Does Your Office Have a Clique?

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

My first real job was at a small newspaper in Nashville, Tenn. You know the cliché that all Los Angeles waiters are aspiring actors? Nashville is exactly like that, but instead of actors it’s musicians and instead of waitresses it’s the entire town. If you do business with someone in Nashville, just beware that while they prepare your taxes or approve your bank loan, they’re secretly imagining themselves playing Sweet Home Alabama in front of a sold-out stadium.

Everyone I worked with at the newspaper was in a band, friends with a band, dating someone in a band, or going to see a band later that night. One of our writers and a woman in the art department even formed a fake band, recorded a few fake songs, and had kitschy Glamour Shots-esque photos taken at a store in our local mall. The only difference between their band and a real one was that they never booked any gigs. Actually, for a lot of musicians I knew, there wasn’t a difference at all.

The music group went to lunch together, saw shows together on the weekends, and spent a large part of the workday talking about concerts. After work, they grabbed cheap beers at a dive bar and discussed different types of amps. At the time, I had an indie rock show on a college radio station and just enough music credibility to be invited to most of their outings. But I didn’t actually play an instrument, and when the talk turned too technical or devolved into a gossipfest about random session musicians I’d never heard of, I felt a little left out. Other people in our office were never invited at all. It took me a while to realize it, but my office had a clique.

According to Krystal D’Costa, who runs Scientific American’s blog Anthropology in Practice, people are naturally inclined to form exclusionary clubs and cliques. “We’re programmed to do this,” she says, “We need a sense of security in whatever setting we’re in, and we like to form little networks of people that allow us to define ourselves in the world around us.” In middle school and high school, that need is especially strong. And since children don’t have a wide group of contacts (everyone they know goes to their school), group dynamics can become especially pronounced.

In theory, we expand our social horizons as we age, thus lessening our cliquish tendencies. When we’re old enough to form our own families, they replace our friends as the dominant relationships in our lives. But we also spend a lot of time at work, and if the environment is right—or if a group of people with similar personalities happens to work in the same office—we fall back into the same habits we picked up in school. “Forming a clique isn’t necessarily bad,” says D’Costa, “but when it becomes exclusionary it can be detrimental if there are people who can’t figure out how to belong.”

I liked all the people in my office’s music clique—they were friendly and funny, it’s just that they were deeply involved in the local midlevel music scene in a way that I wasn’t. But not all cliques are as welcoming as they were. I talked to several people who’ve been purposefully excluded from their office’s cliques, and they’re so upset and embarrassed about it that none of them would let me put their names in print. One woman couldn’t even talk about her former co-workers without cussing them out. “All I can say is, f— them,” she wrote me in an e-mail. It seems that even years out of high school, we don’t like to admit when we’re the one forced to eat lunch alone.

If this is the kind of clique you experience in your office, how do you deal with it?

“If a group of people [isn't] including you, try to develop a relationship with each person individually,” suggests Julie Jansen, author of You Want Me To Work With Who? Jansen says that people are much more open to new friendships if you approach them one on one. Instead of trying to tag along at lunch, ask one person in the clique if he or she would like to grab coffee. And don’t worry if it takes them a while to warm up to you. “If you’re new to the office, you don’t have an established social network,” says Jansen, “and it’s not guaranteed that the ones that already exist are going to want to change what they’ve got going.”

Of course, it’s possible that the people in your office won’t want to include you in their group. “If you get resistance, there’s not much you can do,” she says. “You can’t force people to be your friend.”

Maybe not. But you can always buy a few albums and research different types of amps.

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