Be Nice. Or Not.

Follow Your Passion

Be Smart. Able. Strong. Successful. Not "nice".

A recurring theme in posts about sexual harassment of women in the public space is how women often feel silenced at the moment of confrontation.

When I recently commented about this in a Facebook thread, a couple of things came up. One, the original poster said that some responses might be difficult for her to muster, and also that she only found the strength to speak out as she does after reading numerous, repeated commentaries decrying this behavior by men. Repeated. So the first thing that came to me was, of course, that we do, indeed, need another post on the topic. Good thing I started a blog.

The second thing was my response – how women are socialized to be NICE. How we’re worried about what even this guy invading our space or body will think of us. How we are trained to avoid confrontation. This is something I think about a lot. I’m not reinventing the wheel, but I do want to cover some of my impressions about NICE.


I don’t think I was particularly taught to be nice. Then again, I wasn’t really “taught” very much, having grown up with a violent, unstable, neglectful home life. The main way I survived my nightmare childhood relatively intact was by never giving in. Though my parents could cow me through violence and manipulation, I never gave in mentally, in the sense that I never conceded that they were right. Only that they had power over me. So I ended up a fairly confrontational person. I’m not likely to fear any confrontations I might face as an adult (say from some creep touching me in line) given my long and thorough training. And confrontational — is not NICE. But it does give me the ability to not conform.

And I don’t.

As a result, I have been called all kinds of things by all kinds of people: An “unnatural woman” because I choose not to have children; My ex-husband wanted me to be “more wifely”;  People at my (very normative) workplace whisper about me because of my queer and feminist activism. The list goes on.

Which doesn’t mean that I was unaffected by the role models, imagery and standards of my time: From Nancy Drew to Barbie to Samantha Stevens, to Disney princesses… Gender-based role assignments, such as that women could be teachers, secretaries, nurses, ballerinas, or flight attendants (‘scuze me, stewardesses), and must aspire to wifedom and motherhood and a showcase home… While men could/should aspire to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, president, architects, pilots, astronauts, or anything they damn well pleased (except for teacher, secretary, nurse or ballerina). That there was a right way to be a woman and a wrong way: And the right way was to be pure, to be ladylike, to be pleasing… To be NICE.

Of course, being nice was a completely feminine domain. When I was younger, I agreed with my then best-friend that we didn’t want a “nice guy”. Ick. That would be boring. We wanted someone who knew how to strut, who knew what he was worth, who could take control, who would provide excitement. Who was MANLY. We, on the other hand, would bat our lashes, and smile a lot. Unlike the boys who had their pride and honor, we would easily apologize, accommodate, adapt.

And the boys, not only were they not taught to be NICE, they were taught to go out and crush the opposition. They were taught to WIN. They knew that “nice guys finish last” and of course, that nice guys don’t get the girl. They knew who did — the soldier, the pilot, the leader, the tough guy, the bad boy, the Casanova. Their mothers beamed with pride as they practiced trampling the weak and taking what they wanted.

When I experienced sexual harassment and even when I was raped, it never occurred to me to tell anyone, to complain; that there might be something I could do about it (in truth, there probably wasn’t). It was something to put in a drawer and move on from. And I still had to be NICE to the men who treated me that way.

The bottom line is that I if you look at the dictionary definition of NICE it is not a bad thing – it’s a quality more people could use an increased dose of. But the way it’s used – to tell girls how to be proper females, and as an example of what men should NOT be – I have a huge aversion to the word.

And I do not really consider myself a NICE person.

However, not being “nice” has not make me: unkind, ungenerous, uncaring, inconsiderate, unsupportive, a bad listener, or lacking any of a range of other positive qualities. (Not saying I don’t have my faults 🙂  Nor that I am never “nice”. )

And another note: My best friend in law school told me in response to the not wanting a nice guy thing, “But of course I want a nice guy. Who doesn’t want their partner to be nice to them?” Duh. Yep, that was a wake up call.

And yet, the word NICE still makes me cringe, a bit. I think it’s good (desirable! essential!!) to teach your children to be courteous, to be considerate, to be contributing members of their communities, and so on. But every time I hear a girl being told to “be nice”, my stomach turns over. It incorporates into that one little word a whole universe of harmful behaviors socialized into girls/women, that I really REALLY want rid of. I want us to teach girls to say no. To know what they want, and believe they deserve it. To expect others to respect those wants. Not to cave in to bullying or manipulation. To recognize when they are being manipulated. To know how to effectively protect themselves. To stop apologizing. To stop making excuses for bad behavior by males. The list goes on.

Coming soon:

More on silence in the face of actual or threatened violence, and practical tips on overcoming the “Nice Girl Syndrome”.