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 teachers offer you up like Piggy in Lord of the Flies — or just a gently nudged, mob-mentality-appeasement distraction. And mean girls? Well, mean girls rule the school.
As for myself, I was never quite a popular girl — nor was I total outcast.
I fell into what I would call the “Amnesty International” crowd. The 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 so would get drunk on Strawberry Boone’s in the canyon with friends instead. It was a shapeshifter status kind of life. So I would have a few friends in other groups who would act like my closest confidante one minute (say, when we were alone together cramming for a calculus test, and I was helping them study) but then who would completely ignore me if, say, the class president or the “I’m the cool teacher” teacher or that one dude with the motorcycle who hadn’t died yet 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 and boys 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 I prefer the angry bitch who might simply speak up and 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. Water-cooler 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 their 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 psychographic weaknesses. 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 the finer mechanics of their greatest art. 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 about sex (I once had a woman by way of small talk start with, “It’s just so easy for women to write about sex, don’t you think?”) and just generally being a bit of a weirdo outsider which is reflected in my dress and overall presentation.
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 flaccidity doesn’t really get you very far. If anything, it spells, “You’re getting closer. You’re onto something here. Keep going! I’m about to crack!”
But here is one little phrase that I have discovered does. Two magic words. It’s going to seem obvious, but it’s an amazing little trick, I swear:
Ta-da! I know, it seems deceptively easy, too good to be true, but just hear me out. 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? Do you see what it accomplishes, and how easily it does? And you don’t even have to say it sarcastically. Monotone with a splash of consumed-with-other-more-important-matters pleasantry does, I’d say. (Think: Just a pep or two up on the workplace-interaction scale from how you’re optimally supposed to respond to any first salary number thrown at you in a job negotiation wherein the ideal response is always a poker-face-resolute, I’m-thinking-about-it, what-else-you-got, I’m-waiting-to-be-dazzled-motherfucker, “Hmmm.”)
Here is a quick list of all the amazing things “Thank you” accomplishes:
- 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?”
“Thank you, yeah, I’m excited.”
“You’re so neurotic/loud/aggressive/strident/obsessive/intense.”
“Ha! You always say the most entertaining things. Thank you.”
“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?”
“Thank you for asking. Yeah, I’m keeping things on the DL for right now.”
“You look tired/stressed/frazzled/upset/worried/ugly/busted/dead.”
“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” provides. 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, check out Robert Greene’s 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”).
At first glance, yes, it is the shifty manipulative mean girls and boys who are the most complex to deal with in the professional environment, but it’s also a fairly straightforward strategy you can employ 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 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 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, sadly, most people — myself and yourself included, because humans are so damned human — simply won’t. But mean girls are the most consistently bummer-inducing in this area.
Throw any concept of fairness and justice and kindness and a possibility for them to have an open mind out the window. Which isn’t to say mean girls are bad people! Some of the most hilarious, most brilliant people I’ve ever known have also been passive-aggressive, Jedi-level mind-fuckers. I mean, you can still enjoy them for the many good qualities they are likely to have. Mean girls are often funny 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.
I know, I know, you’ll probably still want to try killing with kindness. Or appealing with logic. But resist that utopian impulse if you can. Because as hard as it can be to understand if you are a person who has a kind and sweet and gentle heart, this type of fool’s errand which eventually leads into your own personal and total frustration meltdown is exactly what a mean girl wants — because it means you’re trying to win. You’re trying to have it all make sense. And it won’t. Ever.
Don’t believe me? Look at what a whipped-up frenzied defensive, taking-it-way-too-personally 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? I feel really insecure by what you said. Is that what you were hoping you would do?”
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), meanwhile 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 of yours.
Then say thank you like you mean it — and move on down the road.
…But just in case.
If the mean girl gets especially nasty, never forget Don Draper’s mic-drop of an elevator-scene-to-end-all-elevator-scenes on Mad Men.
“I don’t think about you at all.”