What matters to single people in the time they spend away from work?
In a previous post, I described a study in which 36 managers and professionals who live alone were interviewed at length about balancing their work life with life outside of work. One of the most important themes to emerge from those interviews was a matter that has been mostly missing from previous discussions: the significance of friendship.
One single person after another told the researchers that their friends are very important to them and that they cared about cultivating enduring and meaningful friendships. One man said:
“I like the idea of turning round when I’m 50 and having had relationships which have lasted 25 years, just really solid friendships.”
The participants in the research recognized something that people in their workplaces often did not: cultivating and maintaining close friendships takes time. People who live alone want to be able to devote time and attention to their friends, just as their married coworkers want to be able to tend to their spouse, and their coworkers who are parents want to tend to their children.
Maintaining a circle of friends can be especially challenging in cultures in which romantic relationships are valued more than friendships. People who become romantically involved sometimes marginalize their single friends, or just ditch them.
In the workplace, when relocations are necessary, employers often look to their single employees, seeing them as untethered to the place where they live. Bosses who think that way are oblivious to the importance of friends in the lives of their single workers.
One of the men in the study explained to the researchers what relocation had meant for him:
“It took me a long time to make friends, that was the biggest problem to be honest, it took me getting on for 12 months to really make any friends who I could socialize with on the weekends.”
One of the women said this about what it takes to make new friends:
“…you’ve got to really think about where am I going to meet these people that I’m going to really like, and really focus on your hobbies and that type of thing. And really put a lot of energy into those people when you actually meet them.”
Think about the quote you just read.
If you saw it standing alone, out of the context of this discussion, what would you think? I bet a lot of people would think this person was talking about finding a romantic partner.
One of the things I loved most about the study I’m describing is that it was a true testament to the significance of friendship in the lives of people who are single. Some of the single people in the study did care about becoming romantically involved. Women who wanted to marry and have kids were especially concerned about the implications of waiting too long to try to have kids. They wanted their employers to be sensitive to the time they needed to devote to pursuing the goals that were so important to them. And yet, across the 36 participants, tending to friends seemed to be a greater concern than pursuing romance.
Developing meaningful friendships means spending time with friends, often doing things that are fun. Maybe that’s one of the reasons friendships are treated dismissively by employers. (Do they think that romantic partners got to know each other by doing things they hated?)
Friendship, though, isn’t just about socializing and having fun. Friends want to be there for each other in times of need. To do so, though, they need the same flexibility that is so often accorded, no questions asked, to workers with children.
In the UK study, the single people living alone said that their concerns, such as their desire to be there for their friends, were sometimes seen as less legitimate than the concerns of their coworkers who were married or had children. If they were in the U.S., those difficulties would be compounded by legal obstacles. In workplaces covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, spouses can take time off to care for each other, but single workers cannot take time off to care for friends, nor can friends take time to care for them.
In the social sciences, the study of relationships is dominated by the study of romantic relationships. The results of this study of singles in the workplace is just one demonstration of the importance of doing better than that.
“Relationship” is a big word, that applies to all sorts of interpersonal ties, such as relationships with friends, relatives, colleagues, mentors, and neighbors. Those non-romantic relationships are more important to people’s lives than most scholars have recognized.