Fake friendliness: Work colleagues are not real friends

The average number of friends I’ve made per company I’ve worked for is two. I’m not a serial job hopper but I’ve worked at enough companies to have a reasonable sample size for that. I define “friends made at working at a company” as people who even bother to stay in touch after one of you has left the company. That’s a very low bar, yet somehow the takeaway number isn’t high. And so begins the short story and lesson on why coworkers are not your friends.

It’s a simple concept, but a lot of people don’t understand it, especially the young and naïve still working their first job. From experience working internationally, I’ve noticed some groups are particularly vulnerable – namely anyone who didn’t grow up in a big city and/or cut-throat, competitive culture. Despite those big smiles, welcoming words and seemingly supportive conversations, I repeat once again, people from your workplace are not your friends.

The first step is to understand why people work. Whether they like to admit it or not, majority of the population goes to work primarily for the paycheck so they can put a roof over their heads and food on the table. Making friends is far down, towards the bottom, of their list of priorities.

Without much experience in a real corporate environment (e.g., just graduating or have worked only in startups), it’s easy to see work as another place where you get to meet and befriend new people, and hang out with them. There’s a lot of acting that goes on at work and it’s not just in terms of ‘looking busy like you’re being overwhelmed with work to deter others from giving you more work’. A lot of the perceived comradery and friendliness at work are part of the act.

Fake workplace friendships: Plenty can go wrong

How does acting friendly at work help anyone? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of reasons, ranging from innocuous to outright malicious, why someone might want to give a “friendly and positive vibe” to coworkers:

  • They spend at least 40 hours a week, or over 33% of their waking life, with them and don’t want any problems while they’re at the job. I know too many people who will jump at this and say “but that’s the reason you should befriend coworkers, you spend so much time with them!” Read on…
  • They don’t have a life outside of their job – the main giveaways are they can’t stop talking about work after-hours and their “hobbies” are commonly traveling and/or drinking (“going out and exploring”). So as long as you’re there, they have someone to boast about their travels to and pester to get hammered with them after work. But will drop you like a rock, for the next coworker they befriend, when you leave the company.
  • They want to be able to call in favors from you (i.e. make use of you) in the future. This can be as trivial as extracting gossip from you, all the way to full-blown requests to help do (their) work. Much like the kid in school who was only nice to you because they wanted to copy your homework.
  • They want you to let your guard down and open up to them, with the intention to throw you under the bus at the right opportunity. Variation: They are a vicious manager and backstabber, and everyone who has had the displeasure of working with or under them hates their guts. As a result, they need to befriend people outside their team to gain validation that somehow, THEY were the ones who got a really toxic team to manage.
    • From experience, these are usually the people who are very welcoming and friendly from the get-go when you join the company.
    • Though it’s also not impossible for it to be the other way around: a new joiner is super friendly and enthusiastic… to claw their way up the career ladder and not to meet you.

You’ll realize who your real friends are, when you leave the company

The most dangerous thing with the reasons above is you’ll never know what hit you until the day you leave the company (hopefully on your own accord and not because you got backstabbed by one of the delightful people at work that you saw as a friend). You also won’t know who your real friends from the company were until after you leave the company.

Luckily, identifying those real friends is a straightforward process – after your last day, those “friends” from work simply stop talking to you. You stop getting invited to “after-work drinks”, weekend events and, when it’s their turn to leave, quite possibly that coworker’s very own farewell! Told you it’s a simple concept!

Here, have an example

In our society of Positive Vibes (and living in denial of how terrible real life can be), people can be quick in saying I probably don’t go in with “the right mindset” (of being positive and willing to be backstabbed and thrown under a bus? No thanks), which I why I don’t end up keeping friends after leaving a company. But don’t just take it from me – it’s all around us if you look closely, without the rose-tinted Positive Vibes glasses.

Anna was a young woman I used to work with in a medium-sized business of 300. She had worked there for well over 5 years, joining before I arrived and leaving after I had left. We weren’t very close – in fact, I think she’s quite an asshole; she was one of those people who didn’t really know her job well and frequently tried to push her work onto others, and often using her large assets (if you know what I mean) – but I went for her “farewell drinks”.

Well, she didn’t invite me but I was tipped off on the date and venue of the farewell, and opted to crash it in hopes of hearing some juicy gossip (lots of controversy within the company – free entertainment!)

There were only seven who attended the session (six if you discounted me and counted only ‘current ex-coworkers’) and she, as a long-standing employee who frequently capitalized on her own attractiveness at work, was surprised at the incredibly low turnout. Usually post-work farewell drinks at a company this size would have at least 10-30 attendees. Her mistake was that she had already left the company a week prior and did not follow the norm of having farewell drinks on the evening of her last day at work.

Despite having worked for 5 years, this had been her first and only office job. So, who could blame her for not knowing that the care of coworkers towards a person has a steep drop-off after their last day at work?

Oh, and we’ve never talked since then. Neither of us cares for the other, there wasn’t any interesting gossip but I got this neat insight/example!

When you have to play the same game and appear friendly…

… is also the most tedious part for me. It’s an invisible, mandatory part of the job description that you often don’t sign up for. I find the whole acting game very uncomfortable and insincere, and despite having gotten better at it over the years, it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

On the other hand, being too much of a social recluse also has its nasty implications; people actually get laid off because of it. More on this next time, in another article.

There are, of course, legitimate friendships that have been made at work that last a long time. But these are incredibly rare and they also tend not to manifest themselves while both parties are still employed in the same company.

The takeaway is to be weary of those you work with and don’t open up to them too much (seems like basic common sense, yet it’s not for a lot of the population) – you’ll never know what’s hiding behind that gleeful smile and if all that friendliness is fake – and to be thankful of the actual friendships that you do take away after leaving a company, just don’t force it to happen.

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