Karol Maybury: Grace McIntosh, welcome.
Grace McIntosh: Hello! Thank you for having me.
KM: So Grace, in the last podcast, we covered the psychological research on ostracism, as well as the book “Wonder” and “The Hundred Dresses.”
GM: I remember those books! They are both so good.
KM: They were! So for this next segment, we wanted to ask a pro—a high school student who understands ostracism from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Can you advise us about what girl world and social exclusion are like? How are girls ostracized?
GM: I think the first thing that is striking about girls and social aggression is how indirect it is. If a girl gets mad at someone, they often don’t tell the person, or at least not in a straightforward way. They let them figure it out by ostracizing them. A girl group may try to get other people involved in the exclusion. A quick way to ostracize a girl is to start a rumor about her, which may or may not be based in a nugget of fact. There also may be pressure in the group to not defend the girl if one of the group members hears someone else repeat a rumor.
KM: I see. How else do people let a girl know that she isn’t welcome or ‘part of the crowd’?
GM: These include ignoring a girl when she walks into a classroom, sits down in a club or meeting, or pretending not to see her in the hallway. In a more obvious move, they may block her when she tries to sit down in an open seat on the bus or in the lunchroom (those are two prime spots for ostracism). Some girls will cluster together and laugh at some inside joke, or turn the cold shoulder when the odd-girl-out tries to say hello. Whispering to another girl and looking blankly or harshly at the odd-girl-out is another way girls let a girl know that she’s not wanted.
KM: I think everyone can relate to how much exclusion can hurt. In our last segment we looked at some psychological research that has shown that being excluded in the ways you mention actually impacts the human brain like physical pain.
GM: Everyone has had some degree of being pushed away and ostracized. And I think everyone can relate how much it can hurt. The hierarchy of a friendship group is a key part of understanding social exclusion. You often have a queen or queens who feel they can treat others as less-than because they have a higher state of social power. In order to maintain their status, they may target certain girls whom they don’t like and get their friends in on it too. The target may be a low status girl, or a higher status girl that she feels threatened by.
KM: Yes, I remember reading exactly that in Rosalind Wiseman’s book on the roles girls play in cliques. Like in the movie “Mean Girls,” the girl comes to a new school and a war breaks out between the existing and aspiring queen bees. They end up doing some pretty harsh things to each other to gain social power.
GM: Yes I love that movie. I remember it portrays really well the common and tough choice of “ostracizing the girl and staying in the group, or defending the girl and losing the group” This is what I like to call the “Better her, than me” situation. I think girls fear losing their friends so much that they will do aggressive things to other girls like ostracizing them or starting a terrible rumor. It can be anything from ignoring someone in conversation, ignoring their texts, all the way to deliberately targeting them with something completely made up.
In social media, it can involve unfriending, or not including a girl’s name from your friend group when making a list with a bunch of friends and a hashtag like #bestfriends4ever! Or a caption stating “I love all of my bestfriends” on Instagram: taking a photo of girls at a party and posting it. The “odd girl out” sees it and is given the message loud and clear: you don’t belong. Or, posting a photo and deliberately cropping out a girl or not tagging her name in the photo.
KM: Yes—Rachel Simmons just did a great article in the Time magazine on how girls use Instagram to figure out their social standing and jockey for social position.
GM: Instagram is a great way to stay connected but there’s a dark side to it. A friend visiting from another state just told me that sometimes a girl will cancel plans with a friend, then post a photo of herself another event, on the same evening. That’s a pretty strong message: I chose a better social option. You lose. It’s a real put-down. But it’s often done so subtly so that only the one girl gets the message.
On another social media app, Snapchat— girls will post photos of their group of friends hanging out to their “story,” which allows all of their friends on Snapchat to view the picture for 24 hours. The odd girl out might view this photo on Snapchat and feel disconnected, hurt and, of course, ostracized.
KM: Wow. I appreciate getting this insight into how some of this works. Those apps, and how they work are, to some degree, out of the eyesight of parents and teachers. Simmons has also said that triangulation: getting some girls on one girl’s side, and against another girl… often in a really subtle manipulative way, is used by girls to isolate a girl.
GM: Yes. Girls do tend to be more indirect with their aggression and the target will often not want to point out what’s happening to a parent or teacher out of embarrassment. They don’t want to seem babyish, or like a loser. Another way girls make a girl feel ostracized is to start a rumor about her, or call her names (sometimes a name is a play on her actual name, which is really cruel and can make her feel even greater self-doubt). The rumor thing is especially hurtful, because someone can start one and just step back and watch the damage happen to the girl. Rumors get repeated really quickly because people often love a juicy story, without evidence of whether it is true. It can be confusing because some of this can happen without a girl’s knowledge, and she only sees the result— people ignoring her or being cold.
KM: So what can people do (girls, their parents, teachers and others who want to help)?
GM: I think being tactful is the first order: remembering the golden rule: do unto others as you would want done to you. “Be kinder than necessary” is a great rule of thumb for school… and life in general. Seek out that type of person when you’re considering a potential friend. Also, I think it is smart to think carefully about the person in your girl group that has the most social power. Do you trust her? Not trusting a friend is a really harsh place to be in life, and there are other options.
KM: Rachel Simmons has a story about a girl who was bullied terribly in middle school, but then found some true friends later in life, and she talks about the contrast. She compared her adult women friends to the people she thought were her friends in high school. She said they were completely trustworthy. She said, “I’d give them my car keys, my wallet, my dog, and I know I’d get them back.”
GM: Yes. We need more of that earlier in life: in high school and middle school! When thinking about your friends, think: Is this someone who talks meanly about other people behind their back? Is she really competitive? Is she unpleasant? It’s tricky because sometimes the girl can be nice. Or she may have a wicked sense of humor, and she’s nice to the people who like her, or has other attributes, like popularity, or easy-going parents, or friends with cute boys. All of this can make it difficult or confusing to decide to distance yourself from a girl, but at the end of the day here’s the deal: You want to be with a person who is inclusive, and is the same person to people’s faces as she is behind their backs. A good friend, even one or two, are worth way more than even the most sought-after girl, if she’s cruel even part of the time. It’s better to be alone, even, then to be someone’s doormat.
Thanks so much for sharing these ideas, Grace. Grace and I have some other suggestions to combat the power of ostracism in your school, your circle, your town:
GM: Let your daughter know that you “get it.” Be attentive and sympathetic. Open your arms rather than rushing to open your mouth to solve the problem.
KM: If your daughter is facing exclusion, as her: “What do you think would help?” and “What is the end result that you want from this situation?” It may not be tied up in a neat bow, but helping your daughter advocate for herself, or advocating for your daughter, can be done effectively. Sometimes it’s not even about resolution, but a sense that you and your daughter have set the boundary of contact. I recently watched a really good video about how to end a friendship, if you have good reasons for doing so. The video, produced by the Girls’ Leadership institute may be helpful in social exclusion circumstances, as well as other times when a girl finds she needs to set boundaries in her friendships.
GM: Make home an oasis. Limit the reach of ostracism through social media by parking devices after a certain time of day. If she’s willing to share, ask her to show you how people ostracize on Instagram, Facebook, etc. She’s the pro, here! Ask her to help you understand.
KM: Help your daughter make new friendships. (This may take time). Think about your daughter’s interests that are outside of the ostracizer/ostracizing group. Try to prioritize those social / athletic / music/ scouting / book group opportunities. Recognize that popularity is often important in middle and high school, and don’t dismiss her concerns about not being part of the “in” crowd. You and she might be comforted by the fact that research shows that being able to socialize with a large variety of kids rather than only the ‘in’ crowd actually predicts social competence later in life.
GM: If you, the parent, think that the group isn’t healthy or positive, but your daughter doesn’t necessarily see it the same way, ask her these questions suggested by Nancy Gruver, author of “How to Say it to Girls: Communicating with your Growing Daughter”: “How do you feel inside about this group?” “Does this group do the things you care about?” “Can you be yourself with them?” I remember my parents asking me, once, when I was sizing up a peer: “What does he/she think is funny? A person’s character is often revealed in what they find humorous.”
KM: It can be healing to reach out to others who are in need through volunteer work. Helping others who are in distress will provide perspective and sense of power. Praise her sensitivity toward others. Mary Pipher advises this in her classic book “Reviving Ophelia.” Pipher suggests that volunteer work with those in need provides a girl a better understanding of empathy, and can put her own setbacks into perspective.
GM: I would add that when parents understand that her current situation sucks, that helps, too. But they can add it is also just a snapshot in life. Things will get better.
KM: Parents have the luxury of perspective—living longer than our daughters who may feel like ‘this will last forever’. Watch a movie like “Mean Girls,” which not only shows ostracisim in its different guises, but also has a hopeful ending. Life won’t always be like it is now, and she’ll have more and more power to bring good people into her life, and avoid the toxic ones, as she grows older.
Finally, if your child is being ostracized, it might be tempting for her to lash out angrily to her tormentors. Some previous research suggests that this is not preferable, and can often escalate the situation. Consider the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan’s advice: a “calm assertive” response to aggression. She may have to practice this, because ostracizers can be intimidating! Having a goal of gentle distance, cordiality, and switching her attention and energy toward forging friendships with girls with mutual interests may be the right path. Also, you can advise her that people sometimes change (whether it’s a year or a decade later). Some research bears out this idea that considering the reasons a girl, or girl group, ostracizes others can be beneficial in reducing aggressive responses.
Finally, for our teen and parent listeners: if you hear this and have second thoughts about something you yourself have done wrong, you’re not alone. Kudos to you for thinking through how to be the change you want to see in the world. That takes courage. I loved this line from the book “Wonder”: “One mistake does not define you...You must simply act better next time.”
Thank you for listening. In our upcoming podcasts, we’ll be examining some of the most-requested topics from a recent listener poll: We’ll examine the psychology of how to encourage your daughter to have high standards for seeking (and being) an awesome partner in a romantic relationship someday; and also dealing with jealousy in academic, athletic, and social settings. Finally, there is a growing body of research on gratitude and how to foster that in our lives for psychological benefit. We’ll examine how gratitude can help us (girls, women and parents) navigate the adolescent years for maximum positivity and minimal pain.
Grace, thank you for joining us today and giving us some insights into girl world.
GM: Thank you for interviewing me. I enjoyed it.
This is the Adolescent Girls Podcast for the Society for the Psychology of Women. Until next time, thank you for raising and being strong girls.