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“It’s always business, never personal.” That’s what Nino Brown told us in New Jack City, but in real life, the line between professional and personal pursuits is often blurred. Meredith Fineman talked about her frustrations for the Harvard Business Review.

“In this new economy of the personal brand and doing your own thing, everyone is constantly working the room. But it can get confusing as both a single woman and an entrepreneur who works in communications. There are times when I find myself getting drinks or dinner to ‘talk shop’ – but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out: am I on a date?,” wrote Fineman.

There does often seem to be a bit of gray area. Sure, you are going to that networking happy hour or that out-of-state conference to boost your professional life, but if a smart, handsome, ambitious, funny, gentleman chats you up and asks to see you again, is that him asking you out on a date or is that him asking you out to a business dinner? Was he flirting or just being nice?

Situations like those can get sticky, but could be easily averted by asking straightforward questions.  There’s no need to make assumptions that could lead to future awkward interactions. If you are confused about a man’s intentions, you could simply ask him or make your intentions known to him.

But platonic relationships make the professional vs personal terrain more difficult to navigate.  As we saw on the premiere of Blood, Sweat & Heels, the term “friend” can mean different things to different people.  What are your expectations of your friends? What are your expectations of your professional associates? How do grown women, regardless of friend or colleague status, handle conflict?

Of course the situations on Blood, Sweat and Heels have to be taken with a grain of salt because we’re talking about reality television, which means fancy editing, creating story arcs and playing up personality clashes.  Nobody and I mean nobody, would think a brunch conversation filmed for a national television show was private and off-limits for a blog post. We know this. Demetria Lucas did nothing wrong there. But in real life, determining whether someone is trying to be a friend or a friendly colleague can get tricky, especially when people feign friendship for the sake of professional gain.

I work in media and I live in New York. There are a few people in this industry who I consider to be actual friends and there are even more people who I like as people and professionals and I immensely enjoy their company, but we’re not friends—just friendly colleagues. And that’s fine as long as we both treat each other as such and do not conflate being friendly with being friends. The list of folks who I can enjoy brunch with on any given Sunday is quite long, but the list of people who I know will take a call from me at 3 am is much shorter.

In addition to those awesome people, there are folks here who would sell their grandmothers to get a byline in a particular publication or to get X amount of Twitter followers or to get their client’s new product featured on all the blogs.  Those people have tons of “friends,” but those “friends” are only kept around as long as they are useful.

A few years ago, I was toggling in between full-time staff jobs and full-time freelancing. When I had the staff jobs, I met so many new “friends” (they referred to me as such anyway), but once I left those jobs, some of those so-called friends literally never talked to me again.  Their interest in me was about the job, not me as a person. I was fine with that though because I always understood that their interest was strictly business, even if couched in friendship.

For me, the important thing when dealing with those types of situations was understanding that no matter how loose other people were with using the word “friend,” I had to be clear with who I called a friend.  I give and receive emotional support from my real friends. With friendly colleagues, I only really expect professional support and maybe a good laugh every now and then.

Have you ever been confused about whether a man’s intentions were for professional or personal reasons? Have you ever found out a so-called friend was just using you for professional gain?

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.

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  • Jenny

    I had this issue fairly recently when I experienced my first office job. I was the intern, which basically means I got excessive amounts of back/new work and had to take “shit.” It was a very small firm and I felt it would be easier for me to make some real acquaintances and seek out advice for my life post-grad. I got really close with some people. It wasnt until after my internship ended and I asked for a reference, I realized I over estimated the relationship. The one woman who I thought I was the closest with basically directed me to HR rather than gave me a reference. Talk about blurred lines