Striking the Right Balance


The work culture in my office is very collaborate and supportive. And although I appreciate the fact that everyone is young and friendly, this atmosphere makes it easy to forget what topics are work-appropriate. The teams are very close and often blur the line between work friends and real friends. This is great but it also means that people will share stories about getting drunk at the bars or hitting up a cute boy at a party. Most people talk very loud and there are no walls in our space. This means I can hear entire conversations. I had a similar office set-up when I interned for a start-up last year but my supervisor was very explicit about what topics were work-appropriate. Partying was not one of them.

The willingness to share extends to my team. Over dinner we had a long conversation about the dating app, Tinder. “Dating” might not be the right word; it was also referred to in our conversation as a “hook-up app.” The conversation also involved pregnancy (a few people at dinner were parents) and current dating situations. I’m glad my team is comfortable having these conversations around me but I’m not sure how to respond. I keep thinking back to Alexandra Levit’s book They Don’t Teach Corporate in College when she mistakenly thought her co-worker was her best friend.

I’m trying to find the balance between acting professional and actually being a real person. Right now, I’m leaning towards professional. I listen to the stories about boyfriends and bars but I don’t contribute. The only time I share things about my personal life is when I’m explicitly asked. And even then my answers are pretty mundane. I keep reminding myself that a conversation about boys is not an appropriate one to have with your supervisor, even if she asks.

I think most of our work environments are fairly casual and I was wondering if anyone had a similar experience. Either way, what’s your take on this situation?

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10 Responses to Striking the Right Balance

  1. pdxsx says:

    Sometimes sharing a little bit of tasteful personal information can help establish a solid bond. Clearly your coworkers are all very comfortable with each other and that if probably from two things: 1) length of time knowing one another (you can’t rush this) and 2) shared experiences (you can’t rush this either). The real secret is taking the time to get to know one another well enough to take a risk and share something personal. 🙂

  2. Like we discussed at lunch earlier this week. I also struggle sometimes with this balance. My office is at once both uptight and laid back. Some people are wearing suits and other are wearing workout clothes. Sometimes the conversation is strictly business and other times people are joking about buying a bag of weed with their paycheck! It’s made it hard for me to find my balance so far.

    My strategy: be the most professional person in every situation until given specific clues that it’s okay to be more informal.

    For example: I would never curse around my coworkers unless the situation occurs that everyone seems to be cursing. (As it did at a work happy hour the other day.) My interpretation? That it’s alright to be a little more conversational during company events that take place outside the office (and when alcohol is involved!)

  3. jroger10 says:

    I like that! My colleagues usually talk about taking their kids out for Earth Day or how they’re doing in college. Also hard to contribute to when I am closer to their kids’ perspectives.
    Keep smiling and act professionally 🙂 your advice is a good way to react.

  4. I agree with Josh in that sometimes it strengthens the bond if you share personal bits here and there. It doesn’t mean you have to talk about how your love life or serious family situations, but every now and then personal things can be brought up in a tasteful way.

    I also think you’re very wise for being careful and maintaining a filter. It shows your professionalism and your respect for your co-workers AND yourself.

    You brought up some great points. As always, thank you for sharing! I love reading your work! 🙂

  5. I think your handling the situation great! I think its perfectly fine to share things about yourself or some of the things you do for fun. A few people I work with have asked similar questions or where I like to go out which is hard to avoid. I’ve tried my best to defer my answers by switching the topic and discussing my hobbies or outdoor activities. I know its a tricky spot to be in especially because we are interns but I think your doing a fine job just don’t be afraid to be you!

  6. Kaitlin,

    I think it’s always good to play it safe. It’s hard to tell sometimes though, because at the same time there are some (maybe few) topics that may be tame enough to contribute. You want to sound like you are a normal person without share way too much information. I tend to over analyze what I say at work, maybe because I work with people who are all at least 20-25 years older than me and they may not know the context I’m speaking in. But I contribute where I can and crack jokes when appropriate! Like it said it’s always good to play it safe and be totally aware of the situation you’re in. It usually it’s takes a month or so to to adjust to the environment at a new job as well as the people. I’m sure it of feels right to say then you will be okay!

    Hope this helped ease your mind.

  7. simonemyers says:

    Kaitlin,

    I agree with both Josh and Kaylee that engaging in conversation on more of a personal level will result in a better understanding of the people you work with (it happened at my internship), but I do understand you wanting to have your guard up. There is a fine line between business and friendship; and we don’t want to break our professional rapport. But I do believe that once we know the people we’re working with better, the partnership becomes more effective.
    From the way you’ve explained how things are going, it seems like you’re doing great!

  8. cbuch232 says:

    I think it’s important to adapt to your environment. In a high level corporate situation where there are strict ground rules and extreme competition, I think it would be best to remain as professional as possible. But it sounds like your situation is more casual. Based on your post, I don’t think if would hurt you at all to open up about your personal life a bit, as that seems like the norm. Still, maintaining a professional demeanor can never be too detrimental. Thanks for the interesting post!

  9. Kaitlin, I understand this dilemma. I’m usually really open with people, especially when I spend a lot of time with them, so I struggle with this all the time. I have little things on my mind all the time, like finding an apartment or finding time to visit my boyfriend in Washington, that I end up telling co-workers about. So far they’ve been accepting of me talking about my personal life and even check up on me! However, I do think it’s a good idea to keep personal life, especially feelings, to a minimum because you have to work with your co-workers everyday. I think once you’ve gone out for coffee, you can let loose a little more, but you’re totally write Kaitlin, like Alex wrote about her experience with a co-worker, they might not always feel as friendly towards you as you are. (But honestly, I thought Alex’s co-worker was too harsh and extreme. Having friends and a support system at work is good, don’t you think?)

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