“I have definitely had the disease to please,” Oprah tells Gwyneth Paltrow in her new goop podcast. “When I was younger I was nice all of the time, in the fear that 1) I could lose my job if I said no, 2) people wouldn’t like me. Then I started saying no to things that I didn’t feel good about, not that they were bad or would be wrong for other people, but they didn’t fit me. That’s important to be aware of in your life.”
I was little when Oprah had her show, but my mom watched it religiously. She even recounts of the day I was born, “I had to miss Oprah for you.” (I was born at 3:45 pm, Oprah came on at 4).
I come from a long line of overly nice women. I love them to pieces. They are beautiful and strong and have many wonderful attributes, but they have a passion for niceness. Niceness is what they’ve learned to expect from themselves.
Growing up with this, I often feel I must live up to an expectation to be nice and sweet and obedient. I have to ask myself: Does niceness relate to femininity? Absurd? Perhaps. But not without psychological merit.
I am learning that I’m not the only girl who believes that society connects niceness and femininity.
Female executives are shedding light on the quiet truth that female leaders are held to two standards: one of niceness and one of actual work. The workplace reveres male leaders simply for the work that they produce, whereas the same workplace holds female leaders to a standard of not only the work they produce but also the personalities they possess and the smiles they exude. In other words, how nice they are.
Niceness Has a History
Niceness has been an expected hallmark of the female personality for some time now. In fact, arguably, forever. Women, as traditional homemakers, have been expected to exude a warmth to their own children in a way untraditional for men. This warmth expectation carries into female social lives, as women move away from the home, society judges them based on their personalities over merit. Within the last century, as women have made enormous climbs towards greater equality in the workplace, it’s no surprise that many of these expectations linger unwanted in the workplace, classroom, and other social settings.
Nice With Friends
I’ve seen many women, including myself, shy away from their own success or desires in the fear that they will come across negatively in a social or professional setting. We fear that in some way our action will tarnish our reputation. Like when 3 people out of the group of 10 order 4 rounds of drinks for only themselves then expect to split the bill “evenly”. Umm…was I the one who ordered 3 margaritas? Speak up!
Women need to know that being “nice” in a social or professional setting should not overshadow their ability to stand up for themselves, nor should it sow seeds of doubt in their minds about their character simply because they say no or pursue their own success.
I have encountered, over the years, girls who are afraid to be direct in the fear that they will come across as mean. Somehow society associates being a leader, being in charge, and taking initiative with being less than nice, and therefore, less feminine.
Though, as Tina Fey says, “Bitches get stuff done”.
It’s true that society hands out these labels to women like excess candy no one wants. Like an excess production of candy circus peanuts and black licorice. “No, Carl, I don’t want circus peanuts, they’re not real candy. They’re somehow worse tasting than packing peanuts, and I’m 100% certain that those are not edible.”
Nice In The Workplace
Robin Lakoff, professor of gender and language studies at UC Berkeley, says society expects women to be nice and obedient. She says society attaches niceness to the idea of femininity. If women stray from this expectation, they can expect critique.
Writer Elizabeth Hilts relates her twenties and early thirties to a behavioral quality I can most definitely relate to. She says, “I felt like I had to apologize profusely after standing up for what I believed in. All of that apologizing, and the attendant habits of agreeing too readily, putting the needs of everyone else first, smiling through tears–had worn me out. It became clear to me that the only thing standing between me and true happiness was niceness. I’d had enough of being too nice.”
Leading Women co-author, Dr. Lois Frankel, says that the burden of excess pressure on women to constantly be nice can be detrimental to women. The excess burden of assuming societal expectations of femininity can make it harder for women to effectively assume leadership roles. She says, “women attempt to make everyone happy, communicating in ways that can undermine their confidence and credibility. Women need to step away from the nice girl messages learned in childhood to be phenomenal leaders for this age.”
Frankel says we must understand the full potential of women to foster the growth of female leaders in America. We need to let go of stereotypical views of femininity, embrace our power, and take our seats at the table. We must lead with our experience and abilities first, personalities second.