Work Life, Home Life
By A. D. Freudenheim

10 December 2000

Don't people have personal lives any more? With "the holidays" upon us, office parties abound. Everywhere you look, people are organizing events - at work, in bars, and at people's homes. Office parties, for the holidays or otherwise, can be lovely. There's nothing inherently problematic in the well-meaning desire to do something nice for your employees, employers, or colleagues.

What's troublesome is the trend, particularly among young, white-collar workers (and even more so for those in the technology and new media industries), that makes the social life within the office the dominant social life; in effect "home" life is being supplanted by more work life. Years ago, getting sloppy drunk at the annual office event was just that - an annual event. Now, after-work drinks have become a ritual, as these colleagues move from being the people with whom you work - where "work" implied a particular kind of relationship - to being friends, people with whom you share what we used to call "personal information." The traditional line between colleague and friend has blurred.

What's wrong with this? On the surface of it, nothing. Sharing your feelings and experiences is a natural human activity and one of the ways in which we get to know those around us on better and stronger terms. In the workplace, there are often benefits: knowing your colleagues can make aspects of work easier, and if you're familiar with their likes and dislikes, you can avoid tactical errors that can strain those relationships.

Yet this move into broader interoffice socializing misses the distinction that colleagues have inherently different motives than friends, because the collegial relationship is fundamentally different than friendship. Colleagues can - and probably will - judge you in ways that may ultimately affect your productivity or your job, and they can easily complicate your working relationships with others. (Friends may or may not judge you or betray you, depending on your friends; but when they do, the impact is likely isolated. Though it can hurt you emotionally, it won't implicitly threaten your livelihood at the same time.)

In blurring our relationship boundaries we also suffer another, more basic loss: intellectual and emotional diversity. After spending eight or more hours per day working with the same group of people, an evening of socializing with your colleagues will inevitably lead to discussions of the successes and failures faced by an individual, their coworkers, and by the business as a whole. "Shop talk," as it is called, is a safe conversational island. The world is much larger than this narrow island of conversation, but branching out to politics, religion, and even art can be dangerous terrain, likely to inflame the most unprofessional of feelings. These conversations can be as bad as a one-night stand: will you still like me in the morning?

Not all office friendships are doomed; as with everything, it depends on the people involved. Some are very good at compartmentalizing their worlds, drawing solid and unwavering lines between their different "lives," and allowing extra-curricular friendships to develop without jeopardizing their professional relationships. In the end though, by choosing to spend our "free" time with the same people we work with, we take the easy route to conversation and to a release from the tensions of work (by bitching about it to those we presume can share the pain); and we do so at the cost of the kind of intellectual and emotional stimulation that might better serve our psyches by reminding us of the simple premise that there is more to life than work.

Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.