What is a friend anyway?
You can’t be friends with your employees.
Don’t compare your workplace to a family.
Don’t go into business with friends.
You need to be a parent, not a friend.
You’re a volunteer, not a friend.
If you want a cheerleader call a friend. If you want an editor, call me.
Friends should give you honest feedback. Not shallow compliments.
Do you need a friend or an accountability partner?
What is a friend?
Moving to Philadelphia for a job where no one seemed to care what I did in New York specifically because Philadelphians hate New York, was hard. In my first week, an employee emailed me that they didn’t appreciate “some hot shot from New York” coming to their beloved city and telling him how to do things.
I showed up four months pregnant to my first day on the job. I was brought to process in my ninth month for asking if someone needed a mental health accommodation. Note: this is something you are never supposed to do unless they disclose their mental health disability, explicitly, first. You’re not their friend. You’re their boss. I heard this so many times my first year I will throw up if I hear it again. As for the process, after I came out of labor, I had a few emergency meetings with the executive committee (and how hilarious is the word “emergency” in the shadow of post partum), and we all figured out a way to make the parties happy. I started to think the organization was doing better without me there.
I’m not going to complain that being the highest paid employee of a generally venerated organization is hard, but I will tell you it was excruciatingly lonely.
Hardly anyone I met in my first year in Philadelphia cared that I had personal interests outside of the organization. I took this personally. I avoided my employees and partners like a plague. Resented their inability to see my humanity. I tried to make friends outside of work, only to be confused by their general lack of enthusiasm for my interests. Everybody I met appeared to be a functionary in the non-profit world. I once made the fatal mistake of asking “where are the cool things happening?” LOL I think I’m still not allowed back at whatever happy hour where I said it.
I missed my New York friends so much. Our parties were the best. Where the hell were these parties in Philadelphia and why was no one inviting me. I spent more weekends in New York than not. My pregnancy was a hilarious detail and not a liability. But my having so much fun in New York perpetuated the image of my looking down at Philadelphia. I probably did. Well anyway, Philadelphia, I no longer look down on you. Will you forgive me.
I learned to embrace the word peer. I become friends with peers. Peers with whom I had more in common than just job descriptions but who had no vested interest in my workplace. These peers eventually became confidantes. And I made a vitally important self-discovery. My peers were artists.
I missed hanging with artists. And god, I know how pretentious this sounds, but it’s oh so much worse than you think. It’s like this: I do not want to talk about work. I do not want to talk about potential partners. I don’t even want to talk about other artists who should show at my organization. I especially do not want to talk about my fucking baby. And I do not want to talk about the city of Philadelphia unless it’s to identify the best banh mi.
I want to gossip. I want to criticize art. I want to make fun of you. I want to make bad decisions and I want to late cancel plans with other people just to stay another hour in your back yard. I want to see what you’re working on. I want you to show me the shit no one else sees. I want to share my writing. Sure, I want to hear some meaningful feedback, but more than anything I want to be told to spend more time on my practice. I always want to hear that. That is what a friend does, I think. In fact there’s a particular response to sharing art, that I find kind of hilarious. Hilarious as in, nothing makes me want to die more than this feedback. It’s when someone says:
Aww. That’s nice.
Maybe that’s what someone meant when they said a friend doesn’t dole out shallow compliments. So, what is a friend? I still ask myself this question, nearly every day. I ask it because I wonder if we are friends. Would you describe me as a colleague? A peer? A boss? A hot shot from New York who still looks down on Philadelphia? A person of interest? Is a friend someone I can telephone at any point and ask for help? How inappropriate would it be if I called you right now? Late at night?
I would be honored to call my employees, friends. Truly. I hope they all feel comfortable inviting me to their birthday parties. I am delighted that I’m both my son’s buddy and parent. I expect my friends to hold me accountable and tell me to stop when I’m about to grenade, but also to signal boost when I am about to volcano. I don’t mind shallow compliments but even more important is a tacit acknowledgement of work being forged. And let’s tell each other things no one else needs to hear.