The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

It is sad but true that socially isolated adolescent girls whose friends are not each other's friends tend to have more suicidal thoughts than those whose friends are friends with each other1. I am not entirely sure why this is the case, and why a similar result has not been found among boys. Interpersonal dynamics among girls is far too subtle and emotionally manipulative for a boy to comprehend. As Hermione Granger in one of the Harry Potter books said, Just because you've got the emotional range of a teaspoon, Ron, doesn't mean we all have. Perhaps it is just this shortage of empathy in the male brain that makes it less susceptible to the lack of triadic closure.

What's that? Triadic Closure? A smart sociologist named Georg Simmel introduced this concept about a hundred years ago. It means exactly what it says on the tin: if your pals are friendly with each other, your circle is triadically closed. There are three entities that are joined in a dynamic: you, one group of friends, and another group of friends. Simmel's argument was that the entry of a third member into a previously dyadic group introduced new dynamics, such as divide and conquer, or mediation, or affirmation. This was the minimal social unit that could be explored as a proxy for the human sociological condition

Girls with their delicately nuanced appreciation of each other's worth epitomise this dynamic perfectly. Within a group there would be - as with most social animals - hierarchies. Invariably, those at the bottom of the heap are treated with condescension and barely suppressed irritation. However, the group itself protects any of its members against outsiders. There's also constant jostling for ascendancy, and two girls might gang up against a third, even if she were generally top dog; these alliances being fluid and impermanent. Do we have a possible explanation for suicidal thoughts among girls whose pals form disjoint sets? Perhaps they miss the interpersonal dynamic, the support and affirmation and protection that comes of a larger group, and they find themselves isolated and possibly bullied by other more successful networks.

In 2002, there was a brouhaha5 caused by the publication of Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes. A long New York Times article described how Rosalind went about analysing the dynamics of adolescent female relationships, and - having understood them - setup an foundation to get girls to, well, be nice to each other. Essentially, she determined, the dynamic was a mixture of domination, mutual support and admiration, ruthless purging of rebels and extreme xenophobia towards outsiders. The successful queen bees are the ones who can manipulate their inferiors, who can back-stab successfully and still have the subservient emotional slave come back. The victims always apologise and always want the favour of the queen.

It is quite clear that there is no space for political correctness in this turmoil of adolescent behaviour. As the feminist historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese said: those who have experienced dismissal by the junior-high-school girls' clique could hardly, with a straight face, claim generosity and nurture as a natural attribute of women. Indeed, in the words of one famous queen bee4: I don't really like my friends. It's just like they're people I work with and our job is being popular.

One of the most astonishing comments I have ever heard is that by a seventeen year old about two fourteen year old girls who crashed a party she had thrown. A freshman girl cannot show up at a junior party; disgusting 14-year-old girls with their boobs in the air cannot show up at your party going -- her voice turned breathy -- Uh, hi, where's the beer?5 This drips with so much fury and displays so much poison, I am amazed the younger girls were alive at the end of the onslaught. Guys wouldn't have been either as eloquent or as poisonous. You gate-crashed my party? Well, if I am bigger than you, I'll punch you on the nose. If not, I'll pretend I invited you.

I wonder if there is any evolutionary reason at all for girls to treat each other this way. It has often been claimed that this is yet another exercise in determining boundaries and acceptable social behaviour that children go through, as they did when younger. After all, many women outgrow this phase. But why does it have to be so vituperative? I have no clue.

Meanwhile, some researchers have found an immense treasure trove of data to ponder sociological questions in - hold your breath - Facebook3. There are so many friends and family networks, many in unprotected profiles, that the researchers can begin to analyse issues such as triadic closure.

Finally, here's a bit of a reversal in behaviour that seems to occur as girls mature into adulthood. They begin to keep their various friend circles apart2! Down with triadic closure in this instance, that's for sure. The reasons given are manifold. What if my friend A can't stand my friend B? Will I then be diminished in their eyes? Worse, what if they get along even better with each other than they do with me? Will I be discarded in the new organisation?

It's a good thing I don't have to deal with issues such as these. Or, as Ron said, I'd explode. My emotional range, you see, is no greater than that of a teaspoon.


1. Bearman, P.S., J. Moody, Suicide and Friendships Among American Adolescents, American Journal of Public Health, Vol 94, Number 1. 2004.
2. "I keep my friends 'separate'..." - mailing list.
3. Stephanie Rosenbloom, "On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data", New York Times, Dec 17, 2007.
4. Winona Ryder, Heathers, 1989.
5. Margaret Talbot, "Girls Just Wanna Be Mean", New York Times, Feb 24, 2002.


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