When I was little, I once told my new friend at school that my family owned horses. We didn’t. I guess I never stopped to wonder what she would think when she finally came to my house and realized the truth, but I felt compelled to share this misinformation after she mentioned that her grandparents lived on a farm.
It didn’t end there. From slight exaggerations to bald-faced lies, I couldn’t stop myself from lying nearly every day.
This lying stage was back during the stint when my family was religious, and while the guilt was never enough to actually prevent me from doing it, I was convinced there was something wrong with me. So I’d vow to stop telling lies, only to casually mention to my neighbor the next day that I was going to the Olympics for figure skating.
Years later, during a gender communication course in college, I was relieved to learn that this tick is actually something most little girls do. Even though it may seem worrisome that a child is lying her face off, the intention is simple: to increase similarity. Instead of one-upping each other like boys, girls seek ways to relate to each other in the hopes it will forge a connection between them, somehow intuitively grasping from a young age that like-minded people stick together.
Even though adult women may not openly lie to one another, we do continue to draw on similarities in order to make friends. Listen to a conversation among girls talking and it goes something like,
“I totally hate when that happens.”
“Oh my God, me too!”
(The parody Sh*t Girls Say hilariously nails this on the head.)
Once they’ve established they’re friends, girls even dress alike. When I was 10, my friends Ashley, Brittney, and I all had identical bathing suits—blue with orange flowers—and we weren’t embarrassed to wear them together. They were like a badge honoring our friendship and sameness.
As grown ups, a group of girlfriends out at a bar is no different. It can be almost comical to see four or five college girls all struggling into multiple pairs of ill-fitting skinny jeans, or donning similarly revealing outfits in 30-degree weather. I mean, what are friends for if not to reinforce your stupid decisions and avoiding telling you the truth about your back fat?
This behavior may seem silly, but it’s actually reflective of a larger cultural theory called face negotiation, first proposed by Stella Ting-Toomey in 1985. “Face” refers to our self-image or self-worth, and it's maintained and negotiated through communication. When there is a conflict, or face is threatened, culture dictates how to respond.
People from collectivist cultures are most concerned with group face, and therefore they usually adopt less direct conflict styles, valuing inclusion, acceptance, and cooperation above all. Conversely, people from an individualistic culture value autonomy, self-sufficiency, and have more direct styles of communication during conflict.
It's interesting, then, that while American culture is individualistic by nature, the cultural style of female gender tends toward collectivistic norms. This is evident in workplaces where women commonly disclose their mistakes to one another in order to increase inclusion and save group face. If you mess something up and go to tell your female colleague, she’ll usually commiserate with you.
Men, on the other hand, don't often engage in this type of communication. My boyfriend once told me a saying he learned in military recon training: Rule Number One: Always look cool; Rule Number Two: Never get lost; Rule Number Three: If you get lost, refer to rule number one. Rather than save group face, its much more common for men to protect their self-image by calling others out on their mistakes and avoiding sharing anything that may be perceived as a weakness.
What does all this mean? It means girls are better than boys. No, not really. But we do fare a little better when it comes to collaborating and building relationships. Our efforts to strike common ground are indicative of our communal nature, developed over centuries of having to survive by relying on each other’s help.
Sometimes women are portrayed as vindictive and two-faced, and people often claim we’re not as good at being friends with one other as men are. Sure, in our worst moments we may gossip, backstab, or hold a grudge; but then again, I doubt many men could say they’ve known the simple joy of sitting with a best friend (in your matching faux-leather jackets), drinking some wine and sharing the most embarrassing things that happened to you that day.
Right? I know.