No, Everyone is Not Your Friend:
Friendship may be one of girlhood’s treasures, but it comes with a set of expectations that can set girls up to struggle in their other relationships.
As Girls Leadership co-founder Rachel Simmons showed in Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, girls often feel forced to protect friendships at any cost, so they take their true feelings – including aggression — underground.
Less discussed is the pressure girls face to be friends with everyone they meet. Part of growing up female in our culture — what psychologists call gender intensification — is learning from media, adults, and peers that “good girls” are supposed to have lots of friends and be universally liked.
The result is that many girls believe friendship is the default relationship with peers, and even (sometimes) with teachers and coaches. By this logic, everyone you meet is a new friend. Sounds innocuous enough – what’s so bad about being friends with everyone? – but we see worrisome costs. Here are a few:
When you think everyone is your friend, girls judge relationships in broad strokes – either you’re a friend or enemy, but nothing in between.
If “friend” is the only valid connection for girls, what happens when a relationship ebbs or grows apart, and is clearly no longer a friendship? When girls don’t see relationship as a spectrum, they lack the language to imagine a range of possible relationships. They can’t rethink a damaged friendship – say, repositioning a friend in a more distant acquaintance role. The only alternative becomes “worst enemy.” This can push girls into more tense, oppositional dynamics than they need or want.
Girls don’t learn to set boundaries.
A friendship is an intimate connection built over time. It involves slowly earning trust and deepening a connection. But if every new person a girl meets is a “friend,” the expectation is for quick intimacy, even at the expense of protecting yourself. A girl may reveal personal information too soon, and get taken advantage of by the new “friend.” When the default relationship is friendship, many leap without looking. They don’t get practice, or instruction, in setting healthy boundaries.
Girls don’t learn to differentiate between friends, acquaintances, classmates, and so on.
Most people name, and enjoy, a spectrum of relationships. Some of these connections are intrinsically valuable – you love someone for their sense of humor, or trustworthiness – while others may be more instrumental. Instrumental relationships help you acquire something: for example, a classmate might nominate a girl to win an award or help her get a babysitting job. A teammate might practice with her on weekends to improve her jump shot.
How a girl benefits from a spectrum of friendships:
Grasping the full range of relationships is key to becoming a skillful networker when entering the workforce. In today’s economy, where most people have many jobs over the course of their careers, success depends on understanding how one can help and be helped by others – in ways that have nothing to do with friendship.
Teaching girls that it’s okay not to be friends with everyone will actually make them respect friendship more. Think about it this way: when someone apologizes all the time, the word “sorry” loses its meaning. Likewise, if everyone is your friend, what’s so special about friendship? Learning to set boundaries also gives girls permission to back away from relationships they resent, and cultivate more authenticity in their social lives.
In her research for Odd Girl Out, Rachel discovered that African American girls are more likely to differentiate between friends and acquaintances, a practice they learned from their mothers. Some researchers speculate that centuries of discrimination (and worse) have led African American mothers to coach their children to be cautious of new peers. Interestingly – and perhaps not unrelated — while research finds that girls universally lose confidence as they approach adolescence, African American girls fare best: they lose the least self-esteem of any other group of girls.
Talk About It:
Ask your daughter if she knows the difference between a friend and an acquaintance? Talk together about the criteria for each role.
Do you enjoy a range of relationships? Increase your girl’s relationship vocabulary by using language like “acquaintance” and “colleague” to describe your peers. Identify your girl’s peers similarly by using terms like “classmate,” “teammate,” and so on.
Do you automatically describe your daughter’s peers as her friends, even ones she doesn’t know well?
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (Revised and updated) by Rachel Simmons
Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write About Bullies, Cliques, Popularity & Jealousy by Rachel Simmons
From BFF to “Friend Divorce:” The 5 Truths We Should Teach Our Girls About Friendship on Time.com
The Myth of the BFF on RachelSimmons.com