Saturday, 11 June 2011

Getting Along with Girls for Girls

This is may be the most controversial aspect of life I write about on this blog. I am not kidding. Women feel hurt by men, sure, and men feel hurt by women, you bet, but there is no hurt like the emotional hurt women inflict on women, wittingly or unwittingly. And that's an understatement.

If you ascribe to the stone age model of gender relations, which I rather do, you can easily imagine the women back at the camp grinding up meal together, farming, tending to babies and generally inventing civilisation while the men go off to hunt.

No doubt someone has conveniently discovered (or will conveniently discover) that in caveman times there was a race of Superwomen Better Than All The Other Women who also went off to hunt, brave loners for whom all the other hunters lusted, etc: "By Dadga and the Three-headed One, Siobhaedd, you are different from all other womankind upon whom I look with scorn from my manly heights. Become thou the captainess of my hunters."

Anyway, that's cool for Siobheadd, but for some reason it doesn't endear her to the other women. Why not, eh? Why do they not admire her like the Chief and all the other hunters? Well, for one thing, the gals back at the camp don't have a tiny, sometimes barely perceptible voice working its way through their bloodstreams saying "Gosh, Siobheadd is A WOMAN. I wonder if she'd ever sleep with me?" And also they don't like it that Siobheadd is hanging with their husbands all day because, unlike Siobheadd, they can hear that tiny voice burbling away.

In general, and I found this out the hard way, women are collectivists. As a sex, we could have taught the Soviets a thing or two. Unless we are homeschooled, we go from home to schoolyard and eventually form cliques, just about the time boys naturally decide they don't want to play with us any more, unless they have been caught and drugged with Ritalin into submission.

(Okay, I actually don't know what Ritalin does to little boys. But I do know that it is normal for many if not most boys to not want to play with girls for a few years.)

Personally, I was a complete failure at schoolyard collectivism. This had a lot to do with my parents, who did not believe in children watching television, chewing gum, wearing trendy clothes, listening to rock music or reading comic books, unless written in French. This may sound great, but unfortunately I believe that abstinence from all these things was not a lifestyle choice but a sign that I was a cut above everyone else. And it was this, I think, not the absence of Motorhead from my life, that made the schoolyard a living hell.

There I was, the young aesthete alone with the vulgar herd, wondering why the vulgar herd, with its mindless entertainments, corrupted tastes, obscene language, degraded trendy clothes and, quite often, wrongful assumption that "being Italian" was something to brag about, didn't like me.

My only friends at elementary school were an unusually amiable girl liked by everyone and a fellow freak, but for some strange reason, I got along very well with girls at Brownies, ballet class and, eventually, the parish youth group.

(Wait a minute--why? Hypotheses: Rather unfortunate male-female dynamic at school upped ante? One to two hours a week of the Young Aesthete's company was bearable, even bracing? Edwardian Brownies philosophy jived well with neo-Edwardian upbringing? Physical and emotional suffering of ballet created bonds?)

Then I went to high school, and the sun of female friendship shone like never before. By the tenth grade, I had figured out how to get along with enough women to form a collective. But it wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I learned how to get along in any collective. This was because I had taken my B.A. degree, which I honestly thought made me a better person than women who went to community college, and it took me quite a while to get over myself.

When I first joined the adult lady workforce, I was horrified by the recipe-and-horoscope culture. I definitely thought I was TOO GOOD for that. But eventually I found myself making the recipes, and discovering that they were good. I still have Sharon's pumpkin cheesecake recipe somewhere and, lo, it is very good.

In short I discovered that it is okay to talk recipes and possibly even star signs with women without losing the part of me that prefers dogmatic theology and T.S. Eliot. And, in fact, I have discovered that it is this discovery that makes me a nice person to be around.

Getting along with other women is a lot like inter-religious dialogue. If you want to have a decent inter-religious dialogue, you have to obey some ground rules.

The first ground rule of inter-religious dialogue is that you're not allowed to try to bully your interlocutors into admitting that they are wrong and you are right. The second is that you're not allowed to stress that your religion is better than theirs. The third is that you don't TELL them what they believe, but that you ASK them what they believe and LISTEN to the answers. The fourth is that you don't stress your differences: you always begin with what you have in common. If you're talking to Jews, your beginning point might be Moses. If you're talking to Muslims, your beginning point might be Adam or Noah. If you're talking to Buddhists, your beginning point might be respect for life.

Okay, so the rules of getting along with women are as such:

1. Don't try to dominate your fellow women. And try your best not to look like that's what you are trying to do. Rough and boisterous humour, e.g. saying "Wow! You got hit with the ugly stick today!" is not a good idea.

2. Don't ever, EVER give another woman the impression you think you are fundamentally better than she is. It used to be a class marker in Britain how a woman spoke to women whose husbands or fathers had humbler jobs than her husband or father. Aristocratic ladies (supposedly) spoke in an easy, friendly, confident fashion, and middle-class ladies, eager to differentiate themselves from the Common Herd, often made the fearful solecism of sounding snotty and rude. "She's a real lady" didn't necessarily mean a woman from a posh background; it meant a woman with exquisitely good manners--which doesn't mean acting like you have a poker up your butt, but acting like everyone you speak to is enormously important, likeable and interesting.

3. There are women who enjoy a good intellectual argument, and there are women who don't. 99% of the time, keep your opinion about another woman's life or conduct--unless it affects you directly--locked up in your teeming brain. If she asks what you think, and you have reason to believe she won't turn it into World War III, tell her in the gentlest possible terms. But if she gets mad, point out that she asked. If she's your friend, eventually she will stop being mad. If she tries to turn the collective against you, point out the unfairness of this behaviour because "she asked for my opinion, and I gave it in the gentlest possible terms." And if you have a reputation for minding your own business, and the collective shares your opinion anyway, it will probably rule in your favour, and tell Miss Thinner Skin Than She Thought to grow up.

4. Stress your similarities. If you like pie, graciously accept the pie recipe. If you were born in late February, admit that you're a Pisces. If you have been felled by cramps, ask the woman next to you if she has any painkillers. If the dreaded woman-dividing subject of abortion comes up, stress that you feel awful for girls who are frightened when they find themselves pregnant and mention the (pro-life) places in town that help these girls out. Then (if appropriate, and if it really is okay to be having this conversation at work, etc.) mention the babies. And for heaven's sake, always remember that there may be a woman with a scarred heart, soul and womb in earshot, so pick your words wisely--not only for her sake, but for yours.

The last thing I will mention is that women are not only collective, we are competitive. Being competitive and collective at the same time is very difficult. It is a headache. And the number one competition, one that pits sister against sister, friend against friend, daughter against mother (sadly), is the competition for men. There is no easier way to alienate other women than to make a huge and obvious effort to dominate the attention of another woman's man, even, sometimes, your dad.* Even if you don't want a guy, and are just trying to make him laugh or accept you as one of the guys, you can seriously anger his wife, girlfriend and other women around.

I will never forget watching a woman, a stranger, a friend of a friend, show up at a party in a ludicrously inappropriate and immodest dress. I was there with B.A., at the time my fiance, and it was the first time in my life I felt personally insulted by another woman's dress. Her huge breasts dominated the room, a room of close female friends, their boyfriends, husbands and fiances. The collective was collectively, if silently, outraged, and it broke its silence later when it was reported that The Stranger had done her best to flirt with one of the boyfriends.

Now, this is where someone or other (possibly Hilary) will jump in to comment that this is why she can't stand other women. But I will point out that drawing together into a wall to defend against attacks from strangers who want what's yours is not uniquely female behaviour.

To sum up, speaking as someone who took a long and painful time learning how to get along with other women, if you don't like other women, it's not really our problem. Most of us could care less. It's yours. It's yours because life is tough, and sometimes you really need other women around. As great as men can be, they can never quite understand what it is to be a woman, and sometimes someone who does is who you need around right then.

*Shocker! Some women can deal with going grey and saggy just when their own daughters are blooming into gorgeous roses, and some women can't. Nobody likes to talk about this, but it can be a source of horrible tension and division between mothers and daughters. The bright side of being 40 is that I am already falling apart, so if I had a daughter at 41, by the time my daughter was 20, I'd be like, "What a pretty girl! Did I EVER look like that? many years ago... can't remember..."


sciencegirl said...

1. Other than basic politeness, the biggest rule for getting along with men and women as an adult is:

Letting Go of Childhood/Middle School/High School Competitive Trauma.

Most teenagers have their snotty and rude ways or at least bad days. Most grow into fairly nice adults. When I was an unathletic middle school girl at a sports-worshiping school, I was rather intimidated by the female athletes, who were frustrated by my incompetence in gym. They were actually all right, but the gym teacher really emphasized our differences, shall we say. I found it such a pleasant change in adulthood to have great female and male instructors who loved teaching unathletic people how to be healthier and more capable sports or exercise. What a delight it was for me recently, when doing some lunges at the gym, to be approached by an intimidatingly fit and beautiful young lady who did NOT want to make fun of me, but had crossed the gym to help me fix my form to prevent a knee injury. Thanks to her, I went from cursing lunges and almost falling over each time to being able to do them without falling or torquing my knee and hip. Hooray! Maybe in middle school we would have driven each other crazy. One of the reasons we got along was that now we each do what we enjoy and are good at; I do science most of the day and she helps people with physical training and fitness. We are both happy adults, developing and contributing different talents that were not normal for women to use 100 years ago. Personally, I would love good ol' Siobheadd, especially if she brought meat to the little old ladies and orphans that the (possibly) rude cavemen shouldered aside. The schoolyard collective is, thank goodness, not nearly as intense once the inmates are freed.

2. I really do not like that adults call groups of young ladies who are friends a "clique" whereas groups of young men are just groups of buddies (unless they are dressed in gangster-style clothing and are then thought of as hoodlums, drug dealers, etc). I feel sorry for nice teenage boys who do not know their clothing is intimidating and think they are just being stylish and cool, just as I am sorry for young ladies who are showing way too much skin while thinking they look cute and fashionable. Anyway, I think calling groups of female friends a "clique" is an attempt by those adults in charge to devalue friendship. In "The Four Loves" CS Lewis called attention to authority's hatred of friendship; authority figures want everyone mixed evenly. He would probably say that disinterest in the vulgar herd and a longing for someone who really shares your passion for tetherball or Gothic Novels is a perfectly acceptable thing. A clique could be a bunch of girls who are mean to each other, but if you observe, often they are just friends who like the same things. Getting along is possible. Refusing to insult or demean other girls or their friends is possible. Consensus and universal approval is Not Possible, and I think that the only times I have genuinely been angry at good women were the times they were demanding it from me.

3. If a grown woman has found, through her years of experience, that she prefers the company of men to that of women, I am not offended. I accept that she has probably met hundreds if not thousands of both sexes and knows her own mind. On hearing her say this, I do not feel a sudden urge to cajole her into loving all women in general or me in particular. I would find it rather rude of her to say so, but -- if it is a certain kind of woman -- rather lovably childish and needy. There is a certain fragility to the statement that drives me to respond with gentleness and secret amusement. This probably drives such a woman up the wall, but that can't be helped. If my sex is the problem, I've no intention of changing it.

hip2bsquare said...

I'm not the target audience for this post, but I'd like to comment on sciencegirl's third point.

I'm a man and I've always been a little wary of women who loudly proclaim to me that they can't stand the company of other women.

I've seen Mean Girls and I can understand why a woman wouldn't want to be part of that. That's an exaggeration of how bad things can be of course, but from Seraphic's description female friendship sounds like it can be exhausting, especially for female introverts and women who are not fans of going along to get along.

At the same time, when there's romantic potential between me and certain lady, my concern is that her lack of female attachments will mean that she will expect me to fulfill both the role of boyfriend/future husband and bestest bosom buddy. This will necessarily lead to frustration and disappointment because I am a man and make a poor substitute for a woman.

I think Seraphic has made the point in a previous post that the significant man in a woman's life, no matter how kind and supportive, is never a substitute for her closest girlfriend (or a gaggle of them) in the situations that require a female ear. I wholeheartedly agree. There are things husbands do better than a woman's girlfriends and things that girlfriends do better than a woman's husband because Men and Women Are Different. Vive la différence!

Meredith said...

THANK you, you are SO on point with this! I do believe it's important to be able to get along with any random group of women. No, it won't be your comfort zone. It may not be theirs either. But at least you can get along.

Eventually, everyone should find their own "group" where they can be themselves. I find large groups of strange women draining. But my bestest girl buddies? Never. They don't mind if I am less than tactful at all moments or if I hold forth on certain favorite topics. However, I can't expect that kind of tolerance from "the ladies at work" or "the moms at the playground." Random groups of women who don't know each other fall back on some basic rules so that they can all get along.

I only wish I'd read this post before ending up in a blog cat fight yesterday. Your tip that women who ask for your opinion might not actually want it would have been very helpful.

Seraphic said...

A clique--like gang--does not necessarily have negative connotations, though.

As for Siobhaedd electing herself liberator of the meal-grinding women and the kids--good luck. Most women (or most women until recently) were family firsters, and therefore will have their primary identity in their family and their secondary identity in their female collective and, unless very old or supremely confident, would have little time for her.

Seraphic said...

Meredith, women often ask for opinions when what they want is affirmation. Therefore the male answer to "Do I look fat in this dress?" is "You look beautiful" and the female answer, if yes, is a furrowed brow and a very long discussion about which dress she would go with. This gives dignity and importance to the whole subject.

Ginger said...

I realize I'm responding a little late, but I only just thought of it last night.

I have a part time job at an ice cream shop. It's my first real service job, and I made an observation: 90% of the customers throughout the day who are rude, difficult or just plain unfriendly are women. And then it dawned on me that at my receptionist job, most of the people who get upset and impatient when the attorney they want to speak with is out of the office, or they aren't getting their way for any number of reasons are also women, whereas in both jobs, rude men are much rarer.

I have nothing against women as friends, and this thought really just occured to me last night. What gives?

Tess C. said...

I know this is coming in a bit late but I just had to add in this thought. I was at a party last week when a guy I had only just met said in front of me, "Guys prefer hanging out with other guys. And girls prefer hanging out with guys too." As a matter of fact, I am one of those (rare?) girls who genuinely prefers the company of good female friends to the company of most men (exceptions being my closest male friends, my dad and guys who I have a crush on), and this near-stranger's comment made me want to scream. What is up with people assuming that girls don't like being friends with other girls? And why do so many girls go around saying "I like hanging out with guys better than girls" (including two of my sisters - ouch)?? It drives me absolutely batty. Hanging out with girls is genuinely more fun 98% of the time - you can squeal about cute men, eat whatever you want, not worry about your appearance, and otherwise relax and let loose as you can't when men are around. Admittedly, I've been blessed with a great ability to get along with most other women; for example, my mother's friends often hint (or tell me outright) that they want me to date their sons (the sons are generally less inclined). Or maybe I'm very blessed to be surrounded by exceptionally good and virtuous women friends; the many women friends whom I love all tend to be serious Catholics with a great capacity for empathy, charity and common sense. But I can't be the only girl in the world who loves her women friends and their company better than her male friends, excepting her husband someday... can I?

p.s. Auntie Seraphic, I'm living in Washington DC now, working full-time and all done with university... and I can't wait for your next book to come out! I recommend your blog to all my female friends. Lots of love from your #1 Notre Dame admirer, Tess.

Michelle said...

Just stumbled upon this post. I feel like I need to print it out and read it every day.

Especially on the point that most women are not into the whole detached argumentation thing. I almost alienated a good friend by trying to debate a sensitive difference of opinion as if it was a completely objective and detached principle. Bad idea. Though I still do think she's oversensitive, that's also what makes her an awesome friend. And I realize that I, with my robot-like detachment, make kind of a wooden friend. So I treasure her and I need to show her I do by being more sensitive.

(I exclaimed, "You're mad at me because I disagree with you??? I now recognize, this is pretty snobbish and condescending. Man, I have a lot to learn.)

Anyway, so glad I stumbled upon this blog - God really provides right when you need it, in totally unexpected ways, doesn't her? Thanks so much for your candor. I think that's what I admire and respect the most about you bloggers! :)