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We Are (Not) Family

I’ve always liked the song, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge (I mean, who doesn’t?) – it’s catchy, upbeat, and REALLY fun to vibe out to when it’s played at the skating rink. The lyrics make sense because Sister Sledge is a group made up of actual siblings. What’s interesting is how we have co-opted this terminology to apply to people who are not actual family members, but co-exist in spaces where they spend a lot of time together (read: work). And since we spend nearly a third of our lives (around 90,000 hours!) at our places of employment, it can be tempting to refer to our colleagues as our work family. While this seems innocent enough, it’s actually very harmful and can even be counterproductive to creating the positive culture that is often the overarching desire of those who use such powerful terminology. 

I can hear some of you now: “Come on Rachel, you’re being low key dramatic right now. ‘Family’ is just a word – we know our work family isn’t actually family,” *insert eye roll*. 

To which I say, do you in fact know that? 

Words are extremely powerful, and the ways in which we use them can evoke a variety of responses, both positive and negative. According to cognitive scientist Lera Boroitsky, “by choosing how you frame and talk about something, you are cueing others to think about it in a specific way.” Referring to the people at your workplace as “family members” often evokes an unspoken expectation of loyalty, unfailing deference to leadership or upper management as metaphorical parental figures, and/or willingness for self-sacrifice to please or appease the “family” unit. And while it may seem like this is a mutual exchange between all members, everyone’s definition of family differs in nuanced ways (and can even be emotionally triggering for people with painful family dynamics). Moreover, my momma is not going to fire me from the family if I miss a deadline (or burn dinner, which I am apt to do) or take a tone of insubordination. Employers, however, can (and will).  

This lopsided relationship where lower-level employees are taught to regard the company as a family while upper-level management wields often lofty expectations (and power) over them creates a toxic work environment predicated on manipulative language and culture. This practice also assumes that everyone in the organization has the same idea of how families should operate and communicate (I mean does your mom insist on calling you by pet names she came up with when you were a kid in front of company even though you’re almost 40 years old? Just mine? Cool…). This type of language automatically assigns emotional connotations to professional relationships whereupon someone is a parental figure while those that they lead are essentially children (and while adulting isn’t necessarily the most fun all the time, I’m definitely not signing up to return to life sans adult agency again). This terminology also allows employers to take advantage of employees by intentionally blurring the lines between work and non-work boundaries. And when people push back against this type of thinking and culture, they are typically ostracized for not internalizing these toxic norms and ultimately end up being portrayed as traitors when they are forced out or choose to leave. Those who remain find themselves being encouraged to disassociate with the excommunicated employee, which can not only be harmful to the organization’s reputation, but also reinforces harmful professional practices that result in workplace trauma (it’s giving cult energy, friends).   

If “family” is so problematic, then what’s a better way to refer to the folks you spend forty-plus hours a week with at work? There are lots of inclusive and appropriate ways to name our work-mates: colleagues, team, world-changers, comrades, consociate (that one is new for me, too), the list goes on. What’s important to keep in mind is that the language we use to name things is important and conflating people in a temporary space with those that tend to have more permanence in our lives creates problems in our psyches that, quite frankly, don’t belong at work. Separating work things from all-the-other-things helps create and maintain boundaries, allows the group to celebrate each other when their time at that particular workplace has ended, and gives people the psychological safety necessary to thrive at work. 

So the next time you’re meeting with a potential candidate or bragging to your network about how your workplace is awesome, by all means lean in to that feeling of pride and commitment to the good work that you do and the rapport you may have with the people that work alongside you. Just be mindful of equating that affinity with family.