Let’s stop emphasizing ‘nice’ for girls

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What is your first response when someone makes an unreasonable request of you?

  • Hell no!
  • With all due respect, a firm no
  • No, but… (feeling guilty)
  • OK, I guess I’ll do it

Be honest. Is it easy to stand up for yourself, or do you hem and haw and feel guilty later?

This might surprise people who know me, but I’m in the “No, but…” camp. I’ll say no, but I’ll stew about it and question myself and wish that I could somehow find a way to appease the person. I think this is part of growing up female in this culture.

To be clear, I’m not talking about #metoo situations or anything that rises to the level of harassment. Just irritating requests, like, “I can’t come to parent night Thursday, so can I just meet with you Wednesday at 6 instead?”

My ambivalence annoys me — why would I feel bad about saying no to this? — and it worries me when I think about young women in our culture.

Objectively, I can look at these situations — a parent demands that I make a ridiculous exception for her son, a company offers me unacceptably low pay for contract work, a family member asks for a truly inconvenient favor — and see that the only rational response is “no”.

But like many women, I grew up wanting to be “nice”, wanting to please people — so voicing my refusal causes agony. I don’t remember my mom or dad ever telling me to be this way, but I also never saw my mom confront anyone or assert herself.

In any case, I think this goes well beyond our individual parental role models. Even if my mom had encouraged me to take a stand, never undervalue myself, and refuse to feel guilty, I’m not sure her message could have overcome our societal preference for niceness in girls. Just last week, a colleague shared this article with me, revealing that likeability matters more than GPA or alma mater for women job-seekers. Argh.

Being a nice yes-person has its advantages, of course, especially in the education field. Teachers are not generally rewarded for being confrontational, and it’s not like we ever have to ask the boss for a raise or a promotion. Go along and get along, and you can survive a long time in public education.

But despite the research on new job seekers, an overwhelming desire to be nice doesn’t work very well in business (as I’m learning) or politics, and it’s not a great mindset to pass on to our daughters.

You don’t become a successful entrepreneur by letting people walk over you. You don’t become an effective lawyer by backing down in negotiations. You won’t make a medical breakthrough if you’re not willing to step on a few toes.

I don’t have a daughter, but if I did I would talk about this with her all the time.

Instead, I’ll keep working to instill in my female students the self-confidence that I don’t feel in myself. And I’ll hope that when some future boss, friend, or family member make ridiculous requests of them, they’ll be able to say “no” without feeling a twinge of guilt.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush