Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Friendship [or] Please Don't be That Woman

Tonight on our way home from taking dinner and socialization to some friends who just had a baby, Twelve and I had a great conversation about the social dynamics of her group of friends. It seems that they're starting to compete with each other for attention from the boys, for closeness with the queen bee (who I think is turning out to be her best friend L), and over the relative status of this or that consumer product. I'm really bad at recounting these conversations, but here goes.

She started by telling me about some things L does that are starting to get annoying, though she was a bit unclear about whether these are new behaviors or whether they're just now starting to bug her. L is whiny, she thinks her opinions are the final word, she has to be the best at everything. Apparently today Twelve was talking to the boy she likes about volleyball, and L turned around and started talking about how much better at volleyball she is than Twelve. When Twelve pointed out that her team had at least been league champions, L responded that, well, her team had been in a much harder league.

While it is in fact accurate to say that L is a better volleyball player than Twelve and that they had played at different levels, it seems that it is typical of L to highlight her belongings, her skills, her experiences, and so on, even at the expense of Twelve. When Twelve remarks that her legs are sore from the week's riding lesson, L (a highly accomplished rider) teases her about her legs *still* being sore. When Twelve shared that she had cantered by only her third lesson, L dismissively said that she'd been galloping for years. Twelve, at least in the retelling, just wants her best friend to be proud of her - or, at the very least, to not poop on her parade.

"I think she just wants to feel superior to everyone else" concluded Twelve, in a moment of brilliance.

Yes, my dear, that is exactly what's happening. You're right, it is ironic that L, who is so good at everything and owns several of everything else, would be the one who needs to put other people down in order to make herself feel better. It is ridiculous that she would work so hard to insert herself into your conversation with the boy you like. It is absolutely appalling that she can't even congratulate you on learning how to canter.

L just may be on the path to becoming That Woman. You know, the manipulative woman who bosses everyone around and flirts with all the men because she's insecure and not handling it well.

I told Twelve that I know exactly what it feels like to be in her position and that I felt that I could advise her, since adult women do the same damn thing, at least in the realm of competition for male attention. I was searching for the right words to emphasize the importance of what I was about to say when Twelve interjected with crucial. Yes, I said, it's crucial that you refuse to compete with other girls for the attention of the boys.

I think Twelve kind of gets this, because it's something that has come up for me and R a few times. For some reason, women who need more male attention than they're getting are drawn to R. Okay, he's a pretty handsome guy and Those Women usually do it to other men too, but it drives me nuts because it's so damn disrespectful of me when you fawn over my partner and pretend like I'm not STANDING RIGHT HERE. Seriously, Those Women try to connect with R while acting like I don't even exist, and it makes me crazy. It's particularly annoying when they are visibly triumphant when they are able to draw his attention away from me.

I am now extremely careful of my behavior when I first meet the women partners of men I've known for awhile. I make a point of talking to and making eye contact with both of them, orienting my shoulders toward the women instead of the men, avoiding subjects that are specific to whatever context in which I know him instead of her, etc.

Anyway, the following are instructions to Twelve that she will probably never read but will hopefully follow instinctively because of what she's observed in the adults in her life and what I've modeled for her. (And by 'modeled' I mean 'complained a lot within earshot.')

My dearest daughter,

Be a self-contained person. I don't mean you should try to be a totally independent person, but be an interdependent person among other confident people. You should not be dependent on attention and approval from other people to feel okay about yourself. Be okay with who you are without having to manipulate other people to make yourself feel better. Don't derive your sense of self from the extent to which you are able to get other people to do the tasks you don't want to do or the amount of attention you are able to get from someone. 

You mentioned tonight that, while L may be popular, you are able to get people to do things for you, and that they like to do things for you even though you are not necessarily their friend. This scares me, and if you hadn't waited until the end of our conversation to bring it up, we would have talked about it a bit more. We're definitely going to talk about it again another time, so just be prepared.

You say you're hetero now, Twelve, but you also still think sex is gross, so we'll use that as the example in what follows, but with the understanding that you may someday desire women instead of or in addition to men. In twenty years, when you're old enough for such things, of course. 

If you can help it, never compete for male attention, Twelve. It is a sign of weakness and of weak character. If a man is attracted to another woman, that means he is unavailable to you; it does not mean that it is appropriate for you to pursue his attention. It is fine and good to have men friends, but it is imperative to respect their women partners when they have them. No matter how tempting it may be to see your partnered male friends as convenient sources of male attention, don't go there. If you find that you simply must have attention from men, for the love of all that's holy (your Coach bag), get it from available ones. 

If no men seem interested in you at any given moment, be okay with that. Go ahead and keep an eye out for an attractive, funny, and intelligent partner who might be around the next bend, but do not, under any circumstances, ever shove another woman out of the way (metaphorically or physically) in pursuit of one. When you are in a group with more women than men, or when only a small number of the men are attractive, be your confident and beautiful self, but in the perpetual game of single womanhood, be a good sport.

Being a good sport is not that difficult; the Golden Rule applies. Don't do anything to another woman that you wouldn't want done to you. If you're in a social dance community (which you probably won't, given that you're growing up as a child of one), don't go up to a couple who are talking, perhaps even holding hands, and ask the guy to dance. You're interrupting, which is rude enough, and you're leaving her all alone, which is worse. You're also probably doing it at least partly because you feel like you're winning by taking him away from her, which is reprehensible.

If a man is talking to another woman, by all means join the conversation, but gracefully: Listen to what they are both saying and contribute as you like, but do not hijack. In particular, address your remarks to and make eye contact with both of them; never, ever, under any circumstances, attend only to him. Do not interrupt her to say something that will impress him. I know that you are capable of doing this very thing, my dear, and not only because you are currently a practiced interrupter of conversations. You have social skills, special social powers, and you must use them for good instead of evil. One of my biggest fears for you is that you will become a Mean Girl; I have been proud and relieved that you have not so far, and I'd hate for you to become That Woman later on.

Keep in mind that if a guy is attracted to you, you will know it. In the seventh grade, you will know because he will tell his best friend, who will tell your best friend, who will tell you. In adulthood, you will know because he will suddenly decide to attend that same upcoming dance event in Miami as you and casually books the seat next to you on the flight.

If you find yourself in a partnership and That Woman seems to have invaded your life, remain calm. If she gets your partner to run her errands and interrupts you to talk only to him or to ask him to dance in that sickly sweet voice with a triumphant undercurrent, do not panic. Wait to see if the pattern holds, and if it does, discuss it with your partner. He will not have noticed what's going on, so don't take it out on him. Acknowledge that he probably feels just a bit flattered, though he should know that if she's doing it with him, she's doing it with others. It's not about him, you see, it's about the fact that That Woman is insecure and it makes her feel better if she can get more attention than you, even from your own partner.

If yours is a good man, he'll eventually learn to recognize That Woman's manipulative shit and continue to be polite to her but will think to check in with you when she intrudes. Her behavior will soon become a shared joke between you and your partner, and you will magnanimously allow her to 'win' sometimes and learn how to establish boundaries when you need to. You probably don't see this very often because it happens when you're asleep, but R and I have pretty much figured it out: When I come back from a trip to the restroom or the bar and find that That Woman has installed herself at his side the moment I left it, I meet R's eyes, roll mine, he smiles at me, and I go talk to someone else. Later, he makes a point of coming to find me. When I am waiting while R puts on his dancing shoes and That Woman comes up to us and asks me if she can dance with him (yes, that happens from time to time, and it's just as absolutely ridiculous as it sounds, especially since it's clear from her tone of voice that she thinks she's going to get away with it), I reply that we were actually just about to dance together (as was clear from the way that I was STANDING THERE WAITING FOR HIM TO GET READY). Sometimes you must protect yourself from That Woman, but guard against finding too much satisfaction in triumphing over her; instead, find satisfaction in a strengthened relationship with your partner.

If yours is not a good man, heaven forbid, and encourages That Woman in her attentions or refuses to understand that it bothers you, then she's probably done you a favor. Let him have her, and wait for a worthy partner.

Do the right thing, my dear. Be the best self you can possibly manage, and if you can't be perfect, just don't be That Woman.

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