Awkward! What if an overly friendly coworker wants to be friends with you now? How can you handle saying “no” to him or her and still work together? Or maybe you should simply give them a chance?
It’s a tough situation to be in. When you have to see someone every day, you certainly don’t want to do anything to create tension. But you also don’t want to wind up with a lifelong friend you don’t especially like just because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Laura’s overly-friendly coworker story
Frustrated and not sure what to do, Laura wrote to ask for some advice. Diane her coworker wants to be friends. But Laura doesn’t really like her. At least not enough to hang out with her for more than a few minutes.
Here is some of what Laura told me:
Laura was sitting alone in the lunch room one day when Diane, new to the company, walked in. Not wanting to seem rude, Laura smiled. And Diane took that as an invitation to sit with her. It wasn’t actually meant as an invitation.
But, wanting to be polite to the new employee, even though she was almost done eating, Laura chatted with her a bit before leaving. From then on, Diane sought her out at the office, acting as if they were friends. They weren’t.
Still, Laura remained polite. But she was increasingly uncomfortable about all the attention from her overly friendly coworker. Then Diane started asking Laura to hang out with her after work. She even got tickets to a show she thought Laura would like. Laura made up a family obligation to get out of it.
Laura has no interest in turning this into a friendship. In fact, she would prefer it if Diane stopped popping over to see her all the time. For her, it’s been a matter of politeness, not mutual interest. And now she’s wondering what she can do — without hurting Diane’s feelings.
Should Laura give Diane a chance?
CONFESSION: Some of my closest, most rewarding relationships have been with people who at first annoyed me — at least a little. That may just be me. But I learned long ago that you shouldn’t write people off too quickly.
That said, we need to be able to set boundaries at work. And if a coworker wants to be friends, and we find that uncomfortable for whatever reason, we need to be able to stand up for our needs.
Spending a lifetime surrounded by friends that you accumulate out of politeness or unwillingness to say “no” would be a drag. Friends should complement us and nourish us. They are a wonderful, life-enriching choice. Not a weighty obligation.
How do you avoid the “coworker wants to be friends” trap?
Although we can’t go back in time, Laura made some mistakes from the beginning. So let’s take a look at some of the key moments she unwittingly gave the “go-ahead” signal — both in how she acted and body language.
The moment she smiled warmly and held Diane’s eyes (trying not to be rude), she was sending out what Diane saw as potential friend cues. Of course, to Laura this was mere politeness. But she could instead have smiled and looked quickly back down at her own plate. Especially since she was almost done.
Diane might still have come over, but it wouldn’t have been as awkward for Laura to smile again, but this time with just a slight nod in Diane’s direction. Then she could simply offer a polite “I’m sorry” as she gets up, saying something like she needs to go to a meeting. Or has work to do.
Wouldn’t Laura be missing a chance to meet a new friend?
The answer is maybe. And it’s worth thinking about. No need to jump to conclusions if you have any doubts. Then again. the person will probably be there the next day also. So what’s the rush?
I once met one of my best friends in a work lunchroom. He was saying really funny things to someone at the other end of the table. I laughed and made a quick comment. But I didn’t plop myself next to him at that time.
Instead, I waited until the next time we met. And we both showed interest in getting to know each other better based on each of us sharing a comment and our eyes meeting as we smiled, No … not a romance. Just budding mutual connection that turned into real friendship over time.
About those cues
The thing is, not everyone gets social cues, and so it pays to be a bit slow to jump into a friendship at first. Especially at the office. Where you will see the person every single day!
But if someone is missing all the cues or you are sending wrong cues to be “polite,” that can get pretty messy. And in some cases downright ugly. It’s fun to find a new friend. But if it’s truly going to work, you might as well take it slowly to avoid those “uh oh” moments.
A few cues to be aware of when you first meet someone:
- Sustained eye contact and / or deep eye contact
- Big smile while connecting to the other person’s eyes
- Touching the other person’s arm (or anywhere else!)
- Eagerly leaning in toward them all the time when they speak
- Talking to them overly energetically as if you’ve known them forever
- Sharing personal secrets and / or office gossip right away
- Being a “close talker” (from Seinfeld episode)
- Giving them personal advice, especially of they don’t ask
- Inviting the other person to something social right away
- Doing anything that feels like a boundary is being crossed too quickly
Now if you do want to become friendly, many of these are good cues. But if you prefer to keep a distance, at least at first, be aware of any signals YOU are putting out. And be sure to tune into signals the other person is sending.
So what should Laura do at this point?
Well, Laura let it go pretty far. All in the name of being “kind” and “polite.” But looking a little more deeply, sometimes kind and polite are just other words for being afraid to be honest. And being afraid to admit that we are not always so nice and perfect.
Not that you need to be rude. But Diane thinks they’re friends now, based on the actual cues Laura sent her way. And that makes it really hard for Laura to now shift the relationship when a coworker wants to be friends and believes they already are.
But the good news is that it can be done. Slowly. Gently. And with awareness of the role we played in sending the wrong signals. Here are two possible approaches, depending on the specifics of the situation:
Approach #1: Laura can make it a point to always be busy or unavailable every time Diane drops by or calls. After a while she’ll probably get the idea, or at least pull back. But, it’s kind of a cowardly approach — not that cowardly approaches are always the wrong choice.
– Down side: Diane may not get the point. Or she may get it and feel hurt. And, if she is not great at cues, she may have emotional issues related to her inability to connect well with people.
– Up side: You can’t take responsibility for the way she handles things. But she may just wind up directing her energy to someone else who would like to be friends. Why continue to lead her on?
Approach #2: This one is based on the truth, but told with as much kindness and respect as possible. Laura could simply tell Diane she likes her, but she doesn’t feel comfortable getting too close to coworkers. And she hopes Diane will understand why she is keeping it office social.
– Down side: Diane still may feel really hurt and, at least for a while, avoid Laura completely. (Which can also be an up side.) And Diane may even badmouth Laura. Still, if Laura stays pleasantly “office friendly” after this, things should level off.
– Up side: You won’t have Diane bugging you all the time. And, again, even if her feelings are hurt, she may get to form relationships that will work better for her.
If you have an approach #3, please feel free to share it with our readers!
A few more thoughts
When a coworker wants to be friends and you don’t, this can ruin your workday. And you wind up carrying a burden based on someone else’s feelings. That’s a habit that can get heavy as time goes on.
So, while it’s best to learn how to pay attention to cues you send and receive from the very beginning, letting it eat at you is not an answer. If you made a mistake, look for a way that is as kind and respectful as possible — to you and to the other person.
Plus, it can be healthy to learn to stand up for your own needs, even if you aren’t always liked by everyone. Always worrying about being liked is a hard way to live. And can be a career-buster. At least you know you’ve handled it as best you can. That’s all anyone can do.
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