Ask A Boss: “Help, I don’t have any friends at work”

Welcome to Ask a Boss (Who Is Not Your Boss)a column where our editor-in-chief Jennifer Romolini answers all of your awkward, painful, and just plain weird questions about work life. Have a burning workplace or career question? Email [email protected] Please Include a your first name or nickname and where you are from. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Dear Jenn,

I’m working at a company that I really love, doing an entry-level job, with a lot of growth potential—which is amazing. So far, I’ve had a lot of success: within my first 5 months, I was awarded Employee of the Quarter, and several co-workers have asked me for advice and help with tasks.

But making friends is another story. I really want to cultivate friendships with my fellow co-workers. Many of the people I work with have been working there since they got out of high school and have progressed and now they’re managers. They’re all really good friends because they all started working together about 8 years ago, all as entry-level employees, so they hung out a lot back in the day, and now they’ve got these great friendships to show for it.

Like me, they’re all in their early 30s, and we have similar interests, so I think we’d hit it off. But I don’t think they want to be friends with me. If these were people who were moving on from the job sometime soon, I wouldn’t worry. But the problem is that I know I want to stay with this company for a while, and also that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. . . Do you think there’s something I can do to convince them that I’m in it for the long haul? Should I ask my boss if we can have a company-wide retreat?

Thanks for your advice!

Lonely Newbie ?

Dear Lonely,

Let me start off by saying I’m sorry this is happening, especially when you have so much to celebrate in this new job—you are crushing it!—it’s a bummer that this situation is casting a pall on your success, but I totally totally get it.

I can tell by your email that you’re ambitious and competent and hard-working. Sadly, truly competent people often suffer the worst in jobs (there was a good article on this recently that maybe you’ll find helpful). Because you are such a go-getter (yes, I said go-getter, such a Mary Tyler Moore Show word, I know!), I suspect some people at work are some combination of jealous/threatened/annoyed/wary of you and the best advice I can give is to tell you to stop worrying about those particular people, stop worrying about what they think. That the best way to get control of this is not to change the situation, but to change how you feel about it; to slow your roll and calm your heart and accept that finding friends at this particular job will take a bit of time and that this is OK. That you should walk in every day with your head held high (but not too high), treat your co-workers with kindness and respect and keep kicking so much ass at your job. And that, eventually, the people you really want to know and become friends with will come to you. And that all of this will happen sooner than you think.

But I know this is “perfect world” advice and I know it will do little to soothe the immediate spinning in your brain and you’re probably looking for some action to take that’ll make you feel less lonely right away.

With that in mind, there’s a lot of good research on how to become friends with other adult humans, and even more specifically, co-workers. The keys to success seem to be physical proximity, familiarity, and similarity—all of which, yay, you have.

The most authentic and wonderful friendships build over time, they happen in strange, small moments like when you spill the cream in the office kitchen and feel dumb and someone comes and helps you clean it up and you feel less dumb because they say they’ve done it too and you bond over how weird the office kitchen is, or how something made you both crack up that day. You bond over teaching and helping each other and having the other person’s back. You bond over the absurdity of jobs, because jobs are absurd. Be open to those moments, be present and aware of the people around you. Give genuine compliments when you feel them—compliments go a seriously long way. When the time feels right, ask your co-workers questions about their lives, where do they live? Where are they from? How was their weekend? Try in ways that are subtle and organic and real. And keep in mind that you are choosing these people as much as they are choosing you. Be yourself.

I wouldn’t ask your boss for an office-wide retreat, because I think that’s applying ambition and force to this, a matter that actually requires delicacy and finesse. Remember that real friendship means real connection and it’s hard to manufacture, and it all takes time. Remember also that you won’t be the new girl forever, that soon, by nature of time and human behavior, you will be “in” with these 30-something managers, so remember to be kind and warm and welcoming to the girl who comes next, who just might be your best work friend of all.