Friendship rules Unspoken expectations-learned subconsciously-show up in women's personal and workplace relationships
Photo courtesy of Anne Litwin
Friendship rules: Unswerving loyalty
Ability to keep confidences
Share gossip and air problems
Practice equality and acceptance, while seldom disapproving
Don't discuss the friendship rules
In her research, Anne Litwin described and validated eight distinctive patterns or "rules" that were common in women's relationships with other women.
Anne Litwin, a Boston-area consultant, works in organization and women's leadership development. Her research on women's "friendship rules" is the subject of her upcoming book. Litwin spoke with the Minnesota Women's Press about women's personal and professional relationships.
Minnesota Women's Press: What are these friendship rules? Where do they come from?
Anne Litwin: We begin to develop friendship rules at a very young age. My granddaughter, by the time she was 4, was talking about the rules for being a friend. She was learning that if you did this kind of thing, you would make a friend. Or if you did that kind of thing, you could lose a friend.
In middle school, girls ages 9 to 13 are thinking about "who is my friend, who is not my friend, what do you have to do to get invited to the party or what did I do to not get invited?"
By the time we are adults, the friendship rules have become embedded as a set of filters, but for the most part, we are not conscious of them.
One of the things that emerged for me [in the research] was we don't just show up [in the workplace] as a blank slate. We are carrying with us all of the things we have learned, including this set of filters that I call the friendship rules. We react to each other and interpret behavior of other women through that set of lenses and we don't even know we are doing it.
MWP: You use the term "transknitting." What does that mean?
Litwin: Gossip, for example, is one of the friendship rules. One of the things that we often expect from each other is that we will connect through talking about other people. There is good news and bad news about that.
There are different kinds of ways of talking about other people and some of it is really mean and damaging and some of it really is not.
Much of [gossip is really] about wanting to be supportive of someone else, wanting to improve our relationship with someone else. These are some really positive intentions.
When I asked women [in my research groups] to talk about gossip, there was [a] lot of messy, muddy confusion. I realized that it is not all bad, but this word "gossip" has a really negative connotation. I created the term "transknitting" to describe the kinds of talk about others that is not bad. It's about transferring information for the purpose of connecting or knitting or building community with a very positive intention to support someone.
MWP: How can the distinction between gossip and transknitting be applied in relationships?
Litwin: [For example,] when I was doing my research I talked about it with my friends and it started to impact our interactions almost immediately. We would say, "Oh, wait a minute. Is that gossip or transknitting?" We began to be able to hold ourselves accountable for what we were doing and it made a huge difference in my circle of friends. We could make conscious choices not to participate in negative or hurtful types of talk about other people.
MWP: What differences do you see between women's and men's friendship rules?
Litwin: [A big part of the difference] is about how we are socialized. Even though the world is changing all the time, the messages are still pretty different in terms of what is OK [for males and females].
Boys learn through games to care about winning and losing, to be more conscious of status and to be more transactional. If I don't choose you for my team, it is just a transaction, it is not about whether I like you or not. Girls' games are still teaching about getting along, about being nurturing. In girls' games, the relationship matters more than winning or losing. Role models are still socializing the girls and the boys to expect different behaviors.
[Workplace stories] are still pretty commonly told that men can have a vehement disagreement at a team meeting, then go out for a beer after work because it is just a win-lose kind of thing and not about the relationship. But when women disagree at work, it can be the end of the relationship forever. For women, it feels personal and they don't know how to recover from that. Men just walk out and have a beer.
MWP: So what opportunities do you see for women to both fit into what is and to change the system?
Litwin: One of the central friendship rules for women is that we don't talk about our friendship rules. We can't ever change anything if we can't talk about it. One of the keys to changing the system is that we need to change our awareness of the friendship rules, we have to become comfortable naming our friendship rules and then negotiating them-both inside and outside of work.
If a friend says, "I have an expectation that if we are going to be friends, you will always agree with me," then I need to be able to say, "I don't have that expectation. My friendship rule is that you will be honest with me." Then we can name it and get it in the open. Then we can say, "We have a different way of looking at this. Let's decide-how will we deal with times when we disagree?"
If we can be conscious and overt about what our expectations are of each other, then we can handle anything that comes up. And in the more systemic sense, we can work together to change the workplace cultures that often don't value our contributions.
Now, it is a divide-and-conquer kind of thing. Many, many women have wonderful relationships with other women, but there are too many other situations where women say they don't trust other women or don't like working for a woman boss.
Imagine if we could really sit down together and say, "How do you see the world? This is how I see it. This is what it means to me when people say and do these kinds of things. It offends me because ... . And that's not how it is for me."
If people could get curious, really engage with each other, listen, have an open mind and know that we don't all have the same assumptions or friendship rules or experiences in life that have shaped us. Understanding friendship rules can be a pathway toward strenghtening our relationships and supporting each other to make change.