I have agonized a lot about why I have not found a good friend at my new institute. In all other social structures I have been in my life for longer than about a year, I have found a person that I trusted and liked and that I still think of fondly today, and this has made all the difference. As soon as I had one good friend, all other people stopped to matter really, and I could relax. I think the flaring up of my social anxiety was mainly due to my failure of finding a good friend.
So I have been trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. And I have realized that it may be less of my fault than I initially thought.
Observing the people around me I have noticed that there is a ridiculously simple way at predicting who will become friends with each other.
I have isolated the following attributes that matter:
- Mother tongue
- Career stage (PhD / postdoc / assistant professor)
- Research group
- Broader field of research
All the pairings around me are between people that share a large part of those attributes. It is as if everyone tries to find the person that maximizes the similarity on all of these attributes.
This must be entirely subconscious; apparently we like people that are similar to us. Of course, that this makes it much much easier for male, early-career, and native speakers in the three most common languages at our research institutes to find friends — they have much more people to choose from. I am on the other hand a minority in almost all the attributes I listed above, being female, having a uncommon mother tongue, being an advanced postdoc.
Of course, there is something more to friendship than only the similarities I list above; there has to be a spark, a connection, and probably also some basic similarities in character, but I have observed — also in my own past friendships — that those matter less, especially for friendships at work.
I have the theory that we only allow such a spark or connection to happen with the people that are at the about top 5% on the similarity scale from all the people we meet. We get to know those better and think we ‘get along’, but of course we would have gotten along with many more people, that we never even started to discover.
To add an extra complication, of course my top 5 % at my institute do not necessarily have me in their top 5 %!
I’m attracted to my top 5% and try to chat with them in the breaks and would like to get to know them better; however, I am probably only in their top 40%, and thus they always find others more interesting than me and they are not interested in getting to know me; I am on the other hand always nervous when I talk to them.
One particularly striking consequence of this is that noone ever asks me any questions. I always start the conversation, ask about their holidays, their opinion on something, their home country and this is never followed by the same question back. Initially, I was totally shocked about this. How inpolite and self-centered those people were!
This might still be part of the reason — indeed, there seems to be a funny conglomaration of self-centered people at my institute. But it is also because I am structurally an outsider, and people, with their stupid primitive monkey brains, do shy away from outsiders.
It is ridiculous, but nothing has shaped the last 2 years of my life more than this, and it has a huge impact on my life satisfaction — it is just not fun to go to work if there is noone I look forward to meeting.
I wonder if this is part of the reason for the famous ‘leaky pipeline‘ when women leave science, although being successful in their field: Maybe it is just because is not fun and also particularly exhausting to work in an environment where it is hard to find friends, and unfortunately it does become harder, of course, with time, as the fraction of women at the same career stage drops.
Of course, one could argue that I need to look for friends outside of my work. But living in a country for only 2-3 years before moving again to the next place does not help with this. Also, it is a huge disadvantage for my work not to have friends that I can very easily collaborate and discuss with. I collaborate with people that are not my friends, but this has its disadvantages.