By Ethics in Tech board member Cristina Deptula
I’m 38 and it’s lonely. Lots of people my age are lonely.
It’s hard sometimes to figure out how to make friends when you’re no longer a student surrounded by lots of people your own age, but not connected to the suburban family and parenting social world either. This is a challenge for autistic people, and plenty of others, who have delayed or opted out of traditional life milestones by choice or financial necessity.
And plenty of people with partners and children can still be lonely if they don’t have close friends.
I’ve always been an extrovert. I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people, talking and putting myself out there. And I’ve made a lot of friendly acquaintances, but throughout my life have struggled to develop relationships that deepened into actual friendships.
When I was younger I thought that talking a lot and being very open about lots of personal matters right away would spark deeper conversations that led to real friendship.
High school teachers, college professors, and later, the ‘chill’ workplace culture in trendy tech firms, encouraged us to share personal stories with people we didn’t yet know well in hopes that everyone would become close friends.
However, while people usually listened politely to me when I shared, doing that didn’t automatically turn people into friends.
On the other hand, my parents are both introverts and are used to much more privacy. They let me know that their generation didn’t share personal information so quickly, especially in the workplace.
Nowadays there’s an emerging ‘introvert culture’ with books and discussions letting people know that it’s okay to be more like my parents, to build relationships more slowly with smaller groups of people.
I’m still an extrovert, but I’ve learned from the introverts I know, including those in my parents’ generation, that staying a bit more reserved at first can actually help me develop authentic friendships.
Since our generation is lonely, we’ve set up social infrastructure for ourselves, particularly in bigger cities. We’ve got Meetups, social media, and networking groups.
Since many of us are also struggling to earn a living, we often blend our work and social lives, setting up casual work environments where everyone wears T-shirts and parties together.
We assume that ‘chill’ and ‘casual’ and ‘fun’ environments won’t have the same kinds of interpersonal problems or discrimination that we’ve seen in traditional workplaces, so we can dissolve the boundaries that used to exist among coworkers and between workers and supervisors. Then, all of our office-mates will be our friends!
But, as I’ve learned from introverts, and from watching people interact in ‘chill’ workplaces, just getting rid of boundaries or playing board games together doesn’t automatically make everyone friends.
As a matter of fact, we can inadvertently create spaces that are even less safe for marginalized people when there’s social pressure to share about one’s personal life with people we don’t yet know well.
There is actual, real internal personal and organizational work that we need to do to build authentic relationships. That work takes time and intention. People need to consciously challenge the preconceptions and biases they have and resolve to be open to change.
And, allowing people, especially those from marginalized identities, to get to know their office-mates gradually and not pressuring them to share details of their lives right away can help build the trust needed for genuine collaboration and respect.
There’s nothing wrong with game nights or movie nights in the office, but they don’t automatically make a space inclusive. Real personal connections and relationships happen gradually for everyone, but especially for people who are different from each other and for people from marginalized groups who haven’t always felt welcome in certain spaces.
It isn’t fair to expect marginalized people to totally open up about everything all at once until they can see that we’re willing to hear and learn from what they have to say. In expecting that level of instant openness, we are actually expecting those who may feel like outsiders to take on a large share of risk to their psyches and careers.
Sometimes lots of opportunities to share personal things about yourself in a work environment can translate into lots more opportunities for a marginalized or minority person to stand out and look different and thus not ‘seem a good fit’ for the company.
I saw this happen in an office where I recently held a temp position. In many office positions, especially temp and call center jobs, there’s a lot of downtime where people have to stay in their seats ready to work if needed. The social norm is that people keep up constant chit-chat with each other all day or look rude and unfriendly.
A middle-aged Black woman made an offhand comment referring to the White, feminist, and possibly autistic/neurodiverse woman sitting across from her as ‘girl.’ She did not mean to insult her, that was how she referred to all female colleagues of any age. However, the woman she addressed became upset at being addressed as ‘girl.’ ‘I haven’t been a girl for fifteen years!’ she asserted.
They became annoyed with each other and got into an argument. They dropped the subject after awhile and would likely have been able to get past it and work together. However, the supervisors overheard, and both women were laid off that night after only two days of work.
Both women were from groups that are marginalized within tech culture and were likely in need of employment and inclusion. And the pressure to interact so personally and so publicly right away with total strangers for so many hours created a situation that exposed them to snap judgement on the part of the supervisors for a personal misunderstanding that could have been worked through in private.
So, it helps to set up social norms that allow for people to set boundaries about how much they want to open up about their personal lives or interact socially in the workplace without feeling stigmatized. Rooms could be set up where people could choose to work quietly rather than chit-chatting, or people could be encouraged to bring books to read, and social event organizers could avoid games that make it awkward not to share personal information.
Also, we should be aware that people from minority groups may choose to ‘test the waters’ to see how truly inclusive a place is.
For example, if there’s a regular movie night, are people open to a suggestion to show a wider variety of movie genres? If the company’s social committee allows for more leeway and inclusiveness there, that’s a positive sign that they’ll be more likely to listen regarding more important issues. There’s an online forum for POC in tech where they discuss asking the companies to add ethnic foods to the lunch caterer’s menu, and when a firm does that, they are seen as having taken a real step towards being more welcoming.
So I encourage managers to consider reframing these requests, which may seem small, as serious attempts to reach out, contribute to, and develop more authentic friendships or colleague-ships with people in the organization.
Some people argue that we have a social responsibility to share some personal things about ourselves, whether or not it helps us build our careers or make friends.
I grew up in evangelical Christianity where our church told us to share our spiritual journeys to spread our faith. If we were too shy to do this, we had to ask ourselves whether we were ashamed of our beliefs. Later, when I was in college, our society became more aware of the struggles of people from different identities. There was pressure for people from marginalized or minority groups to claim those identities and talk about their experience in public, otherwise they might have internalized society’s oppression and become ashamed of who they were.
I see the wisdom in encouraging people not to hide major parts of themselves, for their own well-being and to help expose and lessen social stigmas. Still, though, I’ve found that being a little more reserved at first can actually help me better speak up for the groups to which I belong.
If I only share a few things about myself at a time and let people get to know me first, if I open up to others about as much as they’re opening up to me, then I can better define myself on my own terms.
When I come right out and identify every group I belong to at once, sometimes people’s stereotypes of my identities get in the way. They’ll react to me based on who they think I am, not who I actually am. For example, when I tell strangers I’m Christian they sometimes think, incorrectly, that I am prejudiced against LGBT people or have certain political beliefs. Or, when I tell them that I’m autistic they think I don’t want to socialize.
That, to me, is the value of ‘small talk.’ It doesn’t just have to be a way to pass the time. It allows me to mention a topic and figure out how open someone might be to hearing about it, or how they might already feel about my faith tradition or about autism. And it’s a chance for me to gauge someone’s mood, whether it’s a good time to bring something up.
Unlike the situation in the office where the temps were expected to chit-chat for eight hours a day, brief small talk can be a way to test the social waters.
Again, I’m not saying that the solution is to only ever make brief small talk at work and sit silently in your cubicles. But intimacy, friendship and colleague-ship are two-way streets.
Workplaces need to make the effort to be truly inclusive while respecting people’s boundaries about sharing personal time and information.
Doing the internal and external work to challenge our prejudices and build cultures of acceptance and welcome will help us build genuine friendships. That, and self-acceptance and self-respect, can help us overcome loneliness.
Not everyone is going to be everyone’s best friend, and that’s okay. This work is important, though, in our private lives and in public spaces, including workplaces, to create a just and inclusive world.
Part of that work, as I’ve learned over the years from introverts, involves setting up structures that allow all of those who share space with us to set their own social boundaries.
Then all of us, from all of our diverse backgrounds and identities, can feel safe, welcome and confident. We can then join in building a world that’s stronger for incorporating and embracing the best of all of our perspectives.