New Rules for Women, shows that women often have different relationship expectations of their female colleagues than of their male colleagues. I call these expectations women’s friendship rules.
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. In middle school, girls ages 9 to 13 are thinking, “Who is my friend, who is not my friend, and what do I have to do to get invited to the party?” By the time we are adults, our friendship rules have become embedded as a set of filters, but, for the most part, we are not conscious of them.
We don’t just show up in the workplace as a blank slate. We carry with us all the things we have learned, including this set of filters I call friendship rules. Men have friendship rules, too, but because of differences in gender socialization, theirs are not the same as ours. It is through the filters of our friendship expectations that we interpret the behaviors of other women at work and decide whether or not we trust or like them, along with a range of other expectations that can create misunderstandings.
My research validates that a core of very common women’s friendship rules exists. Not everyone has the same ones: there will be variations for each of us. The most commonly reported women’s friend rules include
- Exhibiting unswerving loyalty
- Showing trustworthiness
- Keeping confidences
- Listening well
- Sharing gossip and airing problems
- Displaying self-disclosure
- Practicing equality and acceptance, while seldom disapproving
- Not discussing the friendship rules
The last one, the taboo on discussing friendship rules, is the one that gets us into the most trouble in our relationships. Cultural differences and other factors make it unlikely that all women share the exact same friendship expectations. However, the taboo against discussion means that mismatched assumptions may not be discovered until damage has been done to a relationship.
How conscious are you of your friendship rules? I suggest you talk with some women friends, either at home or at work, and try to identify and name the friendship rules you share and the ones you don’t. Once you are aware of your own and have some practice describing them to someone else, you will be better prepared to talk about friendship rules at work with women colleagues to prevent misunderstandings. Let’s face it—we need all the support we can get at work. Naming and discussing our relational expectations with our women colleagues can go a long way toward strengthening our ability to help each other thrive and prosper at work.