debbie millman

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Girls Night Out

Several weeks ago, I was invited to a join some friends for a “girls night out.” Despite the fact that I am not much of a girl about town, let alone a girl’s night out girl about town, despite the fact that the majority of the women invited were a good ten years younger than me, and despite the fact we were congregating at a beer house AND I don’t drink beer, I agreed to go. I did this primarily because I genuinely like the very sweet woman who organized the outing and one of the other invitees was a designer I deeply admire and hadn’t seen in some time.

When I go out, I often feel a pervasive sense of discomfort. Albeit my gregarious and outgoing nature, I really hate small talk. I don’t enjoy standing around, drink in hand, asking people silly little inconsequential questions about inconsequential minutia. I have a near pathological disdain for shooting the breeze and an even harder time endlessly chit-chatting about any and all of the following: the weather, baby showers, dieting, engagement rings, office politics, American politics, traffic, vacations, summer homes, sports, airport security and rent control. But I often find myself engaged in these types of conversations because this is what is polite and expected and I don’t want to be rude or unsocial. But deep down, even when it might seem otherwise, I have a hard time believing that I fit into most social situations. Despite decades of analysis, I often feel that my clothes are unkempt or my hair is too frizzy or too flat or my ideas are half-baked or all wrong.

It was with a bit of trepidation that I made my journey into this girls night out, which became even more challenging when I found out en route that the designer I was eager to see wasn’t feeling well and was no longer joining us. I forlornly tapped out a text message to another friend. “How can I go without her?” was my plea, and in an attempt to console me he responded by questioning whether I really had to go. And of course, I knew I did. Didn’t everyone? This was the third cardinal rule of girlfriends. The first cardinal rule is, as everyone knows, you can’t go out with your friends ex. Ever. The second cardinal rule is, as everyone knows, you can’t break a date with a girlfriend for a boy. Ever. And finally, the third cardinal rule is, as everyone knows, you can’t cancel a night out with the girls at the last minute because the only person you feel comfortable with can no longer make it. So, of course I went anyway.

What is it, really, that connects people? Why do we feel safe and secure and loved by some people and judged or ostracized by others? Is it about common values? Is it about shared assumptions? I often think that people have invisible antenna’s that secretly start signaling when you meet someone with this mysterious mutuality. And then suddenly you find yourself in the midst of a, “you know that they know that you know that they know” mutuality. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Sometimes, mutuality takes time to take hold. Many years ago, in my sophomore year of college, I found myself living in a dorm with a group of girls that seemed to be everything I wasn’t: light and breezy and happy and they all looked great in tight Jordache jeans and torn, ‘80s rock and roll t-shirts. We were six Jewish girls living together, in three bedrooms, a yellow kitchenette and a tiny one-shower bathroom. My roommate, Aileen, was a petite woman with cascading black curls, a thick Long Island accent, bad posture and a lukewarm demeanor. I tried to settle into a life there, and decorated one side of my shared bedroom with Roger Dean’s Yes posters and a well-worn copy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photograph of Patti Smith, whose evident armpit hair confused them, at best. The first few weeks were fairly agonizing. Aileen tried to include me in their outings and antics, but I made myself scarce in the suite, and instead found myself spending time with a group of Grateful Dead heads I had met in the college record store. And when a room opened up in a dilapidated, dingy house they were renting off campus, I jumped at the chance to move in. I joyfully told my suite mates I was leaving, and only Aileen seemed glum. I packed up my things, I took down my treasured Patti Smith photo and as I pulled my posters off of the wall, Aileen started to cry. It had never occurred to me that she too might have felt like an outsider and my moving out only further cemented her already fragile center. I suddenly felt awful and promised I would come by to visit her and we would do something special.

Weeks went by and I got consumed with my new friends. We started a band and I found myself in a heady world I had only dreamed about. I felt included and I felt understood and I felt happy. Every couple of days I would remind myself to go and visit Aileen, and then the days would come and go and I’d put it off visiting for another day. Finally, we made a date for breakfast, and I gallantly insisted on bringing fresh muffins and biscuits over to her at the dorm. The morning of our meeting I accidentally overslept, and by the time I got to the bakery, it was threadbare. I picked out a few misshapen rolls, jumped on the bus and made my way over to the campus. By the time I got to the suite, all but one girl was gone. When I asked for Aileen, the girl shook her head. “She had to go to class,” she said with the slightest sliver of contempt. “You’re too late.”

As I walked back to the bus, I berated myself for being late. And I hated myself for being utterly selfish. Twenty-five years later, I’m still ashamed of my behavior. And despite my best efforts, I find I still forget that I live in a world where other people worry about fitting in and being comfortable and being liked. But I am trying to change that.


Blogger Bill Grant said...

my brilliant valentine!

3/09/2008 12:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Shalimar said...

This was a great show. I felt myself identifying a lot with some of the things Laurie was saying and especially your monologue.

3/10/2008 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger berto said...

If it makes you feel any better, there are many more of us that feel just like you in those situations... ;)

3/18/2008 02:09:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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