I find unpacking stereotypes fascinating and important work. The following post was first published by RendezView.
As a teen girl I swapped secrets with my friends; they were an essential form of currency in girl world. The more I knew about another girl, and the more she knew about me, the more entwined we became. Sleep-overs were often mere excuses for giggling combined with frenzied disclosure.
Know me. Accept me. Align yourself with me.
Afterwards came the betrayals. Secrets that had unintentionally slithered out, or were later swapped with others in a calculated move aimed at gaining status within our group. Tellingly, although I recall feeling deeply betrayed when my tokens of truth were revealed, I also recall knowing this was just the way of things. And admitting to myself that I too was capable of leveraging what I knew if I thought it meant I could gain popularity.
Know what I know. Accept me. Align yourself with me.
It’s always puzzled me then that we tend to look at the furtive whispering of young girls and dismiss these as mere Mean Girl machinations. To do so is to fail to understand the way we all solidify friendships, and practice social manoeuvring.
There are actually very complex sets of rules which govern friendships and the telling and banking of secrets; girls have to be quite sophisticated to master and maneuver themselves within those rules. Watching Olivia Newtown John’s character Sandy in the musical Grease excuse herself from the sleep-over action at Rizzo’s to go and brush her teeth left me gasping as a teen – what a rookie mistake! She’ll then leave herself vulnerable to becoming the object of analysis! Cue the mocking “Look at me I’m Sandra Dee.”
There is plenty of research to show that close friendships, the sort developed largely through the sharing of hidden truths, also serve vital functions in promoting a sense of self-worth and belonging. Many researchers in fact believe gossip is an evolved psychological adaptation that enabled individuals to achieve social success in our ancestral environments. In the paper “Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement” researchers Andrew, Bell and Garcia argue that; “ Gossip can be an efficient way to remind group members of the importance of the group’s norms and values; an effective deterrent to deviance; and a tool for punishing those who trangress.”
And it seems it’s not just young girls who instinctively are drawn to information sharing. Professor of Applied Pscychology Niobe Way in her book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” argues that boys relationships in early to middle adolescence rely too on sharing “deep secrets”; “Boys openly expressed to us their love for their friends and emphasized that sharing “deep” secrets was the most important aspect of their closest male friendships…. I realized that these patterns among boys have been ignored by the larger culture…”
Way goes on to explain that due to cultural pressures to become a “man” during late adolescence (and thus be emotionally stoic and autonomous) boys begin to lose their closest male friendships, become more distrustful of their male peers, and in some cases, become less willing to express their emotions. “They start sounding, in other words, like gender stereotypes.”
It seems secrets may well be timeless fundamental building blocks in building positive, strong friendships; for both genders. Adolescents with close friendships have lower rates of depression, suicide, drug use and gang membership and are more likely to stay at school. As it is in fact young men that seem to struggle most with feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging during late adolescence, could it be that we need to stop demonising the sharing of secrets and labelling this act as solely the domain of gossip girls?
By now, I have learned, as most middle aged women do, not to give away quite so much quite so often, to so many. However, I still know that it is the sharing the secrets that lubricates my close friendships. Now our revelations tend to take place via text, or via Facebook. There is no time for lengthy deep and meaningful exchanges; it’s secrets-via-shorthand. The stories we swap, however, are still just as real and raw. Feeling like a fraud at work. Worrying that our once-predictable bodies seem to be turning on us in new and entirely surprising ways. Deciding there are days when being a parent feels impossible and we dream of running away. Fat. Ugly. Bored. Sad. Angry. Resentful. Scared. Scarred.
My friends not only listen to this confessional, but know me well enough to know that my feelings shall pass. They know these moments of doubt and anger don’t define me– they are often not even the real me. And I listen to them purge too. And often? Rather than being a bitter or despairing exchange it becomes funny. Side-splittingly funny. There is much humour to be had in facing the dark when one does so holding a friend’s hand.
It is through these exchanges that we feel known, understood and connected.
And it is no secret that these are the feelings all young people deserve, and urgently need to feel, too.