According to Oxford languages, bitching is the action or practice of making spitefully critical comments. From a young age, we see children, most especially girls, engage in this behaviour as if it were a subject with a defined syllabus. It can often start with off the cuff comments about the choices of others, but more often progresses to a full blown rant about the practices, appearance and behaviour of others. Boys appear less inclined to bitch, preferring a more direct approach in social circles. Girls however, seem to take to bitching from an early age. By the age of seven, I have seen girls excluding others in order to actively pick apart their very being with other girls. But why? Why are girls and women more prone to bitching? What purpose does it serve? What can we do to show our girls that there is another way to speak about their fellow females? What can we do to silence the practice of bitching for future generations?
I consider myself somewhat of a social scientist at this point, as I am absolutely fascinated by the why behind social behaviours. Growing up, not realising I was autistic, I found social nuances so difficult to understand, I simply copied, and did a hell of a good job of it. As soon as I began studying social skills in 2009, I was hooked. Suddenly I had a why and a how at my disposal and people became so much easier to navigate. The one behaviour that I am still perplexed by though, is bitching. Now please don't get me wrong, I have engaged in it myself on many occasions, I am not that saintly, but the question that still follows me, is the why? Why is this such a common practice, especially amongst women? I only became aware of the frequency of the behaviour in the last few years, as I see my teen clients desperately trying to navigate the territory, before that I hadn't paid much attention, as it seemed a "norm". In order to examine the question of why people engage in bitching, I first began looking at the reinforcement factors, what do we get from it. I realised quickly, that it seems to serve two functions;
To air frustration or grievances without having to negotiate confrontation and conflict
(and I think this is probably the more alluring of the two) It allows us to forge a connection with another, finding mutual ground in the dislike or disagreement of another.
The first point would explain why boys and men are less likely to engage in the behaviour, as they are more likely to air grievances verbally and physically. In a 2004 mathematical synthesis of 196 studies (known as a meta-analysis), psychologist John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire in England found that men are more physically aggressive (by various measures) than women across all ages, with the difference peaking between the ages of 20 and 30. This sex difference extended to all 10 countries Archer examined, which included the U.S., Finland, Spain, India, Japan and New Zealand. Interestingly, researchers have found men to be more physically aggressive in their mental lives as well. Compared with women, men harbour more frequent and enduring homicidal fantasies, more often think about enacting revenge against their enemies, and report more physically aggressive dreams. Instead of expressing their angry emotions with their fists, women tend to use what in 1995 psychologist Nicki Crick, then at the University of Illinois, termed “relational aggression,” a less overt form characterized by social manipulation, especially of same-sex peers. Popularized by such books as Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons (Harcourt, 2002), relational aggression includes spreading rumours, gossiping, glaring, eye rolling, giving others the “silent treatment,” sending nasty notes or text messages behind rivals’ backs, excluding others from social gatherings, poking fun at the appearance of competitors, and assorted other stealth attacks.
When we look at the evidence above and pair it with my hypothesis, that there is a bonding experienced through the sharing of bitchy behaviour, then I believe the why is accurately achieved. If we now know the why, I think the next pertinent question would be, how can we steer our girls away from this behaviour and towards a bonding behaviour which does not seek to exclude, ridicule or break their fellow females? Is there a way to sow the seed early and teach our girls that we are stronger together?
Here's where my social scientist hat gets an airing again, as this question is a definite brain teaser. If we break it down to constituent parts, as I would any other skill, we can see that the function is perhaps a mixture of connection and also emotional management. We seek to purge our frustrations, while also creating or strengthening a bond with another. If we are to steer our girls away from this and towards more congenial behaviour, we must replace this skill with more appropriate skills, whilst also educating our girls on the social ramifications of this type of behaviour. So what are those more appropriate skills?
Well firstly, let's take emotional management. Teaching children how to express emotions in a functional way is essential, for any child, but it's more than that in this respect. We need to teach our girls how to actively voice opinion, channel their anger through appropriate lines, instil confidence to speak up when they experience injustice and also how see things from another person's perspective. The latter can be difficult for any child, but most especially those on the spectrum. Starting early with perspective powwows, we shape our children's view to see others needs, thoughts, values and dreams as valid as their own. We instil a "stronger together" mentality in relation to the girls they meet, and show them how to react to those who do not share this philosophy. Be kind. When girls are bitchy, kindness should be the response initially, with self protection following suit. Remove yourself and remember the mantra, "I wish you love, I wish you joy, I wish you peace". Then I usually like to add "and I wish you distance, lots of distance!". You cannot change others, but you can choose to surround yourself with like minded people, you can drift from those who wish to bring negativity to the table. These are all essential messages we need to feed our girls from an early age.
Forging bonds with other girls can be difficult, but you can steer their choices by discussing friendship and how a friend should act. Teaching a child that they have responsibilities in a friendship, and equally, so does the other person, teaches them that they should act the way they wish to be treated, and when they are not, alarm bells should sound. Others choices do not need to be judged, just as yours are your own, so are theirs. If we disagree, then we should teach our girls to voice their opinions without treating them as fact, and acknowledge that difference if what makes the world such a rich place to live, it would be boring without it. Promote debate within your household, to allow your daughter to discuss the things that perplex them about their peers. Providing this supportive space in which to voice said frustration and miscomprehension, saves your child voicing it in a less positive and proactive manner.
Social ramifications may not be something you have ever stopped to consider, but it is an elementary part of all social skills training. Showing children the social ramifications of their
social action, enlightens them as to the response their actions will elicit, not only in the moment, but also in the far reaching future. If girls engage in bitching behaviour then it is more likely that others will distrust them in the long run. If they are playing fast and loose with their judgement, then they become ripe for judgement themselves. The fact is, if girls are bitching to you about someone else, the likelihood is, they are bitching to someone else about you too. This is a fact we as women often forget, so solder that thought in as early as possible.
The final step in the process is to "mind the gap" between what you expect and what you portray. I first read this in Brene Brown's book "Gift's of Imperfect Parenting", and it made so much sense to me. As the old saying goes, Monkey see, Monkey do. Our children are sponges and take in the direct and indirect messages we send to them. They notice how we speak, act, react and behave, so it would be only natural that they would absorb our practices too. If we want to silence the bitch in future generations, we first need to silence our own bitch. This may sound harsh, perhaps we feel we are not guilty of any of the behaviours detailed above, but my challenge for you is to monitor yourself in the next week. Take stock of your conversations and behaviour. It may be that you hadn't even noticed, as these behaviours become so engrained and normal to us. I am in the process of this myself, but I have been for months, and may be for some time yet. It doesn't happen overnight, but it will be worth it in the long run to see my girls have a different approach to age old communication problems. When you catch yourself, stop. Stop and re assess what you were about to say. Remind yourself that the practice is not necessary, there are other avenues, and failing that, remember the old saying "If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing". Yes, it is difficult when you know people bitch about you, trust me, I understand that. I have people who watch my stories daily, yet don't follow me. I know that they have no interest in supporting me, more concerned with knocking me down in whispered (or not so quiet) conversations with others. But here's the thing, as annoying as it can be, I remind myself. I am happy, I am fulfilled, I am following a path that I have always dreamed of. So in the end, what others think of me, is really none of my business.