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The Sad Reality of Friends Versus Acquaintances

It’s hard to tell who really likes you or why.

Social scientists and psychologists who study relationships often suggest that most of us can only really manage 7 to 10 people in our lives at any one moment. Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell has made a similar point in his book, The Tipping Point, 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.

Source: StockfreeImages.

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, 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 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 child 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 human resources 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'll 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.

  • Have you ever been to their home?
  • Do you ever get together on the weekends?
  • Have you ever met their spouse, partner, or kids?
  • Do your kids and theirs ever interact?
  • Do they remember your birthday or other significant events in your life?
  • Have they ever bought you a gift based on their remembering how you liked that thing?
  • Have they ever done you a small favor, just out of kindness, and expected nothing in return?
  • Do they ever call, email, or text just to say hello, or is it only when they need something or want to talk about a business issue?
  • Do they invite you to lunch, dinner, or drinks with no ulterior motive other than they like being with you?
  • Do they ask you real questions about your life goals and plans?
  • Do they ask what you’re working on and seem sincere in their interest?
  • Do they have the kind of listening skills that real friends have, or do they spend most of their time waiting for you to stop talking?
  • When you leave them after getting together or after a phone call, do you ever feel slightly used?
  • Do they put their need for their money before your friendship?
  • Do you always pick up the check at the bar or the restaurant, because they want to play the “colleague role” instead of the real friend role?
  • Do they only call or contact you when they or someone in their family are in trouble?

Life is short. Pick your acquaintances, colleagues, and real friends wisely.