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Sorority Syndrome: Girls Gone Mean


May 6 2013
If we're not careful, big groups breed shallow friendships.

People are surprised when I admit that I belonged in a sorority in college. I wore the T-shirts, sang the songs, learned the handshake, went to the parties… the whole thing. Sororities have such a negative stereotype that it's hard for some to imagine a nice, smart, normal person joining a sorority.

The very worst of such stereotypes were laid out in a profanity-filled, CAPS LOCK-ENGAGED sorority e-mail-gone-viral last month. This tirade from a member to her "f—ing awkward" and anti-social chapter became fodder for Gawker, Buzzfeed, Funny or Die, and the rest of the easily amused Internet. (Fair warning: Those links contain lots of offensive language.) The context of the e-mail isn't the real draw—the social standing of Delta Gamma at the University of Maryland doesn't quite merit national concern and the sender has since resigned. Instead, it's her tone that catches our attention. Catty. Demanding. Mean.

Most of us probably haven't gotten an e-mail with 41 instances of the F-word. But we still know what it's like to deal with a mean girl in our midst. That's not just a sorority thing. When women gather together, despite the opportunities to build each other up and support one another, a mean girl mentality can emerge. It's conflict, negative energy, competitive spirit, drama … whatever you want to call it. But why does it happen? Why do women turn on each other?

At nearly every stage in our lives, we can join girls-only groups, from Girl Scouts to Bunko leagues, sororities to ladies' Bible studies. Women are wired for friendship and seek out social circles among other women. Researchers found this trait roots into the core of our being, that psychologically women don't only have a "fight or flight" mentality, but also a "tend and befriend" response. We instinctually turn to friends for stress relief and safety. (Yay besties!) Guys certainly also need friends and rely on them for support, belonging, and hanging out, but we women more proactively seek out new relationships, particularly in social and group structures.

Many of our most meaningful friendships emerge out of shared experience, time, intimacy, and investment. We work to develop strong bonds and build trust. But sometimes we find ourselves thrown into groups of women where it feels like some of the work has already been done for us. Even if we've just met, we already share a collective identity and have something in common. In a sorority, this happens quickly and outwardly. A stranger wearing my Greek letters becomes an instant friend, someone I can wave to on campus and sit next to in class.

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