Friendship in the Making

Prior to moving abroad five years ago, I tended to socialise with friends from outside of the work setting. This wasn’t anything necessarily deliberate and also didn’t mean that I had drawn a thick line in the sand separating work and home life (I still developed friendships with colleagues too!), but it was just the way things worked out at the time. Saying that, since working in the environment that I have in Vietnam, I have become more aware of drawing a line of some sort between my work and home life, if just to avoid some of the anxieties surrounding office social cliques. Something that I feel is heightened when in an environment such as the one I worked in.

***

It was Friday night and the last day of the formal induction period for the new staff and the school had arranged a social evening on site for all staff to get acquainted. I had been in Vietnam for less than a week and whilst still suffering some of the effects of jet-lag during the week, I had also been busy setting up my classroom, opening a bank account, filling in countless pages of paperwork for work permits and health insurance, and generally finding my feet.

It was the first time that I was going to properly meet many of the existing staff and the event was going to test aspects of the social anxiety I sometimes experience in novel situations. I can remember heading for safety once I arrived into the arms of the group of other newbies, but after a couple of drinks I ventured out to do some meeting and greeting. Alcohol can be good like that.

I managed to chat to a significant proportion of colleagues over the course of the evening, who provided valuable insights into adjusting to life in Vietnam, plus gossip was traded about the underbelly of the school itself, a necessary rite of passage when you start at any organisation. But it was at this time that I also made what turned out to be a classic social faux pas, I chose not to continue the merriment at a club in the city, having turned down the invite from an existing colleague Jane. I was tired from the amount of information that I had absorbed over the course of the week, and also from having to maintain the friendly work face to a heap of new people, so I just wanted to go to bed. At the time I thought little of it.

It was only a few weeks later at a birthday celebration for a colleague who had arranged afternoon tea when I noticed something was up. I joined a group of female staff on the taxi ride as we all lived in the same staff accommodation. After making a few attempts at small talk, I realised that I wasn’t gaining any ground, and in particular, Jane appeared to actively excluding me from participating in any conversation, with chat focusing quite deliberately on their activities over the weekend. I tried to push down the feelings of discomfort and hold onto the fact that I was 31 and not 14 years old. Surely, I wasn’t getting blanked?

Well, it turned out my intuition was correct and I was getting blanked because as soon as we arrived at the venue, the group scuttled to the last remaining seats at the table leaving myself and one other colleague who had also arrived in the same taxi without a place to sit. Heather had been sat up front on the journey and so although we had been introduced and chatted before on a few occasions, we didn’t know each other very well.

The woman who’s birthday we were celebrating immediately came over for a chat before apologising about the lack of space on the main table. Subsequently, the cafe owner sat Heather and me together with another late-comer to the gathering on a table a few metres away, where, aside from a few people passing to stop and chat over the course of the afternoon on their way to the bathroom, we were largely on the periphery of the action.

It was a strange and memorable afternoon for a number of reasons, but two things stand out now that I look back. Firstly and most importantly, I discovered a wonderful connection with Heather that day and we are still incredibly good friends, and secondly, it transpired that the reason for the cold shoulders from the rest of the group was due to the fact that they saw me as ‘boring’, because I hadn’t hit the clubs with them a few weeks previously. It was, in fact, Heather who told me this, and at the time, her admission upset me. I couldn’t even see past how ridiculous the whole thing was for a long time afterwards. But perhaps the craziest thing in all of this was that Jane didn’t appear to see past this too, and she would barely exchange two words with me when we passed in a corridor at work during the entire academic year, although she did seem happy enough to glare at me instead. I felt like a teenager again who had been refused a seat at the popular kid’s table (quite literally in the case of this particular birthday party).

The events at the birthday party and other situations that followed involving Jane and this particular group of women were reminiscent of the film of ‘Mean Girls’, and as much as I tried to ignore the feelings of inadequacy that tended to bubble up after yet another awkward encounter, things only became easier when she left at the end of that academic year. Looking on the bright side, at least I wouldn’t have to see her again.

***

Part of me wonders if it is the nature of working abroad and moving in a transient foreigner/expat (I am not a particular fan of the latter term) bubble that means relationships develop out of necessity to connect in the first instance than any real, true bond. I would partly agree with this sentiment because as humans we all have a desire (more like biological need) to connect with others and much like dating, you may have to look around and dig deep to find people who you share common interests with. However, saying this I did make some wonderful friends in my (now) previous teaching position, and many of whom I worked with fairly closely at a curriculum level.

As much as I found aspects of the above experience and others difficult and confusing during my time at the school, it taught me a number of things (as life is all about looking for those lessons when looking in the rear mirror, right?). Firstly, good friends are hard to come by and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have reached a point in my life where I don’t have the energy to deal with friends who are continually flaky with their time for me or friends that want only a superficial connection. It’s those friends that have your back during the good and the bad (and hopefully assume that you’re not boring because you don’t want to attend a social event), that make a friendship worthwhile.

Secondly, I have finally realised that not everyone is going to like me. Gosh, this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn! As a fully paid up member of the people pleaser club and having spent a significant chunk of my teens, twenties and dare I say it, my thirties too worrying about what someone else thinks of me, it makes me want to scream. That’s not to say that the mental energy was all completely wasted, it is sometimes important to at least consider another person’s viewpoint of something you may have said or done but when it verges on obsession (as it has at times with me), it becomes thoroughly exhausting. That mental energy could have been better spent elsewhere.

To that end, I am going to be more self-aware of the bonds I create and particularly the ones I actively foster with colleagues when I start my new position.

  • Names have been changed
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REACHING OUT

As I introduced in my previous post, I am a little over halfway through a course intended to help me to make an eventual career shift. I have found the missions so far exciting, thought-provoking, and some others a little odd (with me wondering ‘How will doing this help?’). But overall, I am enjoying the process. Significantly, it is encouraging me, actually it is forcing me to question things about myself – my likes, dislikes, and my path to date in terms of my career and other related areas.

One of the earlier missions in the course was to actively search and reach out to people who may be already working in my fields of interest. This was to get a feel for their line of work and discover if it was something that I might want to investigate further.

Sounds pretty straightforward? Just throw out the emails and wait for a torrent of responses…

Well the universe and my thinking don’t work like that; would the people whom I contacted actually reply? Hadn’t they got better things to be doing than answering a random woman’s email? These were just two of my initial misgivings about the mission, but all of them pretty much centered on people not responding.

All in all, I was feeling fairly cynical about the process. But to help overcome the gremlins of doubt and pessimism, I decided to think along the following lines:

  1. WHO DID I WANT TO REACH OUT TO?

At this stage, the coaches encouraged us to not limit ourselves and our search for information and vitally, people.

This was perhaps a little easier said than done for someone who feels as though her brain is often a congealed mess of ideas. Therefore I started to do what I do best; I made a list. Lists ground me and provide a vital resemblance of structure for some of the messiness. Although they may not always inherently have ‘a point’ or ‘lead somewhere’, making a list of areas of interest allowed me to spill everything onto a page. It was a starting point.

For me, I found that my some of my core interests were in writing, mentoring/coaching and design. These, having been narrowed down from some of the earlier missions. Once I had done this, I now needed to focus on people – who was I aware of that worked in these areas?

The coaches recommended that this process best works like a hierarchy; at first consider reaching out to people already familiar to you, such as friends and family. These will hopefully be easy to contact and are much more likely to respond. Secondly, get in touch with people who you may have met already in a looser context, an acquaintance for instance or someone you know through a mutual friend. The third and final tier poses potentially more of a challenge. These may be people who you don’t know and it may be difficult to contact and interview; such as celebrities, experts in their field and so on.

  1.  WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO CONTACT PEOPLE?

So I had identified areas of interest, this was all well and good, but how do you go about ‘sourcing’ people (and their details)?

Simply? Research.

Initially, I contacted friends and acquaintances whom I knew were already doing work in these areas (and not necessarily in those highlighted above). I received a response from a few within a matter of hours. This bolstered my confidence and so I also started to reach out to more, including to a few of unknowns (such as authors, journalists and designers) having located their details mostly through their own professional websites. Other good methods included; LinkedIn and even other social media like Facebook.

My research led me down a number of avenues, some of which hit a dead end immediately. For instance, a writer/author that I admire did not provide contact details on her website. The only way to make contact was through her publisher and agent (understandable, when I imagine she receives many emails per day). After a little more research, I realised that perhaps this was one connection that should be put on the backburner, at least temporarily. It was something I could (and still will) go back to once I could put more energy and time into it.

Overall, I found that email was the best and perhaps most straightforward way for me to contact people. I was able to curate my correspondence in a way that showed a part of me in terms of my personality but also ensure that I had covered certain bases, such as making that important request – can I find out more about you and your work?

Some of the people I have got in touch with so far have emailed me back with answers to my questions, I have held Skype meetings, and I have even had some agree to meet in person.

  1. HOW DO I MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION?

There will be people who are too busy (or who may not wish) to reply and so may see your email and send it immediately to the trash. The odds are not necessarily in your favour; you may submit 20 emails and only receive a handful back. It’s a shame, but unfortunately a reality of the process.

However, the personalisation of that initial contact may cause people to stop and put the time together to reply, particularly higher up in the connecting hierarchy. A generic email with little grasp of the person or their work may elicit a response, but something that has been crafted for an individual may enable them to see part of the real you and thus lead to a better chance of a response.

So for this part, I considered carefully why was this person someone I wanted to reach out to in the first place? And what were they doing that resonated with me?

The idea of making a good impression was significant on a number of levels. People who are taking the time to get back to me offering their own nuggets of advice deserve to be met with someone who at least had a sense of purpose, and certainly not see a time-waster. So I ensured that I actually had something to say; what led them to their work, what mistakes did they make on the way and what advice would they offer to those looking to get into that field for instance.

Furthermore, I also ensured that I followed up with the contact shortly after the event. This is not only polite but it also allows a dialogue channel to open up and possibly remain open.

  1. ENJOY THE PROCESS

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reaching out, is to keep reminding myself to enjoy the process. Enjoy meeting new people especially if they work in something that fires up your imagination. And also enjoy the changes that you witness in yourself and others as they make their own career change.

Yes, there are going to be moments of frustration, such as when someone fails to get back to you, or you leave a conversation experiencing a sinking feeling that makes you realise that their line of work is after all not something you wish to pursue. But that is all part of the journey.

My two gremlins named doubt and pessimism still raise their heads every so often; their voices certainly are a little louder when I am tired or feeling fed up, despite receiving some feedback from some amazing sources.

It was a fluke!

Why are you doing this? Isn’t life easier as it is?

And so on.

But when I remind them that part of the shift process is that it’s meant to be fun, it shuts them up fast. As those gremlins are far too serious to understand the idea of fun.

THE COSTS OF AVOIDANCE

I like avoiding stuff.

Difficult stuff, like about what things hurt and upset me. For instance I love to avoid those conversations that you know are going to be tough, but sometimes need to be had, whether it is with yourself or someone else.

I tend to put a smile on things in public, feign happiness and acceptance. But then who doesn’t?

Over a year ago I felt deeply let down by one of my closest friends. Instead of addressing my upset with her about how I had felt treated, what did I do?

I bitched and moaned about her to mostly mutual friends and even some people I didn’t even know that well. I was left (and still am) feeling incredibly guilty, as I had opened up a fragile part of our friendship into the public sphere and permitted others to comment and pass judgement.

But my reason for not speaking to her directly was simple. I didn’t want the confrontation because of the potential explosion that it could cause. So I tried my hardest to avoid it all costs, despite deepening the scars associated with the issue for me. It seemed easier to brush things under the carpet than face them.

Another common avoidance strategy I have is related to my family. Growing up I often felt quite removed from my parents. We clashed over values and how we related to one another, and in turn how love was expressed. Mostly we were a unit of familiarity, which consisted of us getting on with our daily lives, only coming together for dinner and sometimes at weekends for rare trips out. Love was not something easily given and expressed. I knew I was loved, but there were many times when it felt like the love was held at arm’s length or it came with conditions. 

I know that I am being unduly hard on my parents. At times I was challenging, spiteful, I questioned their authority on many unnecessary occasions causing upset not just for me but also between them. Many times I was frankly irritating. So no wonder they wanted to avoid dealing with me. But I found it so difficult to express myself that I turned inward and to writing.

SAFETY NET

I can rationalise my preference for avoidance; it’s a self-preservation thing. If you avoid doing something in the first place, then you won’t be disappointed or you won’t disappoint others. It keeps things safe. It keeps you safe.

But always trying to stay ‘safe’ isn’t always the best way to live.

When I made the decision to move abroad for work, my mother’s first reaction was, ‘Why would you want to do that?’

It has taken her nearly four years and finally a visit to the country that I now call home for her to realise that by staying in the UK, (working and living where I did) was probably the biggest avoidance strategy I could ever make – I was avoiding living my life.

I was living in the shadow of what I thought I was expected to be. The same shadow prevented me from questioning the status quo. I avoided taking my degree choice seriously as it was easier not to, so I opted for something that I thought would bring me success, whatever I believed that was at the time, but it only made me poorer for it (financially but also creatively). I avoided asking myself what I wanted out of a relationship before finding myself a few years into two separate romantic relationships during my twenties and early thirties, before it dawned on me how unhappy I was. And throughout it all I avoided finding out what I am and what I can potentially be.

So I am about to challenge some of the status quo a little more and for the first time in ten years I am going on holiday, alone. I will be travelling without the aid of a friend or partner and only have my mobile phone as a support network.

Saying that I am nervous would be underestimating it.

Why am I doing this? That’s exactly what my mother commented when I told her. In fact anticipating her response, nearly led me to lie and tell her that I was going with Daniel or a friend. But then I would be heading down a well-trodden path right into another circle of avoidance.

I don’t want to keep hiding in the shadows forever, I said to her. And I meant it. 

FRIENDSHIP 101

Ten years ago I started a new job and subsequently met a new circle of friends. Out of what was potentially a large group of people there was a small handful that I became close to and one of whom I clicked with immediately.

Caroline was beautiful, vivacious and generous. She exuded a confidence that I equally adored and envied. We would often find ourselves eating lunch at the same time and would regularly bump into one another in the office corridors. After a few weeks of these stop start meetings, she suggested a drink one day after work, to which I quickly accepted.  

It turned out Caroline and I had much in common; similar-ish backgrounds and upbringing, we were both passionate about the work we did whilst trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This initial drink in a pub quickly became a regular event usually after a pre-drink game of tennis or badminton at the local gym.

As we got to know one another I learnt that Caroline wasn’t happy in her relationship. She had been with Pete for years and she felt that the relationship had run its course. Pete had been out of work for some time and despite doing some odd jobs, in her opinion he hadn’t been active enough to get something more permanent. Aside from the financial aspects of supporting a partner out of work, she felt as though she was doing all of the giving emotionally also.

This last aspect resonated with me. At this time I was also in a relationship with someone whom was emotionally distant and maintained a hard exterior even when we were alone. Of course when we met and in the early stages of dating, this aloofness I believed was the sign of a confident character. Perhaps it was an unconscious desire on my part for someone who emulated my father… but that’s a whole other story and for a different post.

This mutual unhappiness in our relationships meant that Caroline and I bonded even more and whilst she jumped straight into dating following her breakup, I stepped back to give myself some time to reflect. Whilst I licked my wounds, I watched as Caroline went from date to date. In her words, she was making up for lost time. She would regale to me tales of her dating exploits and in a strange voyeuristic way I relished hearing about them all despite a certain degree of jealousy on my part. How could I be as comfortable as her with getting ‘back out there’ I wanted to know.

One of her longest relationships during this time was with an engaged man. She fell head over heels in love with him, jumping when he text/called, cherishing any time that they had together. Their affair continued well into when he married, she believed that somehow and with time he would realise the error of his ways and leave his wife to be with her.

However as time went by and it looked increasingly certain that the possibility of him leaving his wife was looking slimmer; his interest having waned, Caroline’s behaviour became erratic. He was all she spoke about and she admitted to texting him throughout the day and night, it was when it transpired that she had been turning up at his work that a mutual friend called an intervention. However despite this, Caroline couldn’t ‘see’ her behaviour for what it was. She was wrapped up in the drama of the relationship and the situation, something she admitted to.

And I am sorry to say at this point but I stepped back. When Caroline needed support and friendship, I found that I couldn’t give it to her. The simple and somewhat selfish fact was that I was worn down by her. The friendship and whirlwind that she embodied had become so twisted that I had begun to resent her. The final straw was when on a night out she seduced one of my oldest and dearest friends and after a few months together unceremoniously dumped him when the married man came back on the scene. She obviously wasn’t ready to move on.

Caroline and I are still in contact, albeit sporadically. We have never spoken about why our friendship fractured, perhaps things would have been different if we had – would we still be friends? Or is it easier this way? To have a type of friendship where we hold back part of ourselves to protect the other. Nevertheless, ultimately our lives have taken us in different directions and to different countries. She was one of the best friends I have ever had, but one of the hardest lessons I learnt is that although great friends are hard to come by, some people join us for the ride for longer than others.

They may be ‘just right’ for a period of time in your life.

  • Names have been changed