As I’ve navigated and observed my relationships with other women, there are countless roles I’ve witnessed women take on in social groups. There’s one in particular that I’ve noticed at every stage of my life that I think speaks to a larger issue with female socialization than we even realize.
We all know that girl who is seemingly friends with everyone. She has her hand in every social group and never misses an opportunity to build upon her connections. She knows every friend’s birthday – making sure to broadcast the friendship when these dates roll around with pictures and private memories to boot – and seems to always be complaining about the numerous social engagements she can’t keep up with. And when you introduce this woman to a friend of your own, they latch on, integrating this person into their social sphere, while bypassing you as the mutual connection.
I’ve termed this role the “friend collector.” While I’ve also heard people call this a “social climber,” I don’t think that these actions are always necessarily intended to lead someone up the social hierarchy, but rather to extend their social control outwards. They want to show they’re friends with everyone, and that they’re well connected, well liked, and always in the loop. While on paper this may appear simply an extroverted social butterfly, there’s a few factors lingering below the surface that are crucial to address in order to better understand the women who take on this role and the social dynamics and tensions it ingenerates.
This kind of personality has always bothered me. I think when I turn inwards to better understand why this is, the frustration stems from my own insecurities with female friendships and my own desire to be this well liked, always-included friend. But what’s fascinating is that despite the image that is presented, the reality I’ve found is that most women can’t stand this girl, while the friend collector and those closest to her are unaware of the feelings being hurt along the way, blinded by her seemingly effortless ability to befriend anyone. So what’s actually going on here?
I’ve questioned over and over why this role bothers me so much, and why I feel so strongly that it is a dangerous one for women to play. There are a few key elements of female aggression that this role perpetuates:
1. It turns friendship into a competition. Because female friendship is so highly regarded as a necessity to a woman’s success and worth, women will do anything to secure these relationships and ensure and prove their significance in a friend’s life. I can count off the top of my head several times I was targeted – or witnessed someone being targeted – simply because I/they posed a threat to the social order of the group, or out of one’s fear that their best friend would be taken. But the reality is, friendships are not a competition, nor are our friends commodities to claim. So when a woman collects and “steals” friends as her own while ignoring or abandoning the mutual connection that helped forge the friendship in the first place, she (often unconsciously) sets a precedent that she has been chosen as the better friend, “winning” the third party for herself.
2. Friendship itself is the currency of social power in female dynamics. It is used from a young age as a pawn, with threats of taking it away as a means to manipulation and getting what you want: “If you do/say/are xyz, I won’t be your friend anymore.” The more connections the collector yields, the more of this currency, power, and control she has over those in her social sphere.
3. A healthy social group thrives on the fact that individual friendships can be cultivated and friends can be added without threatening, but rather enriching the group at large. While the friend collector may appear to be doing so, her repetitive habits are actually dissuading others from sharing friendships out of fear that she will take over the friendship as her own. It’s a negative cycle – we want to share our friends to develop and strengthen our and their social network, but we fear the collector will leave us with no network of our own. This leads to an unhealthy desire for protection and control of our friendships.
If we dissect that last sentiment, we find what’s at the heart of this role. Friend collectors are equally, if not more, worried about being left out in the cold. This anxiety is exactly what fuels their need to grab however many friends they can along the way. Their actions are not necessarily rooted in maliciousness, but rather in a deep insecurity of their own. Friend collectors are not always ill-intended, nor do I believe that sharing and broadening our friendships is a bad thing. In fact, it can be incredibly exciting and enriching to watch two friends find friendship themselves. But we need to be careful and notice when these bonds are being forged through a competitive lens and observe how power becomes distributed when doing so. If we as women begin to have healthier relationships with what friendship actually means and have more open conversations about how these dynamics and actions are perceived and make us feel, we may move closer to more harmonious connections that integrate all parties, rather than compete for them.