Where Do You Fit In?

Surviving stereotypes and cliques in high school

Think about your school cafeteria. Where do you sit? Do you sit with the jocks? In the corner with the Goths? Do you not even make it to the cafeteria and stay in the library with the nerds? The answer should be that you sit with your friends. This article is about understanding and overcoming stereotypes, cliques, and exclusion. Click on any of the following questions to find the answers.


What is the difference between a clique and a crowd?

A clique is a group of usually about five or six (could be as small as two or as large as 12) who are the same gender and age.These groups are defined by common activities or just because they are friends.These people are your closest friends, the ones you feel the most comfortable around and interact with the most.

Crowds are based on stereotypes. A stereotype is an oversimplified conception. When a teen enters high school, they are generally labeled and associated with a crowd that shares some common feature.For example, crowds can be based on ethnicity or neighborhood, a way of dress or behavior, or a common interest. Typical crowds in many high schools include: "jocks," "preps," "nerds," and "goths."

So, crowds are not based on who your friends actually are; they are simply the category you are stereotyped into. Crowds don’t influence a teen’s social choices as much as cliques (since cliques are a teens’ real friends), but crowds do have a huge influence on a teen’s identity. This is because teens often see themselves the way they think others see them. That is, when someone else thinks you act a certain way, you may end up changing the way you act so you fit the stereotype.


Why do we make crowds?

The purpose of crowds is to create a social structure in the school. This social structure gives teens a place to belong. They also help a teen define their identity, whether for better or worse. They steer teens towards other teens that are like them. Someone in the “popular” crowd is more likely to be friends with a “jock” than with a “nerd” or a “stoner”.

Teens know who they might be friends with because they know what crowd they are in. This can be good and bad. Although it helps to know who you might be compatible with, it cuts off opportunities to meet people outside your crowd.


How can I be friends with two different groups?

People who are friends with different cliques are called liaisons because they are the link between two different groups. Liaisons usually have many friends who are members of a clique, but they are not in any particular one. Although it may seem like everyone is in a clique, actually less than half of all teens are actually members of a clique. Other teens are either liaisons or isolates (those who don’t have many social connections). A liaison is able to be close friends with one or more members of lots of different cliques.


Are crowds the same in every high school?

For the most part, in the United States and Canada, the crowds formed are generally the same. Different schools might give the crowds different names, like “preps” instead of “populars”, but they are made up of people with the same stereotype. However, in other countries, the crowds are a little different. For example, in Europe, there is no crowd for “nerds” or for “jocks”. There is no “nerds” category because teens who work hard in school in Europe don’t get made fun of as they sometimes do in the United States. The lack of “jocks” is due to the lack of school sports teams in Europe. The similarity in culture and school structure throughout the United States, results in the formation of similar crowds as well.


Is there any truth to stereotypes?

A teen usually gets stereotyped into a certain crowd simply based on his or her reputation or appearance. Although he or she may not share all the characteristics of the crowd, it helps him or her form an identity, whether good or bad. Even though at first these stereotypes may not be entirely true, they may become truer as the teen’s identity develops, especially if they are basing their identity on the crowd they have been put into.


What are cliques?

Under the strictest definition cliques are a small group of friends with common interests. Cliques typically form during middle school and continue into high school, although there are also reports of cliques in the adult workplace. However, in recent years, educators and school administrators have reported that many children are forming cliques at younger and younger ages, thanks, in part the rise in working parents who place their children in day care, thereby causing children to begin socializing earlier in life. Cliques become more important during middle and high school, when peer influence rises and contact with parents decreases. On average, adolescents spend one-third of all waking hours with friends; they spend, by comparison, only fifteen percent of time with their parents.

Adolescent cliques control the social structure in many schools by defining students’ friendships based on prominent characteristics. Cliques vary in size from three to ten members, with most having about five members. Whether it’s the populars or the jocks or the brains or the druggies, many of the same cliques exist at high schools all across the nation. In fact, if you were to ask your parents, many similar cliques probably existed back when they were in high school.

While cliques typically conjure up a negative connotation, there are a few good things to be said. Cliques create an atmosphere that helps an adolescent develop his or her social skills. Furthermore, they can foster an environment that allows students to feel safe by surrounding him or herself with other students who share similar attributesand interests.

However, that having been said, there as also many negative consequences to cliques. They can lead to the encouragement of negative peer pressure, such as teasing, drinking, or drug use. The may encourage the restriction of individual thought and can limit students’ ability to have a broad friendship base. Cliques are frequently arranged in a status hierarchy, with higher-status cliques manifesting tighter control over membership, but conveying more appeal to outsiders. They tend to belittle outsiders and convince group members to follow suit in this activity.


How do cliques form?

Adolescent friendships remain rooted in homophily, which is the tendency to associate with similar others. Cliques can form in a similar pattern. As children, we tend to select peers who are similar to us when establishing relationships. For example, if you like to paint, you may become friends with the kids in your art class. In turn, friends mutually influence one another in ways that make them more alike as these relationships develop. Therefore, you may find yourself doing more and more things with your new art friends and, in doing so, you start to become more and more alike. As friendships develop, their social characteristics gradually merge through a subtle learning process in which members mutually influence one another’s behavior via reinforcement and punishment. Dissimilarities will lead to either relationship termination or significant change efforts by members. Voila, a clique is born!

For many adolescents, there are few things more appealing then the popular cliques. Everyone knows who they are. They don’t necessarily have lots of friends, they are more like high school royalty. Yet, even this may not be as good as it seems. Unlike other cliques, which tend to be based mainly around similar interests and experiences, the “popular” clique uses exclusionary tactics to continue its existence.

An individual’s rank within an elite clique can change at any time because of the hierarchical structure that controls the clique. Someone’s position depends on how strictly they conform to the same values, beliefs, or opinions of their group. The role of the leader may be to control membership in the group and to dictate the dress, activities, and attitudes of other members.

As mentioned before, “popular” groups maintain their elite status due to inclusionary and exclusionary dynamics. These are applied to various individuals both inside and outside of the clique to maintain the organization and status of the clique. Inclusionary dynamics refer to the recruitment, application, realignment of friendships and ingratiation.

Recruitment into the elite clique typically occurs at the beginning of the school year. Clique members show off the most enticing parts of the clique so they can attract new members. In the school hallways on a Monday morning, you might hear members of this clique talking about how much fun they had at their party that weekend. Furthermore, cliques may solicit new members while excluding other students on purpose. This clique may ask one girl to eat with them during the next lunch period while excluding her friends. New members may experience pressure to end their previous relationships and form new, close bonds with leaders of the “popular” group.

Exclusionary dynamics are more prevalent among the leaders of the popular group because these dynamics work to maintain the leader’s high status by deflating others both outside and inside the clique. These dynamics consist of the subjugation of the out-group and in-group, stigmatization, and expulsion. Stigmatization focuses negative attention from the whole group and onto one specific group member through taunting, ignoring, and verbal insults. Perhaps you’ve heard a group of girls talking about one of their friends behind her back and saying mean things about her when she’s not around. Stigmatization is a strong clique tool because it gives the clique the power to make another person feel bad about him or herself.

Think about your own school experiences and some of the cliques that you see everyday. Maybe you noticed how you became closer to some friends while losing contact with others who join other groups of people. These experiences, both in and put of school, shape our social experiences and allow us to form our group of friends.


“This one girl at my school says she’s my friend, but whenever I’m not around she says mean things about me. What can I do?”

Standing up to a bully can be incredibly difficult, especially when the perpetrator is a so-called friend. Here are some signs that this person isn’t friend material and some suggestions for how to deal:

1. They see you as a benefit instead of as a buddy.

If a friend seems more interested in what you have or where you’re invited than who you are, then he or she is not the real deal. Some signs to watch out for: the only want you to help them with their homework; they only call when there’s a party coming up, then cool off for a while.

How to Deal:
Remember, it takes two to make a friendship work. Try talking to this person and tell him or her that, if this friendship is going to work, then you both need to make an even effort.

2. They always call you out when other people are around.

No one likes to be made to feel stupid, especially not by their own friends. Don’t excuse your friend for criticizing you. Being a true friend doesn’t mean pulling down someone’s self-esteem.

How to Deal:
Whenever this person says something nasty, repeat it back to them when the two of you are alone. If they apologize, forgive them and let them know that you two are still friends. Everyone has a bad day now and then and says something they don’t always mean. However, if they have no regrets about offending you and keep doing it, it’s probably time to move on.

3. They tell your business to the world.

They’re called secrets because we don’t want everyone to find out.

How to Deal:
If you find out they’re sharing things you told him or her in confidence, don’t let it slide. Instead, tell him or her that it really bothered you that they shared a secret. Let them know that you two can still be friends, but try to be cautious about what you share for a little while afterwards.

4. They don’t wish you well.

Is this friend constantly telling you that you can’t do something? Do they call your opinions or ideas dumb? Then you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t have much respect for you. Friends should respect us and help us accomplish our dreams.

How to Deal:
Next time he or she doubts you, ask this person to be specific about why he or she disagrees. If they can’t explain,tell them that you’d like them to be more supportive of you, just like you are with them.

Remember, at the end of the day, no one has the right to bring you down or tell you that you can’t be yourself. A friend who is mean to you or doesn’t care about your feelings probably isn’t your friend at all. It may hurt to end a friendship, but remember somewhere out there waits a new friend who will respect and support you.


“I’ve heard that girl cliques are meaner than boys’. Is this true?”

Not meaner, just different. When boys have a problem with one another, they’re much more likely to handle it in physical means. This means, they might break out into a fistfight to settle a problem. But,once the fight is over, boys can move on fairly easily. Forgive and forget. With girls, things can be a little more complicated. Perhaps because our society does not condone female violence, girls are less likely to handle problems physically, so you won’t see them throwing punches every time there’s a problem. Girls may resort to some of the inclusionary and exclusionary tactics mentioned above, such as gossip or backstabbing. When it’s over, girls may hold a grudge slightly longer than boys.


How do stereotypes effect how we treat people?

From all the things we’ve talked about so far and many of your own personal experiences I am sure we all realize that stereotypes have a huge affect on how we treat people. What you may not have realized is that positive stereotypes can also cause us to treat some people better or with more respect than others. Some stereotypes cause us to view various people as more competent than others. We expect more from people of high status groups. An example of this would be assuming that a star varsity athlete would also make a good student government president just because he is a “jock”. Certain stereotypes are commonly envied while some are commonly pitied. These lead to both negative and positive treatments of these groups.


How can I get people to see ME and not my stereotype?

The reason people use stereotypes is because they just don’t know enough about you.Psychologists have actually done research which shows that teens are less likely to pass judgments on a person based on a stereotype if they know more about the person himself. They asked ninth and eleventh graders some questions about who should be allowed to enter clubs or receive scholarships based on which group they hang out with. For some of the questions they also included info like “she is good at basketball” or “he is well liked by teachers” and these little facts made people less judgmental towards the characters. This is something you should remember because a stereotype is not a personal attack it is an overgeneralization.Still, many times it is still just as insulting.

It is obviously not possible to make friends with every kid in your class to avoid being stereotyped. Your classmates don’t know your values, your beliefs, your sense of humor, your favorite book, they actually know very little about you so there is no basis for their opinion of you. In a specific situation you can do your best to get to know the certain person or group a little better and then they can get to know you as well. This keeps both sides from making artificial judgments and may actually lead to a new friendship.

One thing to be careful of is becoming more like the stereotype because another person labeled you. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Say there is a kid named Jon who listens to heavy metal and made friends with a group of guys who he could talk music with. These guys also happen to do drugs. Soon his classmates assume that Jon is a druggie because he hangs out with those kids. Jon figures that he may as well start doing drugs since everyone already thinks he does. This is an extreme scenario but it applies to things like wearing certain clothes or listening to certain music just because you think that this is what everyone else expects of you. You should never let anyone force you into a role.


Is it ever okay to exclude someone based on a stereotype?

We can all agree that it is not right to discriminate people because of race or gender. We have all learned in history about the struggles of equality that have taken place in our country. But few people stop and realize that excluding someone based on their social group can be just as bad as excluding someone based on their nationality. Discrimination is illegal. There is never any reason to outright exclude someone to join a sport or a club based on a stereotype. There are times when people use their prejudices when making decisions even when they don’t mean to. You should be aware of this when you make choices because this is also wrong.

Many times discrimination is not obvious and some people think that this makes it okay. Jenn, who is thought of as a nerd because she gets very good grades and works hard in her classes, wants to try out for cheerleading. The girls on the squad don’t really like her simply because she is a nerd but she did well in try outs so they know they have to let her cheer with them. Once she is on the squad though, none of the girls talk to her and most of them make fun of her. Eventually, Jenn quits cheerleading. This is indirect discrimination. They knew they couldn’t outright cut her from the team but they made it so that she wouldn’t want to be. This probably happens more than most people realize. You should just be aware of it that you don’t accidentally do it to someone else because it would feel awful to have it done to you.


What if my friends and I use stereotypes to pick our friends, even when we sometimes don’t mean to?

Many times we pass judgments without really thinking about it. There is a developmental theory that explains how people are always trying to put things into categories so they are easier to understand. This is something our brains just do, even from the time we are born. This works for people, too. They remind us of someone else so we make the association because we don’t know much about them. Though we may sort people we have to remember that these categories are not set in stone.You have to get to know a person, their likes and dislikes, their opinions and views. You cannot assume you know everything about a person because of the stereotype you associate with her.

Just like when people are stereotyping you, you should get to know them better because there is a lot more to a person than first impressions. You don’t want people passing superficial judgments on you so you have to try your best to not do it to others. This is something that is hard to do if everyone around is still using stereotypes. You and your friends should try hard to not call people by labels or exclude people from your group. I know you can’t be friends with everyone, some people just don’t get along with one another, but this shouldn’t be a reason to be disrespectful. You also cannot assume that because you don’t really like member of group that you cannot be friends with any of their other friends.

Hopefully this has given you some insight into how stereotypes get started and the impact they have you and on others. The important thing to take away from all of this is that stereotyping is going to happen in high school, and even in adulthood, but it is how we react that makes the difference. You cannot take these classifications seriously when judging others or when judging yourself. Friends and social life are a huge part of high school and they are always going to shape your personality but don’t let them put a label on you.



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Hackney, Amy (2005). Teaching students about stereotypes and discrimination: An interview with Susan Fiske. In Teaching of Psychology, 32 (3), 196-199.

Hersch, Patricia (1998). A Tribe Apart: A journey to the heart of American adolescence. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group.

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Steinberg, Laurence (2005). Adolescence (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.