Q: I cannot decide whether my co-worker is just very friendly, or too friendly. When I started the job, she was openly helpful, telling me whenever she had extra time to train me if I needed help with anything. I accepted her offers to help because the company had no formal training. I was hired on my past experience, but sometimes I was "shooting from the hip" to get things done. I'm resourceful but I'd rather know I'm doing it right. As time went by, I learned more and become more familiar with the job, so I haven't needed the help I originally accepted. I thanked her but said I was catching on fairly quickly, so I was fine now on my own. She seemed OK with that. She would also ask me if I'd like a coffee when she went to get one, and then started asking if I wanted to go for lunch.
I also thought she was just being friendly and welcoming, because I knew no one and wasn't familiar with the area. We went to lunch sometimes, but I didn't want it to turn into a ritual, so I began saying I had other plans with old friends who would be in the area, or had doctors' appointments I had to take lunch. I sensed her feeling a bit rejected, and I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I accepted more times than not. I like her friendship at work and I enjoy talking to her, but I am a little worried she could be getting too attached to me. Maybe I'm too cautious or maybe she doesn't have many friends and I fill that gap for her. I am concerned she might eventually suggest getting together and developing a personal friendship, and I want to be prepared for what to say. I am a straight female in my late 30s and I usually don't run into women who want more personal friends. Am I being neurotic about this?
A: Everyone starts as strangers until they discover they enjoy each other's company and have common interests. But it is difficult to know when a person is simply friendly and open to making new acquaintances or has ulterior motives.
It sounds like she hasn't displayed any worrisome character flaws. She didn't respond with possessiveness or jealousy when you said you had other lunch plans, or passive-aggressive behavior as you slowly became more assured of your performance in your job. The disappointment you sensed might stem from loneliness she is currently experiencing, or a heightened sensitivity or guilt you feel for whatever reason when you say "no" to people.
Everyone brings their upbringing and past experiences into the workplace, whether they know it or not, but a mentally healthy person doesn't share past hardships or traumas in the beginning of any type of relationship. Getting to know a person at work or from any group in common is like slowly peeling an onion. Everyone peels at a different rate; some never unpeel.
It's a sad situation when a person can't or refuses to accept new friendships, though it is wise to slowly grow a friendship at work since your job is the reason you are there. According to Dr. Steve Nguyen's article Workplace Friendships: The Benefits and Challenges, "Workplace friendships are linked to increased job satisfaction, job involvement, job performance, team cohesion, organizational commitment, and decreased intentions to turnover (Reich & Hershcovis, 2011)." Conversely, problems can arise when a workplace friendship becomes competitive due to promotions, betrayals, or turns overly personal and wrought with conflict.
It's up to you to observe your co-worker's behavior so you can respond appropriately if and when she asks to get together outside of work. It may help to know one third of all relationships start at work (HR Review, Feb. 14, 2014), which makes sense since the majority of one's time is spent there. Additionally, according to Business Insider, a study found of those who have dated a coworker, 42 percent said they had an ongoing, casual relationship; 36 percent said they had a "random office hookup;" 29 percent had been in a serious, long-term relationship; and 16 percent had met their spouse or partner at work.
Email life and career coach [email protected] with your workplace questions and experiences. For more information, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.