How to deal with toxic friends/ex-classmates when they work in the same tight-knit industry as you?
April 1, 2011 10:31 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with toxic friends/ex-classmates when they work in the same tight-knit industry as you?

A little back story for context, sorry for the length:
I graduated with a graphic design degree almost a year ago and I have (luckily) been working at my first “real” job after spending most of my twenties in school and working at low-paying jobs just to get by.

When I was in school, I befriended a person who turned out to be in most of my classes for the next three years. I’d crash at her house and she help me get a cool tutoring job at the school we were at, she even asked me to be roommates with her (to which I wisely declined) and we’d hang out. I wouldn’t her consider a best friend or anything, but a friend at least.

Last year in our graduating semester, we and the rest of our class, had to put together our design show for school, our portfolios and start having informational interviews. For the show we all had our roles, she got to be art director, I was stuck directing PR (not a role that I relished in, but I had the most experience with it, so I ended up doing it). If things were different, I wouldn’t have directed anything, I would’ve rather just helped out with whatever task and focus on my own portfolio. There was a misunderstanding related to the show between our departments. In this case, I was in the wrong; I apologized to her and asked her how we could fix it.

But she remained very angry and controlling over little details. From that point to now she became extremely patronizing towards me after this when it came to PR, design or anything. She would critique my design work more harshly (I can handle that, but sometimes it was “your stuff looks generic,” not helpful) than she did before. Other mutual friends and classmates noted that her behavior was negative and even criticized her to her directly about how she treated me and another friend said she was often treated similarly by her in other situations.

I know her well enough to know that she has a tendency to hold grudges, can be petty and makes digs, is insecure and is extremely competitive with everything (ex. if you had a good day, she’d point out how hers was cooler than yours, but she’d be only half-joking).

She also started pushing me away from her inner circle of friends in school, talked about having a design collective though I was excluded from that for whatever reason. At the time it kind of hurt, even though my experience from the design show made me realize that I’d never want to work with her. Though sometimes I still get random invites for social gatherings, which I tend to decline.

And since we’ve gotten jobs, all she does is brag about the big-name creative firm she works for and how awesome of a designer she is (under a thin veneer of modesty). The reality is her firm IS a big deal and she’s a good designer. I genuinely wish her well on her success (she’s worked hard), she asks what I’ve been up to and I mention something positive and then has to one up it. She even had the gall to ask my salary, to which I stupidly answered and she said she was going to ask for a higher salary than mine at her job (god she reminds me of Sandy Griffin from Daria!).

The problem:
The point is that I can’t freaking stand her anymore! I remember her once saying in school that she didn’t mind stepping on people’s toes to get her way or her point across. I thought that statement revealed much about her character (or lack thereof).

If this was a normal toxic-friend situation, I’d completely eradicate her from my life and move on. But it isn’t, we work the same field that’s extremely incestuous and we have LOTS of mutual friends and networking contacts. I’d never want to want to work at her company in a million years, but “burning bridges” in this area I know isn’t wise, it could really shoot in me in the foot professionally if I ever decide to move onto another company. She’d have no bones about dragging names through the mud. But I don’t want to hang out with her and her oversized ego either, nor feel obliged to invite her to things because I know it will get back to her that I snubbed her. I try to avoid contact with her as much as possible, but it seems unavoidable. What shall I do? It seems ridiculous that I’m so bothered by it, but this crap is starting to affect my creativity and passion for the field a little bit. Any advice or similar situations would be helpful.

Got questions or wanna talk in private?
Throwaway e-mail:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First off, resist the urge to get into bitching marathons about her with colleagues and casual friends. If she comes up, be vague and restrained. If pressed, say, "Our styles didn't end up being compatible," or something else along those lines. Particularly if she's going around badmouthing people, it will serve you well in the long run if you're the "grown up" in this situation. I say this from personal experience.

You are NOT obliged to invite her to anything, particularly not social functions (as opposed to professional, networking events) unless she's married to or seriously dating someone else that you do want to invite.

You're right that she'll inevitably turn up at some of the same events as you. In that case, be distant and professional. Don't look for her approval. Don't talk to her about what you're working on. Exchange pleasantries and then move on to another conversation in the room.

Part of the problem here seems to be that you have a hard time avoiding being drawn in to her drama. Remember that you're not in any way obligated to be buddies with everyone in your field, even if you were formally close. You can have a conversation with her without letting yourself be vulnerable. You can be in the same social circle as her without telling her about your job or your salary.

I have worked in several small industries. In my experience, the best thing to do with people you don't get along with is to be as polite and as distant as you can.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:50 AM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

All she does is brag about the big-name creative firm she works for and how awesome of a designer she is...

Lucky for you that the burnout rate for designers, especially at big firms, is very very high, so she may need your couch again in a few years.

Seriously, there are three bajillion graphic designers in the world, and a huge percentage of them don't get along with each other. It's not a tiny little close-knit industry. Seriously.

Make new contacts, branch out, specialize in some area you're actually passionate about, and stop defining yourself by the same yardsticks.

You'll outgrow this problem.
posted by rokusan at 11:09 AM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

You don't have to burn a bridge or end a friendship to pull away. I've done it on several occasions; over the next couple months, start inventing scheduling conflicts with potential meetups, double the amount of time it takes you to return text/email/phone calls and make no initiative to reschedule anything.

If the person notices, apologize, but don't make any future commitments. "I'm sorry, I've just been so busy and I can't get time for a lot of things right now" is a great way to back away without burning a bridge.
posted by dflemingecon at 12:05 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and if you're in a social situation, be civil and friendly, but don't commit to anything else beyond that engagement. TOO BUSY is your friend!
posted by dflemingecon at 12:07 PM on April 1, 2011

"I found that particular experience... chaotic" is VFX shorthand for "fuck no, not doing that again, and ohmyGAWD so-and-so." Hope that helps.

(Everyone has one, trust me. Mine actually showed up at my usual home-base facility after I left another job to escape...)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:30 PM on April 1, 2011

Wow, I recently had a falling-out with a long time "friend" just like this! The one-upping, the subtle digs at you to your face, the bragging, even overly personal questions about things like salary (which I, too, stupidly answered) that were met with bald-faced bragging about his higher salary. Luckily we dont work in the same industry at all. Recently, after about a year of trying my hardest to distance myself from him politely, he got frustrated and defriended me on Facebook and in real life.

In your studies and on the job, you've had to meet challenges and overcome them as a part of growing as a designer and a professional, right? I propose that this is the next challenge on your path. This is your chance to practice some intermediate-level interpersonal skills.

First off, if you're having trouble distancing yourself from this person, that's probably because you don't know enough people who aren't in the same professional/social circles as her. I agree with posters above who say that there are plenty of designers in the sea. It's true, I'm a graphic design major myself, and to me there seems no shortage of people around who are doing great work. Consider this a way of learning to network. The difficulty here is that meeting new people and building relationships doesn't happen overnight. Once I started realizing my style clashed with my "friend" from above, I tried making friends outside of the social circle I shared with the "friend." That was more than a year ago. At this point, I've met a few people whose company I really enjoy, who dont know my "friend" from Adam. And you know what? It's really really nice to know that I can still engage with people without this one friendship-gone-wrong subtly tainting everything.

Secondly, take the high road with your mutual contacts. After our falling out, I continued hanging out with our mutual friends, purposely avoiding the subject of my "friend," lest I be tempted to engage in a bitchfest. That was a couple months ago, and since then a couple of our mutual friends have told me that just after he cut me off, my "friend" went around giving them all a debriefing on the situation, using the occasion to talk all kinds of shit on me. But you know what? It ended up reflecting badly on him, not me, because good people don't do that kind of thing. My official line is that our styles didn't match, which is true. There's no reason to go into it anymore than that; it'll just make you look bad to engage in shit talking.

The last thing I'll say is that once I started feeling bothered about my "friend's" behavior, it made me feel really petty that it even bothered me. He wasn't a terrible guy, he didn't do anything to really hurt me or anyone else. This wasn't a situation where there was a clear "thing" that he did that made me lose trust in him, we just grew apart. It was a bit crazymaking for a while there that hanging out with him chafed so much even as he was still accepted by the rest of our mutual friends. But your feelings are valid. Where pettiness can come into the situation is in your reaction, your behavior. So don't let it; take the high ground, and things will work out swimmingly.
posted by malapropist at 2:35 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You've mentioned that others have noticed and commented on her personality and vindictiveness. That's a good sign that you shouldn't worry too much about her; in fact, you don't want to be linked too closely to her. You've gotten good advice already. Polite but distant. Assholes like this suck the life out of you.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:05 PM on April 1, 2011

I've had to deal with people like this, first I went toe-to-toe with them, and let the utterly frustrate me. They are essentially bullies and climb on other's misery. My defence was just simply be cooler that they are. Don't bother defending your position, that's grist to their mill, when she says your stuff is generic, say, "sure - other's like it" or "the client likes it" and move on. One thing is certain, if she's like this with you she's like this with others so you're not alone. Also, nth'ing that that the design world is huge, but no matter what professional field you're in, there is always some jerk like this, so learn to deal and don't let them get to you.
posted by the noob at 5:04 PM on April 1, 2011

It's a lot easier than you think. I know, when you're in the thick of i, it feels like there's this psychopath that is *always* *there*, and it's like you're never going to be rid of her, and you have to put up with her crap all the time, for the rest of your life.

Not so.

This is what the classic Fade Out is for. All you need to do is stop. When she calls, if you answer, give her two, three minutes to chat, and then burst in, "Sorry, , I'm suuuper busy! Gotta go!" And hang up. If she invites you somewhere, just say no, you're busy, ugh, things are soooo hectic. If you run into her while you're out and about, say hi, ask how she is, and then excuse yourself. And don't invite her places. If she ever confronts you, as to why you've been busy, then tell her simply that you've been really busy with work, or hobbies, or a project. It's best if you actually get busy with work, or hobbies, or a project, because this will get your head out of this space. Hobbies and projects especially will put you in a better place, because it will likely get you in contact with other people, who likely have nothing to do with your toxic.

As you expand your social circle, and get beers with Anna the office manager and Jim the accountant, and take up tae kwon do, and go to Home Depot classes to learn how to refinish your floors and to pick up your preferred gender, your toxic will get MUCH less important to you, and you will start legitimately moving away from the toxic. This isn't to say, necessarily, to cut her out of your life, of course... if you're in the same profession in the same city, you may encounter one another every so often. But, if you're living your own life, her part in yours becomes that much smaller, and each encounter becomes much less fraught. And if you treat her politely, then there's not really much she can say about you, is there?

posted by mornie_alantie at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

2nding mornie_atlantie. Expand your life beyond work. It's easy to think that all these work/friend dynamics are important when they're really not. Bolster your creative work with new life experiences instead of struggling to iron out the kinks in your social network. The creative workplace can shrink to the size of a lunchbox it you let it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:54 PM on April 1, 2011

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