I don’t know why people have such a need for forming cliques. Perhaps it is human to want to belong to a group. Perhaps some of us can’t shed our tribal heritage.
Unfortunately, in the modern world, the tribe thrives, not on inclusion, but on exclusion. If you can’t leave someone out, if you can’t jeer and sneer at someone, your clique doesn’t seem to have a focal point.
Cliques thrive by ostracizing those who are too individualistic to adhere to them.
Growing up in India, I escaped the scourge of the in-crowd because I lived in a society where intellectual achievement was highly valued. Regardless of my rebellious, individualistic tendencies, I was not shunned by my peers.
After coming to the United States too, I escaped being an outcaste because I was in Berkeley, where individualism, even eccentricity, is looked upon as a gift, not a bane.
But as I entered the working world, I found it hard to penetrate certain cliques. The Old Boys’ Network was one I had to reckon with from an early stage in my career. Being an immigrant Indian woman in a mostly male profession was hard. Later, as more women entered my field of energy policy, I faced a curious phenomenon– that of a tightly knit Old Girls’ Crowd, mostly white, of which I was not a part. I noted that when a traditionally oppressed group begins to acquire power, it becomes just as capable of mistreatment of those it perceives as being lower on the totem pole.
As African-American, Asian, and Hispanic colleagues began to confide in me that they too felt excluded from this new elite group, I realized that I was experiencing a universal phenomenon.
I had to face the bitter truth that when a group of women gets together, its capacity for cattiness–for gossip, vengeance, and destruction–can pale the cohesiveness of any Old Boys’ network.
I began to wonder if men focus on their own advancement, while women focus on bringing their rivals down.
I was busy raising my children and nurturing my career as a “pundit” during those years. So I made a conscious decision to keep away from all cliques.
My decision paid off handsomely. As my co-workers began to recognize me as a writer of passionate social commentaries, the Old Girls’ Crowd seemed to distract itself from its Mutual Admiration Society and glance in my direction with envy, as if to say, “How did you dare to be different? How did you manage to succeed in spite of being yourself?”
My individualism and my conscious renouncement of cliques resulted in my superiors eventually rewarding me for my honesty, my directness, and my ability to take the unpopular stance when necessary.
Alas, recently I once again faced the kind of school-kid cliquishness that my sons must encounter daily in their lives.
I was in a gathering of women writers. So enthusiastic was I to encounter this segment of the population that my heart opened. I was exuberant, joyous, chatty, relaxed. Some of the women were young enough to be my daughters. So I dropped my guard. I was thrilled too because the women were mostly of Middle Eastern descent. Here at last was my opportunity to compare notes about our cultures; to talk about the U.S. Middle East policy; to discuss the latest literary rage of Iranian memoirs.
Alas, I shouldn’t have bothered. The women’s discussions, when not focused on boys and sex, revolved around bashing of their immigrant mothers, calling for the death of Israel, and expressing an almost clinical paranoia about all white people. When I tried to interject some rationale into the discussion, at times taking an opposing point of view, I found the group distancing itself from me.
It dawned on me that I was in a sorority. The telltale signs were all there. There were the rolling eyes, the secretive glances, the jeering remarks, the whispers in the back rooms, the lack of eye contact, the changing of topics from the mind-blowing to the mind-numbing.
I left the gathering in a hurry.
On the way home, I began to recollect stories of hazing rituals held annually at sororities. I began to remember my friends’ tales of the shunning of their teenage daughters by the in-crowds in schools.
I wondered if male fraternities were just as vicious.
A study of media reports revealed that while men focus on physical punishment, women excel in the far more harmful art of psychological, emotional, and verbal warfare.
My discovery was disheartening.
Luckily, I had the choice to leave that particular gathering. But what if a girl could not leave her classroom, her school, her college dorm, her workplace?
In fact, a friend of mine in her 30s confessed to me that she had been subjected to such cliquishness for the entire length of her recent graduate studies, including being completely shunned during a two-week study tour in Costa Rica, and that her life had been hell.
I worry now that my children are less equipped to deal with cliquishness than I have been. For one, they live in a society where they are a minority. For another, they are not the stereotypical model-minority kids with perfect GPAs and spelling-bee medals.
So I have tried to incorporate in my children an attitude that if a clique is capable of shunning people who are different, it is not worth belonging to.
So I urge you too. Don’t belong to that clique. Don’t join that in-crowd.
Unless you wish to be in a herd of sheep, of course.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at