I’m sure you’ve heard people say that it’s hard to make good friends once you start working, right? In the beginning of my career, I actually believed this to be true. After all, everyone’s just so busy, and it’s even more challenging to eke out the time for social hours after you start your own family. That said, I’ve organized a lot of meetings throughout my career so far. After each wraps up, I get a steady stream of thank- you emails saying things like “Thank you for inviting Dr. so- and- so, too. We’ve been wanting to catch up for a long time, now we finally had a way to reminisce.” Notes like this show that even catching up with people you consider your friends is a challenge. And it’s all much harder when you’re trying to get acquainted with new people, hold a conversation with them, and slowly building up your friendship, bit by bit.
Some people also say it’s almost impossible to make real friends in a workplace because they believe everyone’s trying to compete, outwit, even deceive each other. There’s a line from Japanese TV show called Little Giants that goes like this: “Your enemies will appear as if they’re your friends.” I have a couple of friends who adamantly separate their work life from their private life. They don’t let loose any secrets, info about their family, or any other personal updates to any of their coworkers. Once they’ve left the office for the day, they never look back. Their reasoning is that they come to the office to work, not to make friends. Sometimes it feels as if the workplace is a war zone, and I feel it’s a bit unrealistic to try to make friends on a battlefield. However, in these past few years, I’ve been having a lot of mixed feelings about this. Among my introverted friends, I- Wei Lai, who is an author who writes about mathematics, has written similar thoughts about this issue on Facebook. This is what he has to say about it:
Through promoting research collaboration opportunities in mathematics, I think I made a couple of good friends (at least from my perspective). Because of our work relationship and several opportunities to continue working and meeting up with them, we’ve gradually become friends, and we’ve slowly come around to talking about all sorts of things once we’ve finished our work; the scope of what we talk about is expanding little by little. I don’t need to consider whether or not I should say “this” or “that” sentence or consider if I’m taking up too much of the other person’s time. After I finish talking, I get into a relaxed mood. That’s how I know these friends from work. We learn each other’s priorities by working together in the most challenging situations, we gradually get to know we share similar core values and personalities. We don’t need a relationship based on purposeful reward, we’ve never once intentionally tried currying favor with each other, and we’ve spontaneously built up this unspoken compact between us without consciously thinking about it. I know that when I’m facing problems, the other person will without a doubt give me the shirt off their own back; conversely, I’m also willing to take on my friend’s burdens as if they were my own. A relationship where we occasionally have in- depth talk is what Zhuangzi [a Chinese ancient philosopher who was active 200 years after Confucius] once wrote several thousand years ago: “A gentleman’s friendship is as insipid as water.” I think this is an ideal way of looking at friendship.
When I finished reading this post, it resonated deep within me. Coincidentally, I- Wei Lai and I have known each other for a long time, we are both homebodies, and recently I’ve been discussing work issues with him. Much like I-Wei, I discovered that the friends I’ve made in recent years have all been people I’ve gotten to know through work. Because everyone’s competing for resources and opportunities in the workplace, it’s so much easier to see the values people hold close to their hearts. Because everyone’s got a lot on their plate, it’s easy to quickly understand how and why people prioritize for life’s issues. Because we’re jointly taking on the task of bearing our crosses, we’re not only able to see each other’s attitudes in how we face adversity, but we can also establish a revolutionary bond and faith for mutually dealing with difficulties. Perhaps all of these aren’t things we can easily do when in school, in a leisure group, or while speed dating.
I- Wei told me, “Work turns out to have been a good reason for introverts to force themselves to go outside of their comfort zone” and I replied “Of course . . . How else would we make friends if we didn’t work?”