Nothing quite prepares you for being an adult like high school.
Popular kids look through you as if you’re invisible, sadistic, barely-out-of-high-school-themselves teachers offer you up for the class to laugh at and mean girls rule the school.
I was never a popular girl myself—nor was I total outcast.
I fell into what I would call the “Amnesty International” kids who bought the Nirvana album before anyone else and would go to a cool party maybe once or twice a year but usually weren’t invited and got drunk in the canyon with friends instead crowd. Because of this shapeshifter status, though, I would have a few friends in these other groups who would act like my BFF one minute when we were alone in science class and then completely ignore me if the prom queen came strolling along in the courtyard.
These are the interactions that don’t just nick your psyche, they very often scar and define it.
Fast-forward to the workplace, and instead of going away, you suddenly discover that there are legions of people whose personal growth didn’t advance past this high school level. The mean girls have not left the building. In fact, they’re in the cubicles next to you!
And, like in any good Heathers-esque high school scenario, their arsenal still consists of verbal warfare, nebulous maybe-putdowns, condescending half-compliments and overall psychological dirty tricks. Nothing is straightforward. God how much I prefer the angry bitch who would say, “Dude. Your work sucks. Get better, or find another job.” Okay, I can work with that.
Instead, with mean girls, everything is passive aggressive and dancing around the perimeter. Watercooler gossip becomes the ultimate manifestation of that old mean girl slumber party game where you call one girl to get her to talk about another girl but then the person who you’re talking about is really listening in on the conversation the whole time.
If you’re a fan of John Oliver, then you’ve probably seen the brilliant expose he did on for-profit universities and the use of “pain points.”
He showed how various salespeople seeking to enroll gullible folks to get their dollars are specifically trained to work on people’s pain points. So if someone is self-conscious about currently working at McDonald’s, the recruiter might say, “Do you really want to be flipping burgers the rest of your life?”
This is how it works too with mean girls—in high school and later on, in the workplace. Those pain points are always at the forefront of every operation and interaction, even if they’re not fully conscious of why or how it works. They just know it does. It bugs you, and they like that.
My pain points are: my height (I’m 6’2”, and that’s kind of unusual), some of the writing I do is about sex (slut! It’s so easy!) and just generally being a bit of a weirdo outsider which is reflected in my dress and overall presentation. With this in mind, here are some real-life mean girl workplace encounters I’ve had and how I dealt with them before I had my magical solution:
Mean girl: Mandy, I swear you just get taller every day!
Mean girl: Seriously, you’re like a giant! Wow, don’t hit the ceiling!
Mean girl: You have no filter, I swear!
Mean girl: Seriously, you just don’t care what people think at all.
Mean girl: Someone’s dressed up today!
Mean girl: Does someone have a big night planned? Job interview? Is it a guy?
As you can see, the stammering foot-shifting flaccid replies don’t really get you very far. But here’s what I discovered does. Two magic words. It’s going to seem obvious, but it’s an amazing little trick, I swear.
Ta-da! Let’s see how it could work for you.
“I can’t believe you ate that whole thing in 2 minutes.”
“You don’t need to be such a kiss-ass you know, it’s not a competition.”
“I would never have the courage to wear that outfit.”
“Oh—my, you got a haircut.”
It’s life-changing, isn’t it? And you don’t even have to say it sarcastically. What it does is:
- It ends the conversation.
- It does not engage in petty fuckery.
- It shows that you’re Teflon.
- It doesn’t let the other person’s mind games into your orbit at all.
- It allows you to express a general vague sense of gratitude toward the person for reminding you that you know what? Everything’s good. You got this. Keep spilling words, and you’ll keep smiling as content as can be saying, “Thank you.”
But of course, I realize that not every situation works with “Thank you” as a response so I’d like to offer a few variants to show how the tactic works overall.
“Oh my God, did you work all weekend on that?”
“Thanks, yeah, I’m excited.”
“You’re so neurotic/loud/aggressive/strident/obsessive/intense.”
“Ha! You always say the most over-the-top, entertaining things. Thank you for that.”
“Soooo yeah, my life is perfect and my guy is perfect and pretty much I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I saw you just had a breakup on Facebook. So what about you? Are you dating anyone?”
“Thanks for asking. Yeah, I’m keeping things on the DL for right now.”
“You look tired/stressed/frazzled/upset/worried.”
“How sweet that you’re looking out. Thank you.”
“What do you think of the new girl?”
“Thank you for reminding me. I wanted to go introduce myself.”
“What do you think of that cute guy who’s temping?”
“Thank you for telling me he’s a temp! I was wondering if he was permanent or not.”
You see, there’s this kind of soothing balm that the words “thank you” provide. It’s almost like a misdirect (same tactic used in comedy) where you think something is going to go one way, but then the story ends up surprising you and making you laugh instead (giving that wonderful relief of tension).
So often, when it comes right down to it, the mean girl is just “working on” you little by little (think, the Chief Bromden speech in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “[My pop] did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him.”) If you’ve ever wondered if someone is working on you, Google “48 laws of power” and you’ll be shocked by how many of these good old-fashioned Machiavellian techniques apply to the world of office politics.
“Never outshine the master.” Check. Translation: Go with the hive. “Keep others in suspended terror; cultivate an air of unpredictability.” Check. Translation: Fuck with people by being super-sweet, helpful and disarming one day and then throwing them under the bus the next. And we’ve already covered Law 33 (“Discover each man’s thumbscrew”) which would be using pain points to accomplish Law 43 (“Work on the heart and mind of others”).
Truly, it is the shifty manipulative mean girls (and boys, obviously) who are the most complex to deal with in the professional environment, but it’s also a fairly straightforward strategy once you suss out someone’s temperament. And the easiest way to figure that out is to reveal some throwaway vulnerable bit of information to someone and see how they use it.
Like, “I just started going to therapy for the first time. It’s so strange and I’m kind of embarrassed about it. I probably shouldn’t have even told you.”
What happens next? Did their eyes light up? Did they make a “joke” about telling everyone? There’s a certain kind of person whose whole demeanor changes when you can see they think they are holding a few crumbs of power that is personal information they think you didn’t want to reveal. I’ve had experiences where someone immediately started teasing me or talking about something I confided, and in retrospect, it was such a great lesson in identifying frenemies early on.
Where you get into trouble is when you let your guard down, become all idealistic and you start expecting people to make sense.
Because they won’t. EVER. Especially mean girls.
Throw any concept of fairness and justice and kindness and a possibility for them to have an open mind out the window. You can still absolutely enjoy them for the many good qualities they are likely to have. Mean girls are often hilarious and bright and wildly charismatic and entertaining. They are almost never boring. But just always remember: Sharks will be sharks, and they are not to be trusted.
Do you want to try killing with kindness? Appealing to logic? Well, don’t. Because that kind of a fool’s errand into total frustration meltdown is exactly what a mean girl wants—because you’re trying to win. You’re trying to have it all make sense. And it won’t. Ever.
Look at what a whipped-up frenzied mess this perfectly honest reaction might be to the “Wow, someone dressed up today” ever-condescending near neg of a “compliment”:
“So wait, you think I don’t normally dress up? You think normally I’m too casual? That’s kind of a backward compliment. Why are you saying that? I feel awkward now. Do I really look that different? I mean, God, what do I look like normally?”
You’re giving the mean girl exactly what she wants: You’re now mildly unsettled and stressed and paranoid and thinking about what she’s made you think about (it’d be like letting whoever sends you a text—their immediate needs, wants and emojis—determine the fate of how you spend your entire day), and she’s cool as a cucumber enjoying you squirm.
Just build a perimeter of cool around you at all times, breathe deeply, don’t let other people determine the agenda or the conversation and flash that beautiful dazzling easy-going smile.
And then say thank you like you mean it—and move on down the road.