Your coworkers are not your friends (unless they are).

I woke up late and realized that I didn’t have a gift. Today was the company Christmas party and we were doing a White Elephant gift exchange. From what I understood, it means that everyone brings in something they have around the house that they don’t want and we exchange with each other at random.

As I rushed to get out the door I grabbed the only thing in my house that I really didn’t want. Plus, I thought to myself, this gift is going to be hilarious.

I barely made it to the party on time. My six coworkers and I piled food onto our plates and discussed Christmas vacation plans. After eating and chatting for a while, it was gift-giving time. We all grabbed a random gift and sat back down. The woman a few seats away grabbed my soon-to-be-hilarious present.

“That one’s from me. You’re gonna love it” I said with a hint of sarcasm.

“Oh weird, you grabbed mine too.” I examined the bag as if I could tell what was in it by its weight and ribbon on top.

“Nice! We should have just exchanged gifts when we got here – ha!” She feigned a smile at my sad attempt of a joke. Dejected, I turned to the first gift opener.

He tore the paper off his rectangular gift to reveal a DVD of I Am Legend.

“Oh sweet!” he said.

That’s way better than my gift.

“That’s from me!” announced another coworker.

“Thanks! Well I guess you should open yours now,” responded the newest owner of I Am Legend.

The next coworker reached into his bag. He pulled out a bottle opener and two beers. “Thanks!”

Hmm, that’s not too bad either.

I started to get nervous about my gift. The presents that my coworkers were opening all seemed pretty good. At least mine will make them laugh…

The opening continued – one person got three candles. Another got a digital picture frame and batteries. Oh shit, this isn’t a gag gift exchange. People brought real things. It was my turn to open my gift. I reached in my bag to find a set of three bookmarks and a cherry almond chocolate bar.

“Thanks. Um, I guess it’s your turn,” I said to the holder of my gift. She was the only one left.

This is not going to end well. I already felt like an asshole and she hadn’t even opened it.

If there’s one thing I learned quickly from being in the real world it’s that your coworkers are not your friends. I don’t mean that in the sense that they’re your enemies – I get along fine with my coworkers and like to think we enjoy each other’s company – but that your relationship with your coworkers is not equivalent to your relationship with your friends.

Sure, you ask them about their plans for the weekend. You help them out when they have a problem. But there’s a difference between being friends and being work friends. Being work friends means holding the door when you see a coworker approaching. It means saying hello when you get to work and goodbye when you leave.

Being friends, however, means going out together on Friday night. Being friends means texting each other about Game of Thrones and what you just ate.

There’s a boundary between being work friends and being friends that is hard to define but easily overstepped. “One time we laughed really hard together watching a video on YouTube, but he still sends me really formal emails.” This area between being work friends and friends – friendship purgatory – can cause a lot of stress. Nothing is worse than overstepping that boundary and thinking it’s OK while your work friend files a complaint to HR.

You see, you and your friends have a very specific sense of humor – one that 98% of people are completely unable to translate. Your friends will complain with you about why grapes and grape flavored things taste completely different while work friends will stare at you and go back to their desk.

Your coworkers are not on the inside of you and your friend’s slightly racist joke. They will not find it funny.

Your coworkers do not want to hear about how you face planted on Saturday night but managed to hold on to your bacon wrapped chili dog. They will not congratulate you. They will call you a drunk.

Your coworkers will not laugh when they find out you’re the one that created a “Missed Connections” post on Craigslist in their name. They will never trust you again.

And, although we all know it’s hilarious, your work friends will not think it’s funny that you tapped the top of their open bottle and had beer erupt on their suit and tie at Ethel’s retirement party.

While these things are learned with time, one more thing also becomes apparent. Sometimes you find someone in that special 2%. The person who laughs in your face when you trip over nothing or applauses when you accidentally call your boss “Mom”. Inevitably, a work friend will turn into a friend. At which point it is perfectly appropriate to do the above mentioned actions at your own risk.

Until then, though, don’t tell them about how you went skinny-dipping in that fountain at 3AM on Friday night.

“Um, you’re not going to like my gift at all.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” she responded.

“No really, it’s honestly the worst gift I’ve ever given anyone. Ever.” I wanted to grab it out of her hands and run out of the room before anyone could see it.

“Stop that, I’m sure it’s fine.” She started taking the tissue paper out of the bag. I clenched my teeth and held my breath as she tilted the bag towards her face.

“Be careful,” I warned.

“What?”

“Just be careful. You’ll understand.”

She reached down in and pulled out my gift.

“…what is it?” She asked.

“It’s a dead cactus.” Three of the longest seconds of my life passed by.

“…thanks.” A few coworkers forced a laugh.

“I’m so sorry.” This is awful. My friends would have thought it was funny.

“No… it’s ok… maybe I can revive it.” There’s no way she could revive it.

“Yea, maybe,” I responded. A few more seconds went by without a word.

“Thanks for the bookmarks.”