Friend or Foe: How do I handle my office frenemy?

Advice on sticky friendship dilemmas.
Sept. 6 2011 6:58 AM

How Do I Handle My Office Frenemy?

An old buddy helped me get a new job—but now she's acting less than friendly.

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Dear Friend or Foe,

I recently moved to a new town for a new job, which I took in part because my friend "Denise" worked there and recommended me for an interview—and in part because it was a gay-friendly place. (I'm a guy.) However, since arriving, Denise has been acting not so cordial. She's made a number of critical comments at work and in mixed company that are at my expense, some having to do with me not knowing the local culture, others because I've mispronounced words. And in private, she has accused me of being too outspoken during meetings and introducing her to someone she already knew. At the same time, she sometimes confides in me extremely personal information about her health or relationship that suggests she trusts me as a friend.

I realize I may be oversensitive to these perceived slights, but I've spoken to my partner, and he agrees that her behavior is inconsistent and unfriendly. In the past, Denise has admitted to feeling insecure about me being in the office, since we have similar backgrounds and she's nervous about getting a promotion (or not) in the coming months. But while I want to be sympathetic, I no longer trust her and feel uncomfortable in her presence, both at and away from the office. If I decline any social activities with her and her partner, should I be upfront about why I'm upset? Or should I just passive-aggressively avoid her with bland excuses and superficial pleasantries? I'd prefer the latter since I don't want to create a bad work environment, and the office is small with overlapping social circles. Ironically, I get along pretty well with Denise's partner, with whom I have good conversations at work (when Denise isn't around).

Sincerely,
Office Frenemy Challenged

Dear OFC,

Lucinda Rosenfeld Lucinda Rosenfeld

Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, including I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One, which will be published in early 2013.

You say your partner has confirmed your suspicions that Denise is undermining you. But partners who "weren't there" tend to parrot back what we tell them. Which is to say, I still think it's possible that you're being oversensitive. Denise, while obviously not the most hand-holdy friend on the planet, may feel no more than a friendly rivalry with you now that you partake from the same water cooler. She might also somehow feel that it's her duty to show you the office ropes, even if that means suggesting you tone it down at meetings. Let's not forget that it was this same "foe" who helped you get the job you now have. It seems odd to me that, without any further provocation, she would suddenly turn into your arch rival. Or maybe there was a provocation, unintended though it might have been on your part. Maybe Denise feels you never fully thanked her for getting you the gig in a tough job market. Or maybe she thinks that, now that you're firmly established at the firm, you've been insufficiently complimentary about her own work. These are just guesses.

It's also, of course, possible that Denise was unable to predict how competitive she'd feel once your face popped up over the wall of the next cubicle. But I suspect the situation is more complicated and more nuanced than that. As for Denise's other "critical" remarks: Don't we all have a friend who feels compelled to correct our English? Sure, it's a little humiliating to be told that "scion" has a silent c—whoops!—but I always think it's better to know. Moreover, if you introduced me to someone I already knew, I'd probably come back with a curt, "We've already met," too.

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My advice: Start fresh on Monday wearing a little less armor (and a big smile)—and you might be surprised to discover you have an actual friend in the office, after all. 

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,

For years, a group of my women friends, all of whom once worked together, have met once a month for dinner. Several are now retired, so these meals give us a chance to catch up. A year and a half ago, one of the women, "Judy," came to the dinner and told us that her sister, "Peggy," was diagnosed with a rare, fatal cancer. Since several of us, myself included, have lost siblings and other loved ones to cancer, we were very sympathetic and willing to listen as Judy talked through her pain and frustration. Since then, she has made finding a cure for her sister's illness her life's work. Judy has taken Peggy to an alternative medicine clinic in Texas and enrolled her in clinical trials of unapproved chemotherapies. She spends hours online searching for information and calls her sister's doctors every week. She comes to each monthly dinner and talks of nothing but Peggy—her diagnosis, test results, medications, and side effects—which doesn't always make for pleasant dinner conversation. If someone tries to change the subject, Judy manages to turn the conversation back to her sister.            

Over the past year, several women have dropped out of the group, ostensibly because of schedule conflicts or work issues, but privately (they told me) because they don't enjoy the dinners anymore. Recently, one of the "drop outs" called me to tell me that she's setting up another dinner group—without Judy—and wanted to know if I'd join. I really miss seeing my friends and would love to get together with them, but I know Judy would be devastated if she knew she was left out. I'm probably Judy's closest friend in the group, and I feel uncomfortable doing this behind her back. Yet I do want to go. How should I handle this?

Sincerely,
Too Much Information

Dear TMI,

Oh dear, that's a tricky one. I sympathize with both parties. Judy's head must be spinning so fast with terror and a sense of helplessness and that she's unable to think of anything else—and likely looks forward to these dinners as a chance to vent. At the same time, I can see how the other women in the group, while initially sympathetic, now feel burdened and even offended by Judy's total domination of the conversation at the expense of their own chances to gossip, gab, and expound on the mysteries of the universe.

I wouldn't tell Judy about the other women choosing to dine without her. I also grant you permission to attend the alternate group's dinners without feeling guilty. (It's not as if you organized these events; your only "crime" is having been invited to them.) But I'd also take Judy out to dinner on her own and carefully suggest to her that, while you and your former colleagues are happy to listen to her talk about her sister, it sounds to you as if she'd really benefit from talking to a professional who could help her deal with her grief. If Judy fails to take your advice and continues to perorate about the curative properties of sheep sorrel or Indian rhubarb, feel free to limit future meals together—and to keep a newspaper or iPad under your seat—but don't cut the woman off. You may well be Judy's one lifeline right now. Please note, however, that if her sister has indeed been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer, the status quo is unlikely to last for long.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,

I met "Jessica" in college, and she has always been competitive. But she was also supportive and a great listener. In the past few years, however, her competitive side has become suffocating. She belittles my accomplishments—at one point, she said that enrolling at the Ivy League (graduate) school to which I'd just been accepted would, for her, be a "backup"—and regularly omits unflattering details about her own life. She got fired and later called it her choice. At the moment, we're both in graduate programs, mine underfunded, hers at a wealthy school. Jessica is constantly telling me how pleased she is with her financial situation. If I say that I studied for eight hours, she studied for 10; if I was mention that my adviser is great, hers is a genius who thinks Jessica is the best student in her program.

I'd love to talk my feelings over with Jessica, but every time a friend tries to confront her with an issue she simply ends the friendship. So I'm reluctant. She's also incapable of apologizing. Our conversations now consist of her updating me on her résumé and me avoiding any discussion of myself and trying to end the call before she upsets me with a casually callous comment. I'm getting married next year and would love advice on how to handle her judgmental attitude and one-upmanship. (Jessica is, of course, a bridesmaid.) Is there any way to address the situation, or should I do what my fiancé says and drop my relationship with someone he believes to be an incurable narcissist?

Sincerely,
Missing My Old Friend 

Dear MMOF,

I'm with your future husband. You say that Jessica was a great listener—once. But it appears that it's been years since she listened to you with any purpose other than to diminish what you've just said. You also say that Jessica is competitive, but it sounds to me that, above all, she's madly jealous. Your upcoming nuptials will likely only make the situation worse. Don't be surprised if, the night of your wedding, Jessica somehow manages to make the drama all about herself. On that note, and unless you have an appetite for masochism, I'd cut bait now. If you already sent the invite, it's too late to disinvite her. But you can always be a bitch and backtrack on the bridesmaid offer. Say you've decided to limit the number of maids to two or four (or whatever number you'd planned, minus her). If Jessica says "how dare you," tell her you feel as if the two of you have been drifting apart for years now and talking at, not to, each other. If she turns on you and ends the friendship, she'll be doing you a favor.

Here's some big picture perspective: Later in life, most of us wind up with only a tiny handful of pals from college. (I'm talking two or three.) Whatever happens around the wedding, I'd say the chances of you and Jessica being buddy-buddy at age 40 is basically nil. Good luck and happy wedding.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

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