How the relationship theory of “love languages” can help your workplace relationships, too

Giving and receiving.
Giving and receiving.
Image: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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The way to my heart is through my ears.

That’s what I learned from Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languagesthe Bible of relationship theory among psychologists and Facebook friends alike. Chapman’s 1995 book suggests there are five ways that couples show love: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and touch. Of these, you have a primary and secondary way you like to love and be loved.

The problem is that the way you prefer to show your appreciation may not be the way your partner likes to receive it. Say you love receiving gifts, so when you want to dote upon your girlfriend, you give her a bouquet of lilies. “Boom!” you think—you’ve shown her you care. But what your partner actually wants is a little more one-on-one time and a back rub; she doesn’t read the frivolous flowers as a sign of your love, and so she feels forgotten. Your love languages got lost in translation.

According to Chapman’s doctrine, learning to give the type of love your partner wants to receive is the secret to happy relationship. And according to my experience, the same logic can be applied to relationships at work.

Love languages in the workplace

For future suitors, let it be known that my love languages are words of affirmation and touch. All I need are those three little words and the occasional knee-squeeze, and I’m basically buttered up. If I never received an anniversary present for the rest of my life, I’d be perfectly content. You unpacked the dishwasher? Great, well I de-crumbed the toaster, pruned the rose bush, and bleached the bathtub this morning—and I wasn’t even the one who forgot my mother’s birthday.

But what if I applied my love languages to how I would like to be treated in the workplace? Chapman did this in his 2012 follow up, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, but I unintentionally worked it myself out through trial and error. Of my preferred languages—verbal affirmation and touch—the first is an easy sell for managers. The second? Well, that’s liable for a lawsuit.

As someone not driven by numbers or metrics, I judge my success by whether people respond positively to the work I do—and the only way I know that is if I’m told. I’m not asking for a celebratory, town-hall-style gala with balloons and a popcorn machine. Just a quick “Cheers, mate!” as you pass by my desk or a casual congrats over email is all I need. In a pinch, a Giphy-enabled high-five on Slack will do.

But some managers aren’t naturally the affirming type. I used to have a brilliant but introverted boss at a previous job who struggled to express thanks to his employees. But I eventually worked out that he was trying to show it in other ways.

Whenever I finished a successful project, I would come into the office to find a different trinket on my desk. One week it would be a set of colored pencils. The following month, a small ceramic bowl. Then a hibiscus-scented candle. After determining that I didn’t have a secret admirer with good taste and a copy of the office keys, I made a comment to a coworker, who suggested they were probably presents from our often-absent boss. No card, no thank you, no sign it was from him—just suddenly materializing tchotchkes.

When I approached my boss to thank him, he simply nodded and slinked off. For months I had thought he hated me and didn’t think I was worth my paycheck. It just turns out my value was measured in gifted tubes of Aesop hand cream, not report cards.

A lot of undue stress could have been avoided if we’d had a conversation about our communication styles when I began my job. Knowing how to make your workmates feel valued, and making a conscious effort to honor them in that way, reduces miscommunication and goes a long way toward creating a happier team.

Some companies already attempt to address these issues by having their employees complete personality quizzes like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test when they start (though that technique has come under fire). Others have candid onboarding procedures that aim to set reasonable expectations for new employers and employees alike. My Quartz colleague Leah Fessler recently wrote about a 30-minute exercise called “the user manual” that lets coworkers lay out their values, pet peeves, and preferences up front.

Perhaps Chapman’s love languages could be added to the list of management tools. By determining and then communicating your appreciation in the non-verbal languages your coworkers speak, you can show your gratitude for your colleagues in the way they value most. Depending on what your coworkers’ love languages are, here’s a rough idea of how each might apply to the office.

Gift giving: Offer small presents to your coworkers to show you appreciate them, whether that’s grabbing a second bagel on your way to work, buying them a copy of that book you recommended last week, or picking up the tab at lunch.

Quality time: Show that you value your workmates outside of the office by asking them out for casual drinks or making plans on the weekend. If you’re a manager, you could also offer regular one-on-one meetings with employees who you normally only see in a group setting.

Words of affirmation: Sometimes just doing the job isn’t enough: People need to be thanked for it. Remember to verbally congratulate people whenever a project ships, and give them specific compliments on their work to show them you’re paying attention. Face-to-face conversations are always best for this, but a quick email or Slack message goes a long way, too.

Acts of service: There are plenty of office-based tasked that no one likes doing, and doing them for your coworkers is a heroic way to show your thanks. Change the batteries in your deskmate’s mouse and keyboard, volunteer to help a coworker with a boring spreadsheet, or, god forbid, file their expense report for them.

Touch: … Let’s not go there.

So, a memo to my coworkers: If you’re the acts of service type, I’d be more than happy to color-coordinate your monthly budget for you. And to my forthcoming managers: When you think I did a good job, please tell me instead of wordlessly gifting me household products.