A smart, wonderful client who lives in Manhattan recently got a lesson in the high cost of being nice. While riding on the subway, a bedraggled man got on the car, sat beside her and, in a series of escalating advances, attempted to engage her in conversation and then began to touch her.
Frightened, she quietly waited until the train came to a station, told him it was her stop (it wasn’t and yeah, she actually gave him an excuse for leaving), and left the car. She re-entered the next car which had more people on it. He followed her, continued his advances, and luckily this time several men on the car restrained him, and summoned the transit police who took the very mentally ill man away in handcuffs.
My client was grateful because it could have been worse, but she was tremendously upset and shaken.
What was she thinking? As we deconstructed the event, she realized that she saw him initially approaching her, felt uncomfortable, but she sat still because she didn’t want to seem impolite.
We do it all the time don’t we? We’re such nice girls. We are literally conditioned to be nice.
After all, little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” We’ve heard it since we could literally understand the words.
I once visited a new hairdresser, walked into an elegant salon and was greeted by a man dressed in black and chains.He looked like an old, grizzled British rocker who’d partied hard back in the day.
I didn’t like his looks or his vibe, but I politely sat in his chair anyway. As I picked at my hair, trying to describe what I wanted, he abruptly told me that I was paying him to cut my hair, not drive him crazy, so I had to keep my hands out of my hair. I was taken aback but, nice girl that I was, I folded my hands in my lap.
As he roughly raked through my hair, my eyes welled up with tears. “I’m extremely tender-headed.” I told him.
“Well I’m not known for being gentle,” he growled. And I still sat there, blinking back the tears.
I was aware of a sickly feeling growing stronger in the pit of my stomach. But I did not leave. I was frozen and didn’t move.
You know the ending of this story, right?
I left with three inches less hair than I wanted, a lousy, unflattering haircut, and the prospect of finding someone else to repair the damage.
What was I thinking? I was operating on the same frequency as my client was in the subway, as the woman who doesn’t get off the elevator when the creepy guy gets in, the woman who doesn’t get up, walk out, make a fuss, or do whatever it takes to live her exactly as she pleases.
I ignored all the signals from my gut, because I felt too uncomfortable standing up and leaving. I ignored my feelings because I was afraid to tell him the truth.
We’re such good girls aren’t we? In the name of being nice, of not making a fuss, not offending, not drawing attention to ourselves, and a load of other unhelpful motivations, we tolerate all kinds of inappropriate people and behavior.
We ignore the clues in our bodies, as they sometimes whisper and sometimes scream at us–get up, leave, walk, run, speak up, yell, don’t sit here, don’t stay here, don’t do business here, get the hell out of here and don’t turn back.
Enough! I for one am declaring my personal independence and I invite you to join me.
Let us declare our independence from being nice above all, no matter what it costs.
Let us declare that from this moment forward, we will put our desire to be safe and happy over our desires to be nice, polite, good girls. Let us listen to the signals from our bodies, to our discomfort, to our gut feelings.
Whether it’s to protect our personal safety or our hair or anything in between, let us give up sitting quietly with our hands folded in our laps.
Let us never, ever again fail to speak up for ourselves, and not leave, speak up, shout, or whatever it takes to look out for our best interests.
Will you join me?