No matter your profession or career choice, there’s a nearly 100% probability that your job relies on input, information, or cooperation from other people. Perhaps it’s people you work with directly — on your team, in your department, or in other parts of your company. Or maybe you interface with people outside of your organization — for account management, sales, customer support, or a myriad of other job functions. No matter the context, learning how to work with others effectively is an imperative skill to master in order to grow in your career, and extends beyond using socially acceptable email sign-offs.
When I started my first job after college, my definition of “friend” was along the lines of “someone that I have spent a lot of time with, know well, and want to be around outside of a professional setting.” I had grown up with a good group of close friends, but was also an awfully shy person who was intimidated by just about everyone outside of my friend circle. I viewed the interactions necessary to do my job primarily as professional obligations — not relationships.
At that first job, I had a colleague named Ryan who continually confused me with his use of the word “friend.” He’d say something like, “I have a friend that works at company X — do you want me to introduce you?” I’d ask how he knew that friend, and a typical response was, “We met once at a happy hour two years ago.” At the time, this was not my definition of a “friend.” Maybe an “acquaintance,” but more likely just “someone I met once.” It was funny to me, but I didn’t yet see the benefits of my Ryan’s definition of friend. That’d take a whole new career, industry, and city.
A few years later, I moved to San Francisco to join a venture capital firm as an investor — a very different role than my previous jobs in strategy in the media & entertainment industry in Los Angeles. Instead of being internally focused and relying on a small dedicated team of co-workers within my company, my job was now primarily externally focused, meeting with hundreds of founders, investors, and other professionals whom I didn’t have prior relationships with. In this new industry and career, I began to notice other people using the term “friend” in a similar way to my colleague from earlier in my career. “I have a friend who’s an investor at X, would you like an intro?”
At first, my midwest sensibilities viewed this liberal definition of the word “friend” as braggadocios and arrogant — an attempt to overstate their own importance or professional network. But I continued to hear this verbiage from people that I had come to respect as sensible and humble individuals. Soon enough, I caught myself using the term more liberally myself.
After trying it out, I found that expanding my own definition of “friend” from “someone that I have spent a lot of time with, know well, and want to be around outside of a professional setting” to “someone that knows me by my name and that I’ve had a positive interaction with” not only opened up endless opportunities for me, it also made me a friendlier and warmer person. I began to view people that I had only met a handful of times completely differently —not as someone I was compelled to interact with, but as a friend. This new relationship categorization lowered the bar for reconnecting with people, or reaching out to ask for a favor, make an introduction, or just “catch up” with someone.
There’s actually a whole school of thought known as linguistic relativity, which claims that “that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language.” While I’m not contemplating completely different languages, I also believe that one’s internal definitions of specific words within a language similarly affects their world view and perception. If you don’t agree — find two people who have drastically different definitions of the word “liberal,” yet have similar world views and perceptions.
Since expanding my definition of friendship, I’ve noticed that I have organically added qualifiers to the intimacy of my relationships. These days, someone may be a “friend,” “good friend,” “close friend,” or “best friend.” In all, I have way more friends than I used to — almost exclusively due to how I define a friend.
This advice does come with one warning: if you consider someone your friend, you must also consider yourself their friend. This means that if they reach out to ask you a favor, you act in the same manner that you’d expect them to. After all, friendship is a two-way relationship. Friendships also aren’t transactional — we don’t keep score of favors given and received or hold the conviction that our friends “owe” us anything. Phony friends are usually transparent and easy to spot — and if you don’t approach friendship in a genuine and authentic way, you’ll damage both your career and your personal life.
If you’re able to adjust your vocabulary to be more inclusive and positive when working with others, chances are you’ll treat them better and realize the long-term benefits of having so many additional friends. So, what do you say, friend?