Feb 062012

So, I’ve been thinking about bullying lately – specifically girl bullies.

I just wrote this post about how to communicate, ending with the thought that, in addition to being able to tell someone how their behavior makes you feel, you really need to be able to HEAR when someone tells you how your behavior makes them feel.

Well now. For some people, asserting one’s feelings and needs is the hard part, and for other people, taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions (especially in the form of someone else’s hurt feelings) is the hard part.

Which is where bullying comes in.

Boiled down to nothing, the dynamics among girls are such that it’s not okay to tell someone you’re angry with them or hurt by them, because then you’re “in a fight,” and the other girl will rope in friends to side against you, she’ll escalate your offences in order to maintain those friends’ alliance, and they’ll use that alliance to isolate and stigmatize you.

Eventually one of you will apologize, and whoever apologizes “loses.” They capitulated.

It’s a zero-sum world where only one person is allowed to be hurt at a time, and usually that person is the one with greater social capital.

The alpha girls (“queen bees”) of this scenario are characteristically uninterested in taking responsibility for another person’s hurt feelings, insisting that that person is “too sensitive” or has blown everything out of proportion. She feels entitled to take revenge when someone hurts her, but judges and shames anyone who attempts revenge on her or even tries to communicate with her that she hurt them.

In other words, she is TERRIBLE at hearing that her behavior made someone feel bad, and she has the social capital to punish the other person for saying anything.

What on earth do we do to get this person to listen?

Better question: what is it that’s preventing her from listening?

1. It sucks to feel that you’ve hurt someone’s feelings; it doesn’t align with your vision of yourself as a good person. If you perceive yourself as a good person AND you’re very popular, doesn’t that prove you’re a good person and therefore this other person must be wrong?

2. Apologizing is capitulating, losing – specifically, losing social capital, which is the primary currency among these groups. There is more to lose (in the short term) by acknowledging responsibility for hurting this person than there is by pushing blame on to the target.

3. For some people it genuinely does not compute, this notion that you’re NOT actually allowed to do anything you want. Especially when you’re popular. “I’m allowed to do what I want and if she doesn’t like it, she can suck on it,” is what feels fundamentally true to the alpha girl.

4. In these cultures, negative feelings are viewed as weapons: simply to FEEL BAD is to hurt those around you. It’s a classic emotion dismissing framework, where people are punished simply for feeling hurt or angry or sad or lonely or overwhelmed. In such a culture, for me to say to you, “When you do X, that hurts my feelings” is to HURT YOU. I threw my hurt all over you, like vitriol, and therefore you’re allowed to do whatever you need to defend yourself.

What to do about it. Just as with other forms of violence, it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to learn to protect themselves, but prevention really lies with the perpetrator: to prevent bullying or any form of emotional abuse, potential bullies/alpha girls/whatever MUST learn to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

I don’t know how to do this. But if you’re a person who has believed that you’re allowed to do what you like and it’s not your fault if it hurts people, understand that there are rules about what is okay or not in a fight:

1. No name calling of any kind. No “bitch” or “asshole” or anything.
2. No physical touch when either person is angry.
3. No ultimatums or threats, including “I’m going to leave you” while either person is angry or upset
4. Your feelings do not entitle you to anything.
5. If someone says your behavior made them feel something, your first job is to believe them. They are reporting true and important information.

And finally:

The social rules you learned in school or from your parents are not necessarily the ones that will serve you well in life. If you cling to those old rules because they are familiar, you will be trapped in the same pattern of relationships you’ve always experienced. If you are satisfied and content with those relationships, okay. If you would like to improve your relationships, it’s time to find some new rules to follow.

Emily Nagoski

  21 Responses to “listen.”

Comments (20) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Thanks for speaking up on this. I’ve read that girls and women are more likely to engage in relational aggression than boys or men. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relational_aggression) With males, the aggression is more overt, more obvious, and thus easier to recognize. Women bullies are much more likely to exclude people from social events, spread lies about others, gossip, shun, shame, betray secrets, and whatever else it takes to socially isolate their victims. And women often don’t think of these behaviors as bullying or even wrong – but merely what they need to do protect themselves and their reputations.

    It’s not just girls on the middle school playground who use these forms of bullying. I’ve seen a lot of women from their 20′s through 60′s do the same.

  2. Hey Emily…I am SO with you on this. In 1996 I started Girls on the Run for many reasons but getting past this social construct around feelings and how some feelings for girls are considered BAD…was one of my motivations. Girls on the Run helps girls “reconstruct” their view on emotions so that they relabel….feeling anger doesn’t make you good or bad…it just is a normal part of the human experience. If you get a minute…I talk about it a little bit in this Tedx talk. I am loving everything about your blog and appreciate your voice in this world! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw8hnAq0wbQ

  3. I have a lot of experience with emotional bullies and at times in my life was also one. Learning to communicate my own feelings and learning to accept those of others have been two processes that go hand in hand. I still find it incredibly angering and frustrating when I have to have a conversation about how someone´s actions make me feel when that person is highly defensive, very, very sensitive and/or emotionally irresponsible. I feel like it is impossible to have a constructive conversation with people with these characteristics. Any suggestions?

  4. I’m curious about the “no touching” injunction. On the one hand, I get it — because when people are angry sometimes touch doesn’t feel good. On the other hand, I find with my partner (we’re both women) that we communicate better in a bad moment when we’re in physical contact. It seems to be reassuring to both of us that the argument/hurt feelings don’t equal rejection on either side – that we’re upset about a specific thing, not that the entire relationship is going down the tubes. It seems like touch could work in positive as well as negative ways. So I’m interested in your reasoning behind the recommendation.

    • In general, people can’t trust their hands when they’re angry. Anger happens when the fight/flight/flee response is triggered by a perceived threat and the embodied mind assesses the threat as defeatable through attack (rather than escapable by flight). Regardless of what a person’s well-intentioned pre-frontal cortex tells them, they’re brain is treating the perceived threat as a target for attack. Except under rare circumstances (which yours might well be), people are safer (and solve their conflicts more effectively) when they save touch for soothing fear (flight-based stress) and grief (freeze-based stress), when the body isn’t primed for aggression.

      • A belated thanks for that. I think our success with touch may stem from the fact it’s often very tangled with fear respose.

      • meaning fear of rejection due to conflict. Touch can take that out of the equation and help us focus on the actual issue.

  5. Wow. The part that begins with “Boiled down to nothing-”… to the letter what a female relative did.

  6. I was very, very intrigued by this post, Emily. It is about as concise and complete observation of real female group dynamics as I’ve seen. I’m watching my own daughter deal with this already in Elementary School, and it’s just awful. And it’s only going to get worse in Middle School.

    But it also begs the question (in my mind) that if girls are socialized to respond and behave like this with other girls, are’t they also using this standard of behavior in their first romantic relationships with boys? It’s my observation that most young women in their first “real” adult relationships with a young man end up assuming a “queen bee” type of dominant role, after they have established the basic security of the relationship. In other words, she treats her boyfriend as she would a socially inferior female and subjects him to the same patterns of behavior she would as if she had become the “queen bee” of her own private little clique. Indeed, the lower the social status of the girl in the female hierarchy, I’ve noticed a greater tendency to overcompensate in her relationship towards her boyfriend.

    For example, if she solicits his “honest feelings” about the relationship and he has any complaints, then the woman often treats him as if he’s transgressed in the same way she would treat a girlfriend who complained that she’d hurt her feelings, that is, with shame, indifference, judgement, accusations of over-sensitivity, emasculating language and even some sort of revenge or retribution far in excess (to a male’s estimation) of what is appropriate.

    Boys, on the other hand, have a completely different pattern of social behavior and hierarchy. When that runs afoul of the female version, hilarity (and tragedy) often ensue.

    I’m curious, could you extrapolate this type of group dynamic social behavior across a wider population, say, how feminism treats masculinity? It would explain a lot of the reaction to MRAs and other pro-masculine advocates by feminists, and the general disrespect that feminism feels towards those who claim to be injured by it. If feminism adopted the social behavior of the “queen bee” alpha female when it felt under attack, then that would explain a lot of the shaming language and emasculation that gets tossed around when it is criticized. Of course that would suggest that feminism, as an intellectual and academic pursuit, is hampered by the same kind of female socialization as girl bullies are, limiting both its effectiveness in our wider culture and its appeal to a wider audience. I’d be interested in knowing your take on this.

    • That’s a lot to extrapolate. And that’s a rather narrow look of feminism in the sense of scope.

    • No, the rules girls follow with boys are totally different – “Queen Bees and Wanna Be’s” has some info on this (see especially “fruit cup girl”), and I particularly like the writings of Rachel Simmons on the subject. Mostly girls are likely to pretend they’re dumber and less competent in an attempt to make a guy feel more secure with her.

      Basically girls use relational aggression because the culture doesn’t allow them to use straightforward physical aggression, an outlet more readily available to boys.

    • Ian, why do your comments often have some element of “women who humiliate and manipulate their male partners”?

      Why are you making yet another generalization about women and feminism?

      • Perhaps because I’ve seen a lot of women humiliate and manipulate their male partners?

        I’m making another OBSERVATION about women and feminism because I’m an astute observer of humanity, and I’ve studied the matter extensively.

        Emily, thanks for the clarification. I’m curious if the “dumb girl” presentation is consistent throughout the relationship, or just in the infatuation stages — say, until the girl feels secure in the relationship, when she feels comfortable being herself and responding to her boyfriend more naturally and unguarded. Because I’ve seen plenty of girls (and women) respond to their male partners in secure relationships in ways which suggest they were establishing social dominance in the feminine manner, but only once the relationship matured to a relative point of stability.

  7. This is brilliant. I love the way you’ve fused psychology and culture to explain a phenomenon and suggest ways to counteract it. I wish everyone would read and understand this.

  8. When this started with the words “girls” and “bullying” my mind immediately jumped to middle school bullying, as opposed to adults bullying each other. I *wish* a refusal to accept responsibility for hurt feelings was the crux of bullying for me when I was young; my attackers positively reveled in seeing my emotional distress and redoubled their efforts every time I tried to say anything back. For years.
    That aside and as an adult, though, I see patterns of exactly what you’ve described here in my own life now. Thank you for putting into words what has never made sense to me.
    My rhetorical question: Where does the fuzzy line between bullying and emotional abuse start?

    • Who says there is a fuzzy line between bullying and emotional abuse? I see emotional abuse as just one of many types of bullying. If a bully can get what they want through emotional abuse, they will do that. If they can get it through gaslighting, they will do that too. If physical violence works, bullies will use that tactic as well. Shaming and isolation are just two more tools in the bully’s mental toolbox.

      • I guess you’re right. Somehow I’ve always had this idea that emotional abuse is more of a long-term, potentially systematic thing, playing off of the victim’s attachment to the abuser (think Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), and that bullying is of a more shallow nature (like schoolyard taunting).
        Each bully’s mental toolbox is certainly a unique assortment of finely-honed tools.
        I understand the concept, but do not recall having heard the term “gaslighting” before. Thank you for the vocabulary expansion.

  9. your idea is very good .

  10. This is an important and distressing subject. Its particular distressing because the victim has so little power to change the interaction. As I see it, the only action available is to seek another social group, where the queen bee is not highly regarded and empathy is.
    I see some of this in my daughter’s high school experience. There are a pair of girls in one of her classes. One feels entitled to may disdainful comments to her friend toward everyone else. The rest of the class roll their eyes. Their power is limited because no one likes them.
    Can you suggest other ways for the victim to fight this?

  11. Thank you for posting a topic on this subject. I am a high school teacher and currently have two female students who are not hearing each other. It is an all female class and its beginning to draw the other students into their conflict. Could you (or other posters) recommended some further reading? Specifically, I’d love to know activities/experiences I might be able to do in the classroom to help foster better listening skills.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.