piece of work

How Complaining Turns Co-workers Into Friends

Photo: Fotostorm Studio

Piece of Work is a column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.

There comes a moment in every burgeoning office friendship when you and your co-worker begin to dance around the idea of talking some serious shit. Usually, it starts with a generic work complaint (think: “I have so much to do lol”) and grows gradually more pointed until both parties realize they are ready and willing to get into it. Then there is the relief and the self-conscious laughter (i.e., “omg I was tiptoeing around that”), and then, finally, the volcanic stream of gossip and complaints. Among the many categories of transitional co-worker/friend moments, this is my favorite. It is at this moment that you know you’re getting somewhere, socially, with someone: Maybe you are not quite yet real friends, but you are no longer just co-workers.

But what makes these moments feel so special, and how do we select the people we share them with? Talking shit about work with a co-worker involves some element of risk — every office has at least one Dwight, who’s all too eager to report back to the boss — so how do we decide when it’s safe, and who to drag into the mud with us?

Patricia Sias, a communications professor at the University of Arizona who researches workplace friendships, echoes my thinking that moments like these mark an important transition between two formerly professional-only peers. Let’s call it the Co-worker-Friend spectrum: The moment when you realize you can openly complain about work with a person is the moment at which you tip over the midway point into Friend territory. Like all friendships, in which the self-disclosure stage marks shared trust, workplace friendships get more serious when co-workers feel free to (pardon me) get real. “My research shows that when people start talking about problems at work, and complaining to each other, that tends to propel a friendship into very close levels,” says Sias. “That requires a lot of trust.”

This is not to say that workplace friendships are formed only by shared disdain for someone or something in the office. Working in close physical proximity to one another and working together on projects (especially regularly) are still two of the strongest factors driving workplace friendships, says Sias. Still, one could also consider these earlier steps across that same Co-worker-Friend spectrum. When you interact with someone regularly, says Sias, you get to know them better by “personalizing,” or asking easy, innocuous nonwork questions, like, “How was your weekend?” It’s only after growing close enough through talking about not-work that two co-workers are able to circle back around to the subject of work, only then with newfound frankness. In the early stage, when co-workers are chatting about family and vacation and movies, they’re getting a sense of each other’s values and personality. From there, they can more easily decide whether the other person is trustworthy. It’s like a game, and according to Sias, most of us are naturally pretty good at it.

“People are pretty savvy, and they pick up on their co-workers’ clues pretty well,” says Sias. (This could be anything from an exchanged eye roll to the always apt upside-down smiley emoji.) In research on friendship maintenance, Sias has found that most people are well aware when a co-worker/friend wants to decrease their involvement in the friendship, just as most people are pretty aware when a co-worker is interested in pursuing a friendship. “Employees tend to recognize these moves and hints and little invitations for closeness,” she says. While being at work adds a different, complicating dimension, it’s an interaction we’ve practiced since we were kids. “We’ve been doing this since high school,” Sias explains.

While engaging in workplace complaining and gossip might be viewed (not unfairly) as a mostly negative, petty behavior — who’s sleeping with whom, who’s a relentless suck-up, etc. — Matthew Feinberg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, says there is such a thing as good work gossip. He calls it “pro-social”: gossip that, whether we’re conscious of it or not, “serves the purpose of spreading reputational information to help deter or keep people that are bad news in check.” While nonwork friends are less likely to share a mutually disdained authority figure, friends who formed a relationship by working closely together often do. In many cases, the resulting complaints may be just that, but in others, gossip between co-worker-friends may serve a genuinely altruistic purpose: a warning to avoid working with a certain creepy person, or salary information that could lead to fairer pay.

In fact, says Feinberg, the urge to spread this kind of information is built into our DNA. “What we find in the research is that when you witness somebody behaving in a selfish or unfair way, you go through a variety of processes that compel you to engage in the spreading of information about that person,” he says. “You’re angry, and your heart rate jumps up when you witness this stuff, but if you spread that information, it actually goes back down.” If you don’t gossip, says Feinberg, your heart rate and emotional arousal remain high — not forever, but longer than they would have if you’d told somebody. I always knew gossip was good for you!!

This is not to say there are no downsides to unbridled negativity. (Supposedly, prolonged complaining about work is bad for you, and bad for your morale at work. Sounds like something a boss would say.) We’ve all been part of venting sessions that crossed over the line from energizing to demoralizing, from which everyone goes home dejected and exposed. But if it’s done in service of making a (better) friend at work, and having some friends at work is good for you, isn’t complaining, then, a net positive? If you ask me, yes. And if you don’t agree, I will find someone who does, and I will talk about you with her.

How Complaining Turns Co-workers Into Friends