Defining Relationships in Work and Beyond

Last week, the conversation at Chomp & Chat – a weekly, agenda-free gathering of folks who read my newsletter – focused mostly on individual definitions of “family” and “friends,” words that some felt were over-used and over-generalized and others felt were as flexible as the people who use them.

It was an interesting complement to a conversation that happened on LinkedIn the week before about what it means to treat networking as relationship-building when we have time and energy that may well be more limited than our needs for clients.

In both cases, there was an implication of boundaries: These people belong and those don’t.

And, to a large extent, I agree. My friends, by my strictest definition of the word, are a tiny and intimate circle that, roughly defined, includes those I trust enough to reach out to on my rotten days. My warmest acquaintances, by contrast, are nifty people I enjoy spending time with but with whom I have yet to, perhaps never will, develop the trust for the most raw of vulnerability.

Networking, to me, is about opening the door to people with curiosity. It’s dipping a toe in the relational waters with a wide breadth of possibilities swimming between us. Might we find ways to support one another professionally? Perhaps we’ll discover that, beyond business, we enjoy the occasional conversation over coffee and make a point to meet up a couple/few times a year. Maybe we’ll even luck into deeper instinctive intimacy, one that leads us to continue delving into the conversation and connection, the kind that can incubate warm acquaintanceship or even friendship. Or maybe we’ll find that we’re not only not birds of feather but that we’re full on allergic to one another’s dander.

But we’ll only know if we open that door.

And family? Family reminds me a little bit of the Random Shuffle feature on the original iPods. True randomness means that some songs will be played over and over and others will never make the cut, not because of AI musical preferences but because that’s just how true randomness is. But this irked early iPod users who actually wanted Random but Even Distribution. We didn’t know that’s what we wanted; we only discovered it through our discomfort as we heard the true Random Shuffle.

With family, what we don’t consciously know is that we want not humanness but perfection: Parents without neuroses, siblings and extended family who love us without condition or reservation, kids who always see us as whole people. And yet, so far as I can figure, what family actually is comes as close to wholeness as anything we experience. Big love, big vulnerability, and big hurt as baggage bangs against baggage and our hope for perfection is confounded by humanness again and again.

I am a word nerd, through and through. I believe words and how we use them matters. I love delving into the specificity of words’ nuanced definitions. I can get behind the banner of the Tom Robbins character who ranted, “There is no such thing as synonyms!… Deluge is not the same as flood.”

And yet, when it comes to our human web of interconnection – this net in which we and all opportunity cohabit – I find that I care less about the language and more about the presence. What point is there in defining categories of connections if we don’t make the time, space, and effort to invite people into our realm in the first place?