I’ve just read a book chapter that essentially confirms something we often don’t publicly acknowledge: women and girls can be really horrible to each other. It also confirms that student life can be really hard. The two points seem worth unpacking a bit.
In the last few days I’ve been described as gregarious on two separate occasions, which was quite surprising considering I didn’t feel part of a secure social circle until I was 24. My school and university years were lonely, and I never quite managed to find ‘my people’ – largely because I didn’t have the confidence or resources to go looking for them. Only when I started my first permanent teaching job, in a school where I was immediately welcomed on interview day, did I feel accepted, included, looked after, listened to. My friends there had similar interests and social habits to me, and I am still in touch with many of them now. Making a conscious decision to become involved in their social interactions has given me the confidence to make new friendships in the places I’ve moved on to since that first job. Despite this increased assurance, however, my preferred social activities are still generally small-scale: As an old friend from the UK said to one of my new Canadian friends last week, “the thing about Alison is that everyone else will still be chatting at work, and she’s snuck home to get into her pyjamas.”
So, why has this chapter got me all annoyed with women? It’s Chapter 4 from Paying for the party: how college maintains inequality, by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. The chapter is part of a longitudinal study of female students who lived on a particular floor in a ‘party dorm’ during their first year as undergraduates at an American university. It was glaringly apparent to the researchers just how unpleasant and excluding some of the women were to their neighbours. I recommend reading the chapter, especially if you are a current or soon-to-be university student; it provides a lot of food for thought about how to use social interactions positively, and how better to understand the actions of those around you. In fact, if I weren’t so busy being a gregarious party girl myself (said in jest!), I’d be tempted to read the whole book. I’m particularly curious about the extent to which this chapter reflects typically female behaviours and attitudes. How would a similar study in a male setting compare? Are some men and boys as unpleasant and calculating in their interactions? Perhaps they are, but it’s less obvious to me because I have not experienced the manner in which it occurs.
Some reflections, then. If you know someone who is going to university, DON’T say that it’ll be the time of their life, that you know they’ll love it, that they’ll meet the friends they keep for life. Hearing things like that just reinforces the sense of unhappiness if someone is struggling socially – and the article highlights the correlation between social isolation and academic difficulties. DO encourage people at university to find others with similar interests, working habits and lifestyles, preferably within the university community. ‘Old friends’ are great, and shouldn’t be forgotten about, but they often can’t help you to flourish in a new environment.
The chapter made me think about two particular social groups that also emerge in environments other than university; the ‘popular group’ or ‘party girls’, and the ‘losers’ or ‘social isolates’. My experience as a teacher showed me that the ‘popular group’ often aren’t actually liked by the rest of their peers – it’s just assumed that they are. They look attractive, exude confidence, appear to make social connections easily, and do enough work to get by whilst visibly spending a lot of their time having fun. In contrast, the individuals who are most popular with their peer group tend to be those who look out for others, who are genuine in their interactions, and who are happy to acknowledge both weakness and success. The losers, ironically, are probably the most interesting people in any peer group, the ones with thoughtfully-accumulated knowledge and unusual stories to tell.
Today, I’m incredibly lucky to have a large, diverse group of friends. Would they all get along with each other? Probably not. And since I don’t like parties much anyway, I’m unlikely ever to invite them all to one location and find out. But I’m so grateful that they have helped me to become ‘gregarious’ and that, from all around the world, they are helping me to have ‘the time of my life’ right now.