When good cliques go bad.

Amongst the numerous contradictions that have helped shape me into the fascinatingly complex individual that I am today, (and God, this ironic self-aggrandisement is going to have to stop some time soon, lest the wind should change direction and leave me stuck that way) my attitude to social cliques is a prime example. Rationally speaking, I retain a strong dislike for cliques: the insularity, the exclusivity, the unhealthily inward focus. Nevertheless, I am also the sort of person who has always been naturally drawn towards them, and into them. For there are aspects of cliquedom which attract as well as repel: the security, the dependability, the easy, instant support network – and, if I am honest, their essentially self-referential nature. I like the “insider knowledge” that membership of a clique confers – and I love the knowing, sharp banter which flows from that. Mine is a sense of humour which thrives on the delicious naughtiness of the in-joke; I delight in operating just within the boundaries of what constitutes good-natured teasing, safe in the knowledge that offence will not be caused.

Thus it is that over the years, I have found myself right at the heart of many a social clique. In my first year at University, our clique of maybe a dozen or so in residence hall was so flagrantly close-knit that we referred to ourselves quite openly as “The Clique”, and were happy to be known as such by everyone else. I’ve been in school cliques, office cliques, gay cliques (of various hues), neighbourhood cliques, clubbing cliques, pub cliques, house-share cliques… the lot. And for a while, they’re usually great places to be.

Until – inevitably – they start to disintegrate. A key member of the clique moves away – or changes job – or meets a new partner with a different set of friends, who doesn’t quite “fit in”. Or maybe they just bore of the repetition, and so start to move in wider circles. The pub changes hands; the club shuts down; the department is re-organised. Or, worse still, a feud breaks out between two or more of the clique members. Sides are drawn. Allies are recruited. This person and that person can no longer stand to be in the same room together. Suddenly, the illusion of permanence – that we will always be together, friends forever – is cracked, revealing the underlying, uncomfortable truth: that these arrangements are always temporary.

The ground is pulled from under your feet. You had come to rely on these people. Their constant presence had saved you from having to make conscious decisions about who you saw, where you went, and what you talked about. You feel uneasy, insecure – and, if you’re not careful – resentful, wounded, jealous, spiteful. The open banter freezes into covert bitchiness. The aggrieved muttering and finger-pointing begins. It’s all his fault, or her fault, or their fault. We thought you cared. You’ve spoilt everything. You were a false friend; you strung us along, and we never realised.

In these situations, closeness can turn to distance in an instant. Too late, you discover that with some people, it’s all or nothing. From gossipy huddles three times a week down the pub, to strained smiles and awkward small talk three times a year; in the street, in the supermarket, at someone else’s summer barbecue. It hurts. You can’t quite understand how everything changed so rapidly. You replay events and conversations over and over again in your mind, trying to find an answer, wondering what you did wrong.

Shows like Friends perpetuate a myth; the myth of the permanently inseparable gang. Yes, individual friendships can and do last – for years, for decades – but without need of the supporting structure of a clique to keep them alive.

These days, I retain a careful wariness of cliques. I will happily hover at the edges – picking up some of the banter, joining in some of the activities – but I will stop well short of total immersion. And yes, that applies online as much as offline. What’s more; I have discovered that I actively like the independence that this brings. More choices, more variety, more control. More interest. More scope.

“Darling! You’re looking as fabulous as ever tonight! Mwah! Mwah! Big hug! Now tell me all the latest gossip!” Enjoy it for what it is. But don’t be seduced by the illusion, however glittering and flattering it may be.

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