You Are Not Nice!


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Long before kids learn to write their own names, they can find your vulnerable underbelly and stick an icepick into it. My youngest son has found a hole in my armor that he’s been pouring acid into for about a month now. When I want him to do something that he doesn’t want to do, he shouts, “You are not nice!”

Pfft! You say. He’s just trying to manipulate his mother so that he doesn’t have to clean up his toys, give his brother a turn to watch movies, go to bed, etc. You’re right, of course, and I don’t hesitate to dish out the time-outs, take away privileges or put a toy on the shelf until he earns it back.

Still, when he accuses me of not being nice, I’m surprised by how much it bothers me. I want to prove that I am nice. I want to find the nearest old lady and help her across the street. I decide to give all my recently purchased canned goods, not the old cans of garbanzo beans that I don’t want anymore, to the nearest food bank. I vow to give all of my money to Bill Gates so that he can give everyone in Africa a malaria vaccine. 

When I moved to New England from my native Arkansas, I was immediately labeled “nice” by my Yankee associates. As a southerner, I’d been conditioned to smile at everyone I passed, to speak politely and to greet strangers, something that my new Puritan brethren didn’t always do. For me, being labeled as “nice” felt unusual. In Arkansas, I felt like I was perceived as direct and impatient. One time when I was in college, a friend ripped off the corner of a package of nylons and handed the plastic scrap to me. “This is you, Jackie,” she said. I read the wrapper: “No-nonsense.”

 After a recent argument with a male (I thought that he was in the wrong), I wrote a polite but assertive e-mail about why I thought I was right. No swearing. No rudeness. No hysterics. The next time I saw him, he confronted me and asked me if I was threatening him. He accused me of starting a war. I responded that I’d been assertive, and maybe that wasn’t something he was used to. Frankly, it wasn’t something that I was used to, because underneath my “no-nonsense” exterior lies a woman who feels afraid that being “not nice” equates with being “not lovable.”

I think women often feel afraid of being perceived as “not nice.” My son’s definition of “nice” is that I give him what he wants. In other words, “nice” is more like “deferential.” I feel a cultural expectation, whether it does or doesn’t exist, that as a woman, I should have a certain genteel manner in which I interact with other people. Never be shrill. Never be hysterical. And never, ever be that most unattractive of epithets: a bitch.

UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma once told a post player, Tina Charles, that she was too nice on the court to become a great player. “You can be nice 22 hours a day,” he told her.

Tina took his advice to heart. She’s in the WNBA now. So maybe I’ll take a page from Geno’s playbook. I’ll be nice to my son—and the rest of the world—22 hours per day. For the other two hours, I’ll go with “no-nonsense.”

Do you worry about being “nice”? Is that more of a female thing? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

3 thoughts on “You Are Not Nice!

  1. Jessica says:

    Have you read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In?” Throughout the book, she discusses how, in a male dominated business world, women are faced with a double edged sword – if they are nice, they are not being assertive enough,and if they are assertive and ask for the same jobs and wages as men, they are bitchy. Of course, this was about business, not interaction between mother and son, but the concept is the same. Women are expected to be nurturers, and for some reason, it’s not possible to be assertive and nurturing. Anyway, what I’m saying is that a lot of us feel the same way.

  2. Melissa says:

    I recently got mixed feedback on a job interview; some of the interviewers thought I was “assertive” (positive), while others thought I was “aggressive” (negative). I’m fairly sure that the middle-aged woman was the one who took exception, and I also think that the dreaded “Minnesota Nice” played a factor. As an assertive woman who is honest (to a fault?), I run into gendered judgment all the time.

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