| How To
Nicole Knows How Do I Keep My Old Work Friends Without the Old Work Drama?
“Friendship is here to delight and expand and challenge and deepen you, not to be a hand dragging you back into the pit.”
Friendship can be hard. Nicole tries to make it easier. Welcome to Nicole Knows , an advice column centered on the relationships that don’t always get the most attention.
While Nicole especially welcomes questions about navigating the often complicated world of friendship, she is here for all of your questions. You can send an email to with NICOLE KNOWS in the subject line or leave a comment below. Note: Writers’ names will never be published. firstname.lastname@example.org
I recently left a job in a pretty dysfunctional organization. Leadership was weak and employees were working under intense pressure with little support or guidance, which created a culture of mistrust, gossip, and confusion. I’m much, much happier now that I’ve moved on to a new role.
I do have friendships with a couple of former colleagues who are still there, in the thick of all the issues. I want to maintain those relationships and be supportive, since I know exactly what they’re dealing with and how frustrating and all-consuming it can be. But, frankly, I also want to put that part of my life/career behind me and not think about it anymore. It took up so much of my life and energy for the last several years that it’s honestly challenging to disengage—hearing and thinking about the current gossip and drama makes me feel anxious and overwhelmed, like it’s still my problem to solve. Other than telling my old coworker-friends that I want to hang out but not talk about work (which is going to be really hard for them), is there anything I can do to stay connected and be a good friend that’s not going to keep me involved in this toxic mess I want to leave behind? What are some good low-stakes opinion-rich conversation-starter topics for just changing the subject to something everyone will enjoy?
For starters, congratulations on moving on from an unhealthy organization! Truly dysfunctional work environments can poison the soul, especially when it’s the kind of job that you don’t psychologically leave when you walk out the door at five p.m. (I mean, let’s be real, it’s 2017: You leave at eight p.m. and then check your work email until bedtime, right?)
Something that I would like to briefly discuss before moving on to the meat of your question is this: Try to develop some awareness around carrying the toxicity of your old job with you to your next. I don’t mean in terms of being a jerk or gossiping! It’s so common when you leave a dysfunctional workplace to (even subconsciously) assume that backstabbing, viciousness, apathy, and inertia are going to meet you wherever you go, and to bristle and develop a defensive outlook in anticipation. If you can, try to carry the lessons forward with you, but not the baggage.
We spend more time at work than we do with our friends or our significant others, but breaking up with a job is rarely given the same emotional attention: How is leaving the place you spend ten hours a day for (in many cases) years not up there with the end of a Bad Romance? Give yourself the time you need to process it (possibly with the help of a therapist—I promise you this will not be the first time they’ve doula’d someone through a job transition), and never for a MINUTE feel like you’re wallowing or overthinking it.
Now, onto your former colleagues! This sounds EXCEEDINGLY crabs-in-a-bucket to me. One of the reasons they insist on talking exclusively about work is that if they acknowledge the existence of other jobs, the horrendousness of their current state will make their heads explode. The worst part of a bad job is feeling as though it’s all-encompassing and eternal and bleeds into every part of your time and you’ll never be free of it. The more you can do to either gently push back or detach completely (always an option, by the way; I encourage the casual jettisoning of transient work friendships whenever possible), the better it’ll be for everyone.
It can, of course, be difficult to tell who is a transient work friend and who is a lifelong friend that you just happened to acquire via the workplace. Do you text on the weekends? Would you invite them to your birthday party? Would you be comfortable with them seeing your shitposting on Twitter? ARE THEY IN YOUR REPORTING CHAIN? (It’s basically impossible for an IRL friendship to evolve out of a reporting chain, but I guess anything is possible.)
Now that we’ve established we are, in fact, dealing with people you DO want to keep in your life, I’m a huge proponent of sitting down during get-togethers and saying “UGH, what a week! Let’s all complain about work for (checking clock) fifteen minutes, and then we have to move on to happier topics.”
You do have to hold them to it, is the tricky bit. You have to be ready to pleasantly duck out if they can’t break the toxicity loop. I also recommend not doing drinks or dinner until you manage to carve out new conversational pathways. Go see Thor: Ragnarok together, then talk about it! A movie is always a great option for coming up with new and interesting things to say. Ask them about what job they would enjoy doing if money was no issue! Ask them what kind of animal they would be! Make one of those cootie-catcher paper things and tell fortunes! Bring a deck of tarot cards and play with them! Regressing to middle-school sleepover activities, in my experience, is a great way to tap into spending time with people that takes you out of your present circumstances.
I do want you to be able to talk about your job, of course, when you want to! You shouldn’t have to keep your lip buttoned about the things that energize and excite you about your new job, although obviously you don’t want to bum everyone out as they slog through another day in the data entry salt mines or what-have-you. I recommend talking about individual projects whenever possible, as opposed to the workplace environment or your much-better new boss: work products instead of work gossip.
(If you REALLY get fed-up and want them to cease complaining about work immediately , a polite “Hmm, that sounds frustrating; what are you going to do about it?” dropped at regular intervals usually strips the cathartic joy from any spiraling bitch session.)
Before I depart, I would like to encourage all of you to try to avoid crossing the streams of work friends and IRL friends to the extent that’s possible (we’re all familiar with the organizations that deliberately attempt to blur into all aspects of your life, and I encourage you to ask a lot of questions about the culture before accepting offers and to avoid these places like the plague they are). Lock down your social media! Only hang out during lunch! Keep them at a devastatingly polite and convivial distance. Be First Season Gina from Brooklyn Nine-Nine ! Be All Seasons Sue from Veep ! Don’t owe your soul to the company store, either financially or emotionally, and you’ll be healthier and happier for it.
I wish you the best of luck, and, as always, friendship is here to delight and expand and challenge and deepen you, not to be a hand dragging you back into the pit.