The Reality of Friends Versus Acquaintances

May 13, 2019

Social scientists and psychologists who study relationships of all types often suggest that most of us can only really manage 7 to 10 people in our lives at any one moment. Bestselling author Malcom Gladwell has made a similar point in his book, The Tipping Point (2000), where he talked about the so-called “Dunbar’s Number.”

In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar posited that as humans, we can only handle a total of about 150 relationships in our lives. As Dunbar put it, it’s based on “the number of people you’d not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them at a bar.”

That’s why the whole Facebook “friends” things is so debatable (and, for some people, detestable). As we become more closed off and more electronically introverted in our digital lives, who we consider real friends as opposed to just people we may happen to know, and who had the energy to click on our link, should be up for discussion.

A surprising number of people from my career who I’ve known for decades and I thought were friends were actually just colleagues. The difference is significant, and it took me a while to figure it out.

Consider these differences as you inspect your own work and social relationships. Perhaps these results will sadden you or surprise you or simply confirm what you may already know, suspect, or fear to be true.

Colleagues eat lunch and the occasional dinner together; friends eat dinner at each other’s houses. Colleagues hang out at work and at work-related functions, like training conferences and during business trips. Friends do activities together away from work that have no workplace nexus.

Colleagues tell you where they live; friends invite you over. It’s rare to meet the spouse, partner, or children of a colleague outside of a work function; friends bring their spouses, partners, or kids along when you meet up. You know a secret or two about your friends; you may not know anything except surface-level biographical information about most of your colleagues.

Have you ever considered that some of your work colleagues may have a hidden agenda, meaning that what you thought was “friendship” was actually just their attempt to use your knowledge, expertise, time, connections, contacts, or influence to get ahead, either at your office or in their careers?

As a self-employed HR and security consultant, I have met and worked with thousands of people in my career. My definition of business colleagues versus real work friends is that colleagues are happy to take whatever work you give them, with no thought of ever returning the favor. They’re happy to ride in your covered wagon across the barren desert; they just won’t ever help you pull the wagon.

They won’t put their own seed money into new ventures or marketing opportunities, but they will ride on your back when you get some success. They’ll do what you ask to get their part of the work done (and to be paid first, often even before you), but they will never look at a potential new project and figure out how to grow it to include you as well.

By contrast, your real friends that you also work with think about your financial needs as well as their own. They put skin into the game, including their own money to grow a business endeavor. They put in the necessary unpaid sweat equity to grow a project. They don’t just send you an invoice for services rendered and wait to be compensated.

Want to know who your real friends are versus just colleagues? These questions can help you determine who is who:

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