Quit Being So Nice

Likability is overrated and counterproductive.

Posted Jan 15, 2011

Men are taught to be right. Women are taught to be nice.

Fortunately, a lot more women are also being raised with enough of an education to be right too. But the need to be nice can still be a downfall.

Contrary to Linda Kaplan Thaler's book, The Power of Nice, there is a limit to the results being nice will get you. Fundamentally, it is better to be nice than rude and we like people who are fair better than those who are selfish. But too much congeniality is counterproductive.

I recently read a number of articles that say people who are too nice repel others. Either they make us feel badly for not being as nice as they are or we judge excessively nice behavior as manipulative.

In the November edition of Scientific Mind, an article titled That's Nice, Now Get Out by Valerie Ross cited a study where people could kick members off their team for behaviors they didn't like. The results showed that being overly generous was just as annoying as cheating.

I wonder if this is the reason for the belief that men like bitches more than nice girls. It might not be that they want to be mistreated. They just don't like being showered with niceness. And maybe they actually respect a woman who sets strong boundaries and shows a tough demeanor when dealing with difficulties.

Whether people like us or not, we need to make good choices about when to be nice and when it's time to take care of ourselves.

Last month I was hiking up an active volcano in Guatemala with three men. One was my partner, one was the trail guide, the third was our tour guide. When we started the hike, a group of five children, one riding a horse, fell in behind us. Every 100 feet of the journey, one of the children asked me if I wanted to ride. They didn't ask my partner. I quickly realized that they thought I, as a woman, would give in to the rigors of the hike and let them haul me to the top.

I politely said no thank you. I mentioned to the men that their presence was making the trek unenjoyable. I tried to position myself between them and the men, but the stalkers kept on my heels.

Finally, I stopped and yelled for them to "GO!" They hesitated, but seeing the fire in my eyes and the anger on my lips, they turned away calling me unflattering names. I understand enough Spanish to know what they were saying.

I realized that the men were not sure I was going to make it either. I was in good shape. I was determined to make the hike. I could accomplish this feat no matter who believed in me. If I were waiting for them to clear the way for me, I would have been plagued by what was annoying me the entire time.

And so the story has replayed many times in my life. Being nice has led to some wonderful relationships. It has also led me to put up with annoying, disrespectful behavior for too long. It has led me to expect others--my boss, my colleagues, even my friends--to clear the way for me or make sure I had equal chances to succeed when this hope was often a regretful mistake.

I have had better results when I:

  • Clearly state what I need to feel good about my work and my future.
  • Know the difference between win-win compromise and when I am giving up something important to me.
  • Catch myself justifying wimpy behavior, such as saving face for others or not wanting rocking the boat.
  • Let people call me names.

Match your "niceness" to the people you are playing with. If they are nice, you can be nice back. If they are not so nice or attentive to your needs, your niceness will be an unnecessary sacrifice.

Take care of yourself. You might be the only one in the room, or on the mountain, who will.

Adapted from Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. For more on this topic, contact Dr. Reynolds at Marcia@outsmartyourbrain.com.