There is something we are told as children and teens that most of us hang on to with hope as we pack ourselves off to the real world. It is that bullies – specifically “mean girls” — are part of those years alone, and that once we leave our insular ecosystem of primary and high school, everyone will just…grow up and cut the crap. As we all soon discover: this is utter fiction. The truth is that mean girls become mean women, and every last one of us has the capacity to take out our own small, evil-spirited little demons on others in an attempt to feel better.
I was one of those naive wide-eyed bumpkins who took off for the “real world” thinking my days of being made to feel small for stupid reasons was behind me. I spent a good part of my tween and teenhood being targeted by mean girls. I even spent a very sad few months in eighth grade eating lunch in a large, rarely used school bathroom, afraid that if I actually ate in public — alone — I might spontaneously combust. It did get better, as the Trevor Project now tells teens it will.
I spent the summer after that devastating year growing a thicker skin, hanging out with people who weren’t necessarily “popular,” but who definitely were (and are) cool. I then came back to school with a confidence that stopped the mean-girl torture in its tracks. It didn’t stay good forever, high school was a bumpy road for me, like it is for most that don’t naturally fit in, but the lesson I learned that summer carried, and I was never again invested the way I used to be in being popular, or having the “right” friends.
The trouble with that lesson was that it applied strictly to my social world. I have kept it with me and because of it have fewer, better friends now, rather than many lesser, meaner ones. I still don’t tolerate being made to feel small or stupid or ugly in my friendships. The problem now lies in the complicated adult world — work and the quasi-social sphere that accompanies it, and I know I am not alone in the return to high school anguish.
Work is a place where some of the qualities of being a mean girl can often seem handy. Not being sensitive is usually a good thing at work, as is directness. As a naturally shy, sensitive person, when I entered the work force, I had to tap into another, harder and less gentle version of myself to be able to succeed. On tapping into it, I came to realize I had had it all along, which then led to another epiphany, brought on by an episode of 30 Rock. (Tina Fey, creator of the film Mean Girls, obviously has a way with this subject matter.) In it, Liz Lemon goes to a reunion thinking that she had been a nerd, bullied throughout her school years by the popular clique. She discovers when she gets there that the defensive humour she thought she was using to disarm her bullies was actually mean-spirited bullying in its own right.
As I redeveloped the part of myself able to take criticism without batting an eyelash — giving equal attention to honing my skill at and dishing it out as easily — I started to see that when I think back, I wasn’t just the sad girl eating lunch alone. I was a snob sometimes. I wasn’t always nice to those I didn’t “get,” and I brushed away offers of friendship from people for one reason or another, as cavalierly as the popular girls ignored my own offers.
This epiphany helped me immensely. On its discovery I realized that even now, while feeling left out, intimidated, or even picked on at the office, I was probably doing the same thing to some poor, hapless co-worker. For this reason, my advice is twofold. First, one must avoid the bullies (and not by eating lunch in a closet, although I have been tempted once or twice to take it up again). Second, one mustn’t become a bully.
Stage one is challenging in that “work mean girls” (and I say “girls” because their weapon is bitchiness, but they can easily be women, boys or men as well) have all the same reasons to pick on you as the kind you recall from your schooldays (money, appearance, personality traits they don’t understand). However, they also have a whole new host of reasons that have a sharper bite: your work performance, pinpointed the moment it becomes a threat, like what would happen were you to catch the eye of a high school mean girl’s crush. To combat it, you must identify the reason. If they are your superior, you need to identify it even more carefully, it could in fact come down to your job performance and not be a mean girl issue at all. If it is legitimately about the job you’re doing, and they are just dealing with you in a bitchy, unprofessional way, you have two choices: suck it up and get better at your job, or leave.
The complications come when it isn’t about you being bad at something, but instead being too good, or too different, or not conforming enough to the office ideal. In these cases, the best way to cope with it is to figure out why that person is feeling so badly about herself (passed over for a promotion, feeling uncomfortable in a new environment, getting picked on herself by someone higher up). Once you realize that her mean girl bravado is fueled by fear and insecurity, it will be easier to see that a) she isn’t perfect and b) she is most likely threatened by a quality she sees in you that she feels she is lacking herself. This may not make you like her any better, and it won’t make you friends, but it will be far easier to let her sticks and stones bounce off knowing this.
Stage two: not becoming a mean girl yourself, takes us back to the Kindergarten days and the Golden Rule. Yep, that’s the one: treat others as you would like to be treated. It is a fine line at the office between being authoritative and direct, and picking on things outside of someone’s job description. You may not like all your colleagues, and there is no need to be honey and sweet all the time, but there is a need for professionalism, which means not leaving people out, talking behind their backs, or calling them out publicly for things that aren’t directly related to work i.e. no offhand remark about how many calories are in their sandwich or how you didn’t realize they were still making chinos with pleats. When it comes to the personal, remind yourself it is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS IF IT’S NOT ABOUT BUSINESS. Another good reminder? How bad would you feel if you heard that someone talked about you behind your back? Just like in high school, everything always gets back to everyone, so best to leave the gossipy bitch session to brunch with your non-work girlfriends.
In the long run I will take my teenage self’s advice: it is better to be less popular, but more nice, than the inverse. Now that we are (almost) grown up it’s become even truer. At the end of the day, a mean girl eventually is just a mean woman, and there’s nothing cute about that.