends, they would fill me in on the secret.

But each conversation left me deflated, not because it highlighted our differences, but because it revealed that, like me, many of my young colleagues shared my career doubt. I realized that most people did not possess the “passion for finance” I thought I saw in them—and they hated me for pointing that out.

Perhaps my anxiety brought their worries to the surface. Perhaps my questions awoke the doubt they had tried to put to sleep. Or maybe I was just projecting.

Over cocktails with one smartly dressed colleague I couldn’t resist asking: “So … why did you take this job? Do you really enjoy finance?”

My question seemed to exhaust her. “Listen, I was just tired of not having money,” she said. This, I could understand. But I still wanted more.

One evening, a group of us gathered for a jazz concert in the park. I began chatting with a shy colleague of mine, and she told me something I could not believe.

“Wait, you’re Deborah Lee. I’ve heard of you,” she said, nodding her head slowly. “People say that you’re amazing.”

“I doubt that,” I said, puzzled. Now, to give some context, this colleague immigrated to the U.S. in junior high. While she speaks flawless English, she was not familiar with a particular American figure of speech.

I had to probe. “How exactly do you know that people say I’m amazing?”

“Oh, you know, because they called you … what was the phrase …” Her voice trailed off. “I remember now. They called you ‘a piece of work.’ ”

My eyes bulged, and I felt the sting of her comment prickle my insides. I laughed nervously. My colleague did not follow.

“That’s bad!” I blurted. “Oh my gosh, being ‘a piece of work’ is bad. It’s really, really bad.”

I went on to explain the phrase’s meaning and, weirdly, that prompted us to bond. From there, very slowly over time, with all of the awkwardness, false starts, and persistence that come with adult friendships, we began to open up. If college friendship was like soda pop—fast and refreshing—this friendship was like wine. We took our time, we let things sit, we didn’t gulp the whole drink down at once. One week, we bonded over our common love of Russian literature. The next, we watched an old film. Later, we confessed to each other our anxieties about work and the future. Eventually, we became roommates.

We shared a mutual friend in the program, a ballsy young woman who convinced us to throw a huge party at the end of our two-year program. Every class threw a party to mark their “graduation,” and it typically occupied a wood-paneled steak house with white tablecloths and too many utensils. For our setting, we chose something a bit more carefree: an outdoor garden party at our favorite whimsical French restaurant. To add to the festivity, we replaced the 15 minutes of typical rote speeches with a short mockumentary film that made fun of corporate culture. We spent weeks brainstorming, laying out the story board, filming, ambushing executives in their offices, requesting that they act silly for us, and editing the piece to perfection. We wanted it to express a deep truth, a defining aspect of our budding careers, so we called it “Making Friends at Work” and essentially lampooned the entire experience.

We had no idea how it would go over when we played it for our audience of CFOs, VPs, and managers. So we just swigged some wine and hoped for the best. When the lights went down and the show began, we exchanged nervous glances and waited for the audience to react. Under a starry night, we watched ourselves walk across the screen, play pranks, and mock ourselves along with those we worked with.

The audience, to our delight, roared with laughter. My manager held his belly and shook. One executive wiped tears from her eyes as she buckled over. When I looked back at the crowd, lit by tea lights and the moon, I saw a sea of crinkled, happy faces. Then the credits rolled and the crowd cheered. My friends and I beamed.

As I made my way through the crowd to thank our guests, for a moment the party seemed to stall, like one of those slow-motion scenes in a movie. I grappled with mixed emotions. I felt more satisfaction from this short amateur film than I had ever felt from finance—and I sadly wondered if I’d ever feel this way again.

The storyteller in me screamed that this was a very obvious sign that I was in the wrong profession. David Sedaris’ whiney voice told me wake up to reality. It’s time to be a real grownup and make hard decisions. That’s probably not something David Sedaris would say, but it helps to pretend he’s guiding me. It would take me another year to take that message to heart and leave finance for a career in writing. Standing in the glow of post-film bliss, I had no clue that a new career with more moments like these awaited me. I did not know that I would eventually move to New York City, write for national magazines, hear my voice on the radio, befriend my writing heroes, and travel the world. All I knew that evening was that something within me had changed and I could never turn back.

When my slow-motion moment ended, a company VP grabbed my hand and shook it heartily. “That was hil-a-rious,” she said, adjusting her power suit. Then, she looked me right in the eye and shouted over the crowd. “You know, you’re wasting your time in finance!”

 I smiled and shouted back, “Tell me about it!”

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