A few weeks ago, I got into an argument with a guy over his politics. He was promoting an organization that had done some really sexist things. I thought he shouldn’t work for that organization unless he was willing to denounce its sexism; he thought I was too angry to let him talk. We were both right. Within a week, that man and I had emailed each other and had both apologized.
Problem solved, right? Well, no. Because this guy told me that, after learning about our argument, a girl who “knew [me] in real life” and was my “friend” had told him all sorts of nasty things about me. He could tell me what she said, but not who she was.
That same weekend, I found out that a woman I’d disagreed with in the past was writing tweets about how I was “stupid” and “worthless,” and alleging I had done stuff I had never actually done. This woman and I had several acquaintances in common. She hadn’t tried to speak to me directly one single time.
Being upset about that took up some of my time and energy. But not all of it. Because I had also just found out that one of my lady friends was angry about something I’d said, but she hadn’t told me she was angry yet, so I was worried about whether she secretly hated me—it didn’t seem at all likely, but I’d just found out that someone who “knew me in real life” thought I was awful, so I really did have a secret hater—and I emailed her to see if we were OK.
None of this is unusual. And it doesn’t just happen to me. In fact, I’ve done some of these same things to other girls. According to researchers, this behavior is a major part of how girls (not all girls, obviously, but generally as a population) handle anger. It’s called “relational aggression,” a really textbooky term that just means “using friendships to bully people.” The tactics of “relational aggression” include telling people’s secrets, forming alliances to gang up on them, spreading rumors, sabotaging their projects, and giving them the silent treatment. This has just as many serious consequences as other kinds of bullying: it damages people’s confidence, makes them less likely to trust people or enjoy spending time with others, and can even lead to their doing poorly in school, developing anxiety and depression, or becoming suicidal. It’s underhanded, it’s dishonest, and it’s cruel. But it’s also what lots of girls do.
Well: no more. No more, my fine lady friends! Because today, we are going to have some real talk. It’s my hope that by the time you are as old and wizened as I am, girls will not be doing this to one another anymore. And neither will women. But in order to accomplish that, we have to learn how to fight.
Rule #1: Being Angry Doesn’t Make You a Jerk.
A lot of “relational aggression” stems from the fact that girls are taught to deal with problems in a really specific way. It’s not that boys don’t do the things I’ve listed; they do. But they’re also likely to use direct forms of bullying, like physical fighting, whereas girls tend to stick with indirect warfare. And there’s a reason for that.
Will it surprise anyone if I say the reason is sexism? No? OK, then: the reason is sexism! As Rachel J. Simmons outlines in her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, girls often find it easier to vent our anger by being passive-aggressive or talking behind someone’s back, because we’ve been taught that approaching someone with a problem is “mean” or “rude.” Girls aren’t supposed to be angry; girls aren’t supposed to be aggressive; girls, basically, are supposed to like every single human being on earth, and make them all gift baskets full of mini-pies just for existing. So when we’re angry—and everybody is angry sometimes—we go behind one another’s backs, and act like top-secret super-spies about it, because doing anything else just wouldn’t be nice.
Look, I’m not a scientist, but I’ve done some research, and it turns out that it’s actually way meaner to call someone names behind her back than it is to say “that thing you did was messed up” to her face. It also doesn’t work—when you don’t confront people, they never actually know how they made you angry. This method ensures that your target can never apologize or change, and that you will therefore stay angry at her for, quite possibly, the rest of your life.
It’s even worse if you can never admit you’re angry, and feel like the “nice” thing to do is to put up with people being cruel to you in silence. Being “nice” is great, but letting people hurt you isn’t ever “nice” or necessary. Again: if you don’t say you’re angry, you don’t give other people the chance to change. So the problem persists until you are 87 years old and in the nursing home cafeteria and your friend is still making fun of that Justin Bieber poster you used to have, and you finally just snap and hit her over the head with your cane while screaming “HE! WAS! FRIENDS! WITH! KANYE!”
Sounds like fun! Or, you could try just saying, “That thing you did was messed up.” But consider:
Rule #2: Arguing Is Not a Team Sport
The first thing you want to do when you’re angry is get other people to take your side. It makes sense. Getting your friends to say that you’re right helps ease your guilt about being angry in the first place. It also helps if you can convince people that the person you’re arguing with is terrible, quite possibly the reincarnation of Hitler, or Satan’s baby; that gives you permission to treat her however you want. After all, she’s EVIL. You’re just trying to keep people away from her, before she destroys their lives. Or kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, or holds the world hostage with her Death Ray, or, uh, makes out with another person you had a crush on, or whatever: EVIL! is the point here.
Stop. You are not the Friend Police. You have no right to tell other people whom they can like. You can tell friends that you’re upset; you can tell friends that you’re angry; all of that is normal. If this person is physically endangering you, or is being abusive, you can tell friends (and authorities!) that you don’t feel safe around her. But if you’re just plain mad, you have the responsibility to go to that person first, and tell her, “That thing you did made me angry. Here is why.”
Talking to someone privately changes things. It’s no longer about who can get the most supporters; it’s not about Team You versus Team Her, or (even worse) Team You versus one unlucky person. It’s about the issue. You can talk about the problem you have with her, you can listen to her problems, you can come up with a solution that works for both of you. All of this is possible, if you don’t declare war.
I once took an anthropology class. (Cool story, Me!) I can’t remember a single thing I learned, except for this: in a lot of societies, exiling someone is considered a punishment worse than death. If you do something so bad that they want to do more than just kill you, they cut you off from your friends. People need relationships in order to be healthy and happy; isolating someone causes major pain and damage. This is also why solitary confinement is often considered torture. I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to choose whom you hang out with; you do. But you might want to think twice before you literally torture somebody for being kind of a snot in homeroom. Also:
Rule #2(a): If You Can Say It to Her Face, Don’t Say It on Facebook
Or Tumblr. Or Twitter. Or YouTube. If at all possible, try to avoid making a T-shirt about how much you hate this person and selling it on Etsy.
I’m not sure how things work in this wacky digital age, but I am pretty sure that people still know how to personally contact their own friends. So taking your issue to the internet is passive-aggressive. Even worse, it’s a sign that you are interested in publicly humiliating somebody. Not only do you want to hurt her, you want to hurt her on a forum where literally anyone in the world can join in. Did that person’s terminally ill grandma just read your thoughts on how her granddaughter is evil? Did the boy who’s been harassing her for months just read them, and get encouragement to harass her some more? Did a message forum that’s known for bullying girls online and sending them scary death threats just read your post? Did A SERIAL KILLER read it? You don’t know! It’s the internet!
Try email first, friendo. Arguing is bad enough before Hot Teen Girl Fights Dot Com gets involved.
Rule #3: Doing Bad Things Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person
Here’s where we talk about what you’re actually going to say when you confront someone. In my experience, there are two ways you can begin this conversation, and they are:
Dear Friend: It has recently come to my attention that you suck. Boy, do you ever suck. It’s hard to tell why you suck so much. Maybe it’s that totally messed-up joke you made about the diorama I made for science class. That diorama perfectly depicted the plight of the endangered humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), but it’s clear that you couldn’t tell, because you were distracted by your own science project, “How Hard Can I Suck? Really Hard, Watch Me.” But I’m not sure that it was just the joke, although you do clearly hate whales and are probably the main reason they are endangered. Other reasons why you suck might include your stupid face, or the fact that once in kindergarten you hogged all the blue crayons, even though you knew I needed them for my picture of a humpback whale gliding majestically through the vast ocean. I’m not sure, but I thought you ought to know that you suck. Signed, Your Friend Who Doesn’t Hate Whales.
Hey—that thing you said about my science project hurt my feelings. I worked hard on it, and I’m passionate about the subject, so making fun of it was uncool. It also didn’t seem like you; you’re normally really supportive. I just wanted to check in to let you know that that was weird, and also to see if everything is OK between us. If something is up, I’d like to fix it.
Now: the reason you want to send the second letter, and not the first one, is not “to be nice.” The reason you want to adhere more to Example B is that it actually works. Example A says “You’re bad, you’ve always been bad, you always will be bad, here’s every bad thing you’ve ever done, bye.” The person receiving this letter can respond in one of three ways: listing all of your flaws, trying to “prove” you’re wrong, or staying away from you. You lose a friend or you get into an even bigger fight. That’s all that letter is good for.
Example B says “That thing you did was bad, everybody does bad stuff sometimes, I want to get past this.” This person can apologize, they can tell you why they did it—maybe it wasn’t even about you! Maybe their parents are fighting, maybe they were just yelled at by a teacher, maybe they’re getting a bad grade in that class and your mind-blowingly awesome whale project made them feel insecure—and you can both fix whatever has gone wrong. You’re not stuck in the “No I’m not, YOU are” cycle, so you can move past the fight.
So simple, right? Well, not really. As it turns out, there are complications.
Complication #1: You Both Did Bad Things, Oh No!
Oh, hey, here’s a shock: fights aren’t usually about just one thing. Often, conflicts emerge after months or years of people hurting each other, until one of them finally blows up. Sometimes this person feels like the other bad things weren’t “big enough” or “serious enough” to get mad about, so they just stay quiet and accumulate grudges, until the other person finally does something “big enough” to address. But when that happens, all of the anger that’s been built up over the years comes out. So, you think this is about Suzy making fun of your whale diorama. But Suzy thinks it’s about the fact that you never compliment her art projects, and you didn’t invite her to your Sea World trip, and you made fun of her for liking Kristen Stewart, and Suzy is pretty clearly under the impression that you are the real jerk here.
Well, you’re both jerks. And now that you’re actually talking about it, you can figure out how to do better. Maybe you could make a point of asking for apologies when things actually happen from now on. Having a conflict is not the same as playing a video game—it’s not like one person is going to be the winner, and the other one is going to lose all her lives and fall off the screen. You’re probably going to find out that you both hurt each other, and you’re both going to have to apologize. But try not to compete over who was the most hurtful. If someone only wants to talk about what you did wrong, try saying something like, “It’s true that I can do bad things, but you’re responsible for your own choices.” And prepare for:
Complication #2: Some People Don’t Want to Make Things Better
Every time you have a conflict, you stand to lose a friend. And that’s really, really scary. When you’re honest and open about a problem, even if you do it respectfully, the other person might just refuse to listen, and might even start using bullying tactics on you. So, given that risk, why do it?
It all comes down to how you see this situation. You could see it like this: “I told my friend that she made me angry, and that upset her, so now she doesn’t like me.” Wow, what a terrible story about losing a friend! But here’s the other perspective: “I told someone that she made me angry, and she decided she didn’t want to treat me respectfully, so that’s how I found out she wasn’t my friend.” Wow, what a great story about how you were brave and honest!
It’s great to be friends, but you do not need to be friends with everybody, especially not if they treat you badly. Your social life is like a closet. Sometimes, when it gets crowded, you have to throw things out. The first items to go should be the relationships that don’t fit you anymore. You don’t have to punish those people or get revenge on them; you just move on. Conflict is one way to figure out which relationships are working. If you approach a good friend with a conflict, that person will not hate you or try to hurt you. If anything, being honest with each other will make you closer. If not: good news, you just cleared out room for a new friend.
Now that we’ve established this, it’s time for:
The Stirring Conclusion: Fighting Like a Girl Can Change the World
So, you had a fight. Yeesh, that was draining. But let’s list everything you didn’t do, while you were fighting: You didn’t lie. You didn’t betray a fellow girl. You didn’t try to expose any girls to verbal or physical harassment. You didn’t destroy another girl’s confidence. You didn’t make it less likely for that girl to succeed at work or in school, either intentionally or as a side effect of your actions. You didn’t hurt yourself, or treat yourself like you deserved to be hurt. You didn’t let your fear control you. I’ve got to stress this: You didn’t make any girls less confident, less successful, or more endangered by harassment. You, therefore, have taken yourself off the team that is constantly rooting for girls to do poorly in school, to do badly in life, to hate themselves, and to be scared all the time. You just scored a victory for feminism, my friend. Because you had a little honest conflict.
It is essential for girls to learn how to fight. There is a lot for us to fight, in this world! And some of it is serious! The wage gap isn’t going to go away if we just tell all of the wage gap’s friends that it made out with someone else’s boyfriend under the bleachers. Antiabortion politicians aren’t going to change their minds if we just stop inviting them to our parties. Knowing how to say “this is messed up” without feeling guilty is a huge part of being strong. But girls also have to know how to fight without destroying one another. There are too many girl-destroying forces out there; we can’t afford to do their work for them.
“Fighting like a girl” can mean “relational aggression.” It can mean being indirect, being untrustworthy, causing drama in order to make yourself feel better at another person’s expense. But “fighting like a girl” can also mean just being honest, open, and willing to have a little healthy conflict once in a while. Girls tend to care about our friendships a lot. We do. But part of caring about our friendships is making sure that they are safe spaces in which we can tell the truth about how we feel. So here is the best part, about this second way of fighting like a girl: when you do it, you show that it’s possible. The world doesn’t end. When you’re honest, and stand up for yourself—even when that’s uncomfortable—you make it possible for every other girl to believe she can do the same. ♦