Essays

Be kind, not nice

“Be nice!” How many times have we all heard that one?

And by we, I mean women, and by heard, I mean been told that the appropriate way to behave was to “be nice.”

Once, I accidentally said this to someone, another woman, of course, and she snapped back at me: “Don’t tell me to be nice!” And I deserved that response. My intent was to ask her to be easy, not so tense or tight, because I wasn’t the enemy, but the fault was on me because I absolutely said the wrong thing.

Words have power. We know this. And by we, I mean women, and by know, I mean we’ve absorbed it into our flesh, into our very bones, into our every breath.

“Be nice” are two words which imply a particular sort of push to be passive in the face of a disliked thing; it is an an expression which says: “Take it and don’t complain about it.”

We tell little girls who don’t want to hug a creepy relative: “Be nice!” We don’t ever tell little boys to be nice, because, boys will be boys, right?

This isn’t news nor is the understanding of the toxicity of that phrase new. The only reason that I’m talking about it, thinking about it really, is that some times, late at night when I can’t sleep, it hits me how often even I, someone who has spent most of years being socialized in the company of men, as an adult, I started down the path of “be nice” because I got told that, too often and in so many ways, as I entered the workplace and had to ‘conform.’

I work in an office of kind, funny, smart, and friendly people. I told my boss yesterday, finally, after months: “I hate the constant high fives and I hate all the random hugging.” Now, do I really “hate” those things? Not necessarily. But, in the effort of months of “being nice” – of just taking it and not complaining because that’s the office culture and why rock the boat? – it had coalesced into a ball of resentment that found me saying the words “I hate.”

Is it any wonder why women often get hit with the label of passive-aggressive? The thing is, I do think the stereotype is true, that more women than men are passive-aggressive, but it’s not accidental! I don’t believe it’s the fault of a society, a culture, that breeds it! We come about this honestly:

  • “Be nice” and smile even when you’re upset by something
  • “Be nice” and play with others even if you’d rather just sit and read by yourself
  • “Be nice” and give that high-five even if you’d rather just say ‘hey, great meeting, y’all.’
  • Be nice, be nice, be nice, be–

Dammit, when can we stop being nice and start being kind?

To my boss’s credit, he didn’t get upset. However, he did counter that it was his preferred way of feeling good about things. This is not untrue. Still, it is what he likes, not me and so, in my being nice for all these months, I had failed to be kind… by just telling him: “Dude, all of y’all, just cut it out with me.

Now this is not a state of taking on blame. Because, folks in that place do pout a bit when you avoid the side hug. They push. But, it is on each of us to push back by being kind: and by us, yes, I mean women, and by being kind, I mean stop going along to get along.

This is not about raging out because that statement “get angry” is a false savior – it makes it appear that anger is this all-powerful fuel that will allow you finally to be loose. I find untamed anger is be as equally bad as untamed niceness. You know, the aggressive to the passive. There is a middle ground, but how does one find it?

Speak. Speak not because someone will listen — this is not a cry for help — but speak just to hear your own voice, to learn the quality of it, the timbre and tone, and the depth. Speak, speak to know yourself; speak to make your own needs known to you.

Kindness, you see, starts within. It is powered by what is deep inside of you. Kind people are warm, vivacious, and alive, not because of a particular set of words they use or how they dress, but because they have a steadiness and a solidity, gravitas, which cannot be bought and put on like makeup and taken off like a mask. It is an self-earned confidence that invites others in and creates the space community and real friendship. Why? Because when you are comfortable in your own skin, it is easier to be accepting of others you’re sense of self and value is not dependent on their opinion of you.

In contrast, niceness is driven by outside expectations on who you should be and how you should be it. It is all about forced comportment and tight boxes; it is the opposite of acceptance, whether that acceptance is of others or of yourself. Niceness is a cruel task master that will make your spine too straight and your words too brittle. It doesn’t come from the heart and it makes liars out of all of us.

So, be kind. Don’t be nice, just be kind, so kind, to everyone that crosses your path, but most of all, be kind to yourself. It starts right there, in the mirror, with you.

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