How to Treat Your Friends

Take some cues from ancient Rome to make and keep allies in the workplace.
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Editor's note: Welcome to our weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

Ancient Roman advice dictates, "Treat your friend as if he might become an enemy." In terms of etiquette (if not affection), Publilius Syrus might have been on to something when he wrote this in his

Maxims

way back in 42 B.C.

Some might read Publilius as a suggestion to play your cards close to the vest, but Miss Conduct also reads it from the perspective of not giving friends reason for grievance in the first place.

After all, friends keep us afloat in not only our social lives, but also in the business world. They are also a prime source of references, leads, resources and solutions -- so just on the bottom line they deserve highest priority. Not to mention they lift our spirits, bet us a Starbucks we can't make it to that ghastly Monday meeting on time and help us bear up under the leadership of our utterly perfect

bosses.

Unfortunately, our interrupt-priority existence often means we remember to celebrate our prospective clients' anniversaries, but forget our best friends' birthdays.

So in the spirit of friendship, Miss Conduct offers the following amicable reminders to keep your work mates from becoming checkmates.

  • Return their contact. Phone calls, emails, instant messages, waves, smiles and even microscopically raised eyebrows across a tense conference room can signal solidarity. Ignore communication at your peril. If, as marriage expert and couples therapist John Gottman of the University of Washington tells us, healthy relationships maintain a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative encounters even when discussing an area of disagreement, we all need to take every opportunity to stuff our social ballot boxes with happy tickets. The trouble is, clients pay us and therefore go first on the call sheets, whereas we have only bits of time during the workday to keep up with all the old and new pals we accumulate. It's not easy. In order to maintain contact even during a crunch, Miss Conduct sets up codes with her best pals so that she can get back to them later without ruffling anyone's feathers. Sometimes these codes are cryptic, signaling to the bosom companion that our Worst Nightmare is standing in front of us so we cannot speak; sometimes they're obvious, such as replying to a long email message with "Will write as soon as I have time to be funnier."
  • Remember their birthdays. One great boon of the Information Age is the proliferation of automatic message services and computerized calendars. You can now program in advance all the birthday cards you like, and usually do it for free if you can tolerate some advertising. It's not perfect, but it will cover you. (However, these cards are still pretty prosaic, so Miss Conduct likes to find the very tackiest and add her own snarky punch lines.) Some email programs also allow for preprogrammed missives. While this practice may seem hopelessly mechanical to you, think of it as the equivalent of that index card perpetual birthday calendar your grandma kept next to the kitchen sink -- perfect manners didn't come spontaneously to her, either. She just bought cards in advance and kept them in a separate drawer.
  • Take "no" for an answer. No one wants to hang out with -- or work with -- someone who takes everything personally, so learn to at least pretend that you accept rejection with grace. Therefore, if a subject is taboo or an invitation isn't forthcoming, assume like our justice system that the action is innocent until proven guilty.
  • Make them laugh. Interactions are solidified in our memories via the emotions encoded with them, and sometimes the memory of laughter can outlast even the memory of gratitude. So go for the laughs, and you and your coworkers will be healthier for it. As Publilius wrote, "An agreeable companion on a journey is as good as a carriage." Seeing as he was a slave whose master freed him for his wit, we can trust his advice.
  • Compliment them. It's easy to get so caught up in being funny and ribbing our friends that we forget to appreciate them. A well-placed compliment for special thoughtfulness can live on in the recipient's memory long after it's slipped your own mind. The unexpected compliment can also. "Your ability to enjoy a hot dog is positively canine," gets laughs and gives reinforcement; it's a two-for-one tip.
  • Apologize when necessary. If history is any guide, whenever two or more fallible humans interact -- especially not by choice -- there will be problems that often turn into grievances. In these cases, you must apologize as soon as possible, completely and in person if at all practicable. As our pal Publilius wrote, "Confession of our faults is the next thing to innocency," and it's as true via email as it was on the Via Roma.

While we remember Publilius in our everyday speech with commonplace phrases like "familiarity breeds contempt," and "a rolling stone gathers no moss," his and Miss Conduct's ideas on friendship may or may not live on, depending on how many of us follow them.

One additional friendliness note is to remember (if not always follow) the advice your friends give, since they know you best. After all, Publilius also wrote, "Many receive advice, few profit by it."

Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at

AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.