As a girl, you grow up learning rules to a certain game. You may have been taught this game directly or picked it up along the way, but we all know how to play it. It’s how you interact with other girls in passive-aggressive WhatsApp chats. It’s being complimented and instantly replying, “Oh really? I look so awful today.” It’s not telling your partner why you’re upset and getting even more upset because he doesn’t work it out all on his own. If you want to be part of the Girl Game, this is how you play – and, on International Day of the Girl, it’s high time we say, “Game Over.”
I’ve never had much interest in playing the Girl Game. When I compliment another woman and she tries to brush it off, I find it annoying and possibly even rude, rather than a sign of her feminine humility – just take the compliment and stop insulting my taste! When I can tell a friend wants to say something, but instead all she says is, “I’m fine,” I will give her one, “Are you sure?” before I take what she says at face value. My niece does this thing where she eyes up my sweets and obviously wants one, but keeps trying to make me offer by saying, “I’m hungry.” In that situation I casually reply, “Are you?” until she realises all she has to say is, “Please can I have a sweet?”
And I will complain about the girls who do engage in the rules of the Girl Game, and James will not get it. He cannot see how I’ve interpreted someone saying, “OK, well, if you’re sure” as an attack on my character and everything I stand for. He hasn’t had a lifetime of trying to discern what other girls mean by reading between the lines. He doesn’t know that this is what girls do. But where does that behaviour come from? Why don’t we accept compliments? Or tell people what’s wrong? Or ask for something when we want it? Why do we dance around all of these things instead of being honest and direct? I have a theory: confidence.
A few weeks ago, I read an interesting but concerning article about the confidence gap. According to Columbia Business School in New York, there is a difference between the way men perceive their abilities and the way women do – and neither sex is right. Columbia says that men tend to have an “honest over-confidence,” overestimating their abilities by about 30%, whereas women tend to undervalue their skills by about 30%. And that gap in confidence could explain a lot.
The interesting thing about the article is that men are not faking this confidence – they genuinely believe in themselves 30% more than they should. They believe that they can do more than they are actually capable of, which leads to greater confidence in speaking up for themselves, demanding higher salaries and generally getting more opportunities because they convince those around them that they are worthy of those opportunities. And while this over-confidence could lead to a plethora of other problems – from just general arrogance to the suppression of those they see as “less” than themselves – boys grow up learning a different set of rules to girls: believe you can do it, be honest and direct and you will get it done. So why do we teach our girls differently?
When do girls lose confidence in themselves? Is this why we learn to argue when someone compliments us – because our confidence is so low that even if we looked like Scarlett Johansson we’d still brush it off, or we worry that if we agree we’d come off as full of ourselves? Why do we hint at what we want instead of asking for it directly? Are we worried we won’t get it, or that we aren’t even worthy of it in the first place? And why do we brush it under the carpet when a friend is upsetting us, instead of calling her out on it? Is it because we want to be “nice” or do we think we’ll lose the battle – and the friend – and we can’t afford to go around throwing away friendships?
These may be the rules of the Girl Game, but it doesn’t look like any of us are winning.
Because surely if we were taught to be confident, girls wouldn’t engage in this weird, indirect game. We would throw out the rules that tell us to be polite and nice and quiet. We would stand up for ourselves and the people around us. We would have the confidence to shape a world better than the one we were raised in, so that the girls who came after us wouldn’t have to worry about glass ceilings and mansplaining and a million gender stereotypes that really shouldn’t exist in this day and age, let alone for the generations to come.
If girls were more confident, we would be told something nice about ourselves and say, “Thank you” because, you’re right, I am really good at that or I do look nice today. And that may inspire the people around us to be more confident in their own abilities too.
If girls were more confident, we would have the courage of our convictions to tell someone when their behaviour is bothering us, because, yes, my feelings matter and I am worthy of better friendship than this. And then maybe that would lead to better relationships with the people around us, and more honest and open communication, and the ability for people to disagree but work out their differences because we’re all clear and direct about what those differences are.
If girls were more confident, we could ask for a higher salary or a promotion because we know we are capable of doing the job. And then the women around us might learn that they could ask for more, because they deserve it too and they’re not going to get in their own way.
If girls were more confident, we wouldn’t need to make ourselves smaller. We wouldn’t have to hide away and accept the way things are. We could fight for what’s right or challenge the status quo or do that thing we always dreamed of doing, because This. Girl. Can.
If girls were more confident, if we were taught to believe in ourselves and be honest and open, we could change the world.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti