I haven’t heard it discussed much but I think one of the best things about work is that it provides opportunities, even for shy people, to effortlessly form deep and lasting friendships.

Before I start I want to mention what inspired this piece – it was a two minute video of penguins that Andrea Barlow @AndzB, the Director of the Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust, posted on Twitter (you can see it there or at.

The video shows one group of penguins laboriously trudging uphill after a hard day’s fishing, meeting an outgoing group, joyfully bouncing down ready to go to sea. The two groups meet, as if for a corridor chat, and then continue on their journeys. But one penguin in the outgoing group gets mixed up with the returning group, until a friend breaks off, retrieves the mixed up penguin, and they both cheerfully hop down to join their troop. It struck me that these two penguins were looking out for one another. Or as the link I’ve posted above suggests, perhaps I’m anthropomorphising. Either way the video made me think about friendships at work.

It’s remarkably easy to form friendships in academia. It may be just as easy in other professions, but I know universities best. I think friendships are easy for several reasons. Many university people share personality traits and values – curiosity about the world, some sort of a desire to do good, a devotion to learning, patience and conscientiousness, and a deep respect for, and usually an appetite for, reasoned argument. Reasoned discussion is a great way to make friends.

Also, there are common enemies to unite against. Talking about the challenges, not just of the painstaking work, but also of securing funding and striving to get things published in top journals, or keeping up with teaching on-line, invariably brings people together. It even unites people who don’t fully understand each other’s disciplines.

The lack of “line management” is another “enabler.” It is not that there is no line management – supervisors do supervise – but in academic discussions everyone is equal. When the mission is exploration rather than urgent delivery there are fewer requirements for anyone to bluntly say “scalpel, forceps, clamp.” In my discipline of molecular biology, when a scientist says “jump” other scientists seldom say “how high”, they just say “why?”

The highly specialised nature of molecular biology also helps. No one knows every technique so you always end up working in teams. In fact, you work with people who know more than you every single day, so this helps generate respect.

We all know it’s true for students – they form life-long friendships, and that is often celebrated, but staff also make connections, and these are less often discussed. I still have friends from my PhD lab, my time as a postdoc, and from collaborations I have been involved in over the last 30 years. The friendships are built on shared purposes, some sort of vague compatibility, and on the incessant communications. I also work with experts in our core technical facilities and with fellow teachers across the university. These days I think it is rare for academics to be like Tony Hancock’s radio ham and “have a friend in every city [university] except their own.”

I try to consider why some friendships last and others don’t. I think it’s a mixture of compatibility and circumstance. Being a good match is important but having opportunities to regularly renew the friendship is also critical. That said I have had a few friendships that have lain dormant for years and then been successfully renewed with remarkable ease.

I do sometimes wonder – what is a friend?

I guess it is someone we meet and connect with due to shared personality traits, values, sense of humour, sense of purpose, and I think having a mutual respect for each other’s abilities is core to it all. But it’s very hard to define. I recall seeing Rich Hall on QI give his definitions – “a friend is someone who will help you move house.” I liked that. Moving house is a chore so it’s a convincing definition. But his definition of a “good friend” was even better – “a good friend is someone who will help you move a body.”  I hope I never have to test my friends with that one!

Ultimately, I’m still thinking about it all. All I can really say is I don’t know what friendship is, but I know who I like.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life




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