Hard To Say Goodbye To Office Chums

ALICE STEINBACH

January 23, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

One of the difficulties when separating from good friends, suggested Alexander Pope, comes from the sense of diminishment we feel. This is so, said the 18th-century English poet, because "in every friend we lose a part of ourselves, and the best part."

It's a sad task, bidding farewell to someone you've come to respect and trust -- a friend, in other words.

And, unfortunately, it's a task that's becoming increasingly familiar to more and more of us as corporate America "downsizes." For in a society where so many of us spend so much time at work, losing your job often means losing your friends.

Yet the impact of the loss of good friendships forged on the job seems never to be mentioned in the countless articles describing the plight of workers suddenly faced with finding new employment.

We hear a good deal about the anxiety they feel about money, about finding another job, about health insurance -- but very little about the loss of supportive friends.

Only when we turn on the television and see the body language of employees who have just become unemployed -- standing outside the plant or office where they used to work, they inevitably hug or touch one another -- do we get a sense of this other loss.

True, in the immediate hierarchy of dislocation that accompanies the shrinking of America's work force, the severing of friendships falls, appropriately, behind the more practical fears.

But, in some ways, it is a loss that cuts as deeply as any other.

Think about it: The friend who worked at your side, the one with whom you shared the ups and downs of an environment almost as intimate as that of the family, is gone. And even though others may remain, no friend is interchangeable with another; each is unique.

Recently, like countless others, I have said goodbye to friends who in one way or another got caught up in the economic belt-tightening now going on in this country.

And I maintain there is something special about friendship in the office. For one thing, the daily contact brings with it a hard edge of realism that often is missing from friendships formed in softer, less demanding environments:

At the office you see your colleagues in sickness and in health.

You see them when things are going badly. And when they're going well.

You see how they treat those above them. And those below them.

You see them caught in the unguarded moment.

You see if their sense of perspective is deep enough to sustain them through the unexpected criticism or disappointment at being passed over.

You see whether they are generous in their appreciation of another's work. Or whether they are stingy and envious.

Apropos that last thought: It was Thoreau, wasn't it, who said friends "cherish each other's hopes. They are kind to each other's dreams."

And despite the recent Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle, I maintain the office is still the best place -- perhaps the only place -- where men and women have the opportunity to forge true friendships.

I know that sexual harassment on the job exists. And that women have an uphill climb before they reach executive positions of influence and power equal to that of men. But I also know that among my office friends, many of those who have been "kindest to my dreams" are men.

And with such male friends, I have found part of the answer to the dilemma of what constitutes sexual harassment on the job. With such male friends, there is never any question of whether a comment such as "Your hair looks nice today" carries in it the taint of sexual harassment.

It doesn't. What it carries is the unguarded intimacy found between two friends.

It follows us from sandbox to grave, this need for unguarded intimacy between people, this need for friendship. And even the philosophers and poets cannot define why it springs up or why it doesn't.

Certainly, respect and trust reside in friendship. Playfulness, too. And I'd have to add generosity and empathy to the list of qualities that seem necessary for friendship to flourish.

That they can flourish so abundantly on the job is good news for both employer and employee. It says there are deep, important connections being made at the office. That work, in the end, provides more than just a job.

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