The term parasocial – one-sided relationships in which one person knows about another, but the knowledge is not returned – was introduced by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their 1956 paper, “Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance”. As might be guessed from the name of the paper, parasocial relationships are most common between an audience member and a media figure.
We form relationships with the characters of our favorite show and look forward to checking in with them. We may reference them in our conversations. ‘It was like in this episode of ____ I saw,’ and we may model our style after those we admire. When the season or series ends we’re disappointed to see them go; though our loyalty and interest that seemed so real quickly fades as we busy ourselves with other activities and possibly other parasocial relationships.
The majority of our work relationships are not all that different from those with whom we feel we’ve connected with through television. Yes, the conversations we have during a quick coffee run are two-sided, but they are likely not the relationships that we will come to rely upon. The conversations, even when we do share personal details, are rarely intimate. We may look back at a wedding shower gift and remember it was from our colleagues, but how many will we have kept in touch with after changing jobs.
Work is about the work and we are all there for a reason personal to us – the necessary income work provides, the need to fill our days, or to create a sense of purpose. When we leave our jobs, we will be replaced by someone else who our former colleagues will invite for coffee. And we will forget the day-to-day workplace dramas that consumed our lives.
Take your relationships with your colleagues seriously; you never know when you will meet a mentor, a future reference, a networking connection that will propel your forward, or the friend you really will keep in touch with. But don’t let your work relationships consume too much of your emotional energy. Your work performance and inner life will be the better for it.