We’re Back in Junior High
At a recent lab manager meeting a group of us shared pet peeves. “What bugs me,” I said, “is when someone will pop into my office and say something like, ‘So-and-so went to break with so-and-so!’” They laughed but agreed this kind of complaining is common. “It’s like we’re back in Junior High,” one of them said.
There are two interesting things happening here.
The first is that yes, in a real sense it is like Junior High. The 2004 Tina Fey comedy Mean Girls highlighted relational aggression in schools. Relational aggression is covert and designed to hurt another’s social status. Boys get into fist fights; girls use status to victimize each other. I can’t relate to the latter but appreciate the phenomenon, especially after reading Odd Girl Out.
Women assure me that school is a vicious snake pit of nastiness, one upmanship, and betrayal for girls. They’ll say, “You’re lucky being a guy.” True, at least I knew what I was up against. None of us paid attention to how girls treated each other and would have made fun of it anyway.
It’s easy to characterize “She has more than I do” complaining as relational aggression. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I suspect it’s a learned form of expressing frustration and trying to gain influence. Or it could be aggression. Who knows?
Which brings me to the second point of what’s really happening here, a not-too-subtle attempt to wag the dog. A complainer expects a response, which is reasonable when the complaint is personal or system related. But what does a person want when the complaint is about a coworker’s behavior? “She’s been walking around with her arms folded for the last half hour!” is a way of saying, “Do something about her.” What that is I never know, but speaking to an employee “in the office” has a humiliating effect. Could that be the point?
I am lucky to be a guy. I can pretend not to notice or understand, and not be wagged. Just like Junior High.
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