Who Rules Your School?

In the social wilds of your school, it's natural to travel in packs. 

Nathaniel Welch 

Smart kids. Jocks. Populars. Cliques are a natural way to survive the teen years. So why do they cause so much misery?

On the vast and barren savannas of Africa right now, groups of wild baboons are busy banding together to find food and protect each other from prey. These primates may not be the smartest species, but like all animals, survival instincts are programmed into their DNA. They know that, while one baboon stands a fat chance of fending off a 200-pound leopard, an entire troop of them just might.

Now think about your school. Sure, no one is literally trying to eat you alive, but you too are a social animal. And you’re one who has been thrown into a fierce and captive environment—jam-packed hallways filled with bodies or personalities bigger than your own; crowded cafeterias where every table is potentially a marked territory. From day one, you sense that there’s safety in numbers. And once you follow that animal instinct to form packs, you feel more secure. (Even old people in retirement communities have cliques!) “When I first walked into my new high school last year, I was so overwhelmed,” says Jubair, 15, a high school sophomore in New York City. “Everyone sat and walked together, in twos or threes—sometimes as a ‘squad’ of five or more people. I didn’t understand how I would ever belong.”

Jubair isn’t alone. In a Choices magazine survey, 63 percent of teens told us they feel pressure to fit in or be popular, and a whopping 91 percent said their schools are divided into cliques. Why are many teens driven this way—to form tribes and seek status? And why, year after year, is social life organized in a way that can be painful and anxiety provoking—leaving some kids without even a pal to eat lunch with, and others feeling like one false move could leave them friendless?

Sociologists have studied the intense social scenes of middle and high schools (much the same way zoologists have studied the animal kingdom!), and they say that a combination of factors—from the way your brain is developing right now to the sheer size of your school—can make you feel torn between who you are and who your peers want you to be. But you can find your place and feel good about it. “It’s important to understand where the pressure [to fit in] is coming from,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of a book about cliques called Queen Bees and Wannabes, “so you can be in control and not be manipulated.”

Grouping Off

Search #squadgoals on Instagram, and you’ll find thousands of photos of besties and bros—they’ve likely come together through their love of video games, for example, or simply because they grew up on the same block. But grouping off is about more than common interests or proximity; it is a symbol of who you are and who you want to be. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, says finding a crew is a natural drive—you’re finally forming your own identity and connections beyond your family.

What’s tricky is that at this time in your life, you’ve got a lot of peers to pick from—in some schools, hundreds per grade! And your brain is primed to compare yourself with all of them, then eliminate people by what makes them different.

That’s why if your idea of edgy is a striped T-shirt, you may find yourself keeping your distance from your “punk” lab partner. “We don’t label people because we’re mean—we do it because our brains are lazy,” explains Alexandra Robbins, who spent a year researching high schools for her book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. “It’s an easy way to simplify our social world.”

Chasing Power

If finding a group—whether it’s labeled or not—is a natural part of your development, why do cliques get such a bad rap? Part of that answer is easy: Not everyone has one. “When we identify ourselves as part of a group, we also identify people who aren’t part of it,” explains Wiseman.

Some cliques give off exclusionary vibes unintentionally (just think about that group still laughing over inside jokes from grade school), while others deliberately draw lines around their crew to maintain power and celebrity-like allure. “Let’s say you walk past a group of popular girls,” says Gaby, a sophomore from California. “They might talk about you or look at you in a certain way, so that you know you don’t fit in.” It’s a cheap power play, says Robbins: “If they weren’t mean, [how would they establish that] they think they’re on a higher tier?” And the worst part is, even nice kids who are friendly one-on-one can get caught up in this mob mentality. “Challenging the majority opinion threatens your status with the group,” Robbins explains.

That’s because every group—whether it’s made up of old men or monkeys or middle schoolers—naturally sorts itself into leaders and followers. And in some status-seeking squads, teens feel the need to jockey for position, going after others in their own group with teasing, eye-rolling, or gossiping. 

Just listen to this calculating tenth-grade guy from California describe the stress of keeping his perch: “It’s possible to move up, but you need the right connections. And there can be a lot of pressure when you feel like you’re moving down the ranks.” Yikes!

So is climbing the social ladder worth the worry? Robbins says no, especially if you have to be mean to get there. “The myth is that to be popular is to be liked,” she says. “But all popular people aren’t necessarily liked. They just make the rules.”

Finding Your Fit

Popular cliques aren’t the only ones making rules. Zoe, a freshman from New York, says that even her close crew, which calls itself the “book nerds,” has unspoken guidelines that sometimes feel stifling. When Zoe wears makeup or a dress, her friends act like she’s betrayed them: “They’ll say, ‘Oh, she’s painting her nails. She’s a popular girl now.’ They’re joking, but they’re not, if you know what I mean. It makes me frustrated.”

Zoe loves her friends but sometimes feels torn. “Groups are good since they bring together people with similar interests,” she says. “But it’s not OK to let others define who you are or hang out with.”

Turns out, Zoe is onto something—it’s what Robbins calls Quirk Theory in her book. This philosophy states that conforming to the rules of popularity—or changing, even a little, to fit in with a group—can crush the creativity and uniqueness that’s going to make you interesting down the road. “Because of the way the teen brain works, differences are seen as threatening,” says Robbins. “But usually these differences are the same traits or skills that make a person successful in adulthood.”

Take, for example, Adam Levine of Maroon 5. In high school, he was a “nerdy, awkward kid obsessed with music.” Now he’s selling out arenas and hosting The Voice. Then there’s Taylor Swift: Instead of trying to fit in with the cool kids who rejected her, she put her energy into songwriting. (We all know where that got her.)

“Honestly, I think a lot of kids are scared to step out of their comfort zone when they shouldn’t be,” says Tatum, a freshman in Minnesota who says she has smart friends, sports friends, and others who fit into hybrid categories. “What I’ve learned is that some people are going to like you, and some people just aren’t, no matter what. So you might as well make yourself happy.”

Images: Shutterstock (Monkey); Family (Aija); Thorsten Mills Wildlife Photography/Getty Images (Baboons) 

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