Wednesday, 13 March 2013

On Being A Nice Girl

I found this in a dark recess of my laptop this morning.  It was written sometime in early 2012, when I was in Canada.  I imagine I didn't post it to to MapleJack!, my livejournal of the time, out of concern that my mother would transatlantically flip her biscuit at the commentary on her parenting.  Since my family don't read this blog, I'm now posting it here.  Enjoy.

During the month I turned twelve, I was given a lesson in social priorities and being a nice person.  It was a lesson I was very receptive to at the time because, like the rest of my classmates in our newly-begun senior school for girls, I was desperate to secure myself a best friend before all the potentials ‘got taken’.  Thirty eleven- and twelve-year-old girls, all scrabbling madly to partner up, each and every one terrified of being the last lonely freak left standing.  I really don’t envy the teachers who were trying to educate us throughout this colossal social earthquake of a first term.

It was around this time that I got talking to Polly, discovered that we shared a mutual appreciation for Garfield comic strips, and embarked on a friendship that has well and truly stood the test of time – I was asked to be a bridesmaid at her wedding last year.  But for a month or so before Polly and I became a solid duo, I was going about with another girl; I’ll call her Hayla.  Hayla was friendly enough but a lot of her ways quickly grew to irritate me.  I stuck with her anyway, naively hoping we would get used to each other and somehow mutate into perfect best friends, because to walk around by yourself in senior school is to issue an open invitation for harrassment from anyone and everyone you pass.  Any friend is better than no friend.  Adults often tell kids this isn’t true, but that’s because they’ve grown accustomed to living in a civilised world, and they’ve forgotten what senior school is really like.  You run in a pack if you want to live.

As time went by, I found myself less and less able to summon any enthusiasm for performing the job of being Hayla’s friend.  Everything we did had to be done the way Hayla wanted, on pain of sulks and tantrums, and it grew incredibly wearing.  Within a couple of weeks, things reached the point where I dreaded walking into the classroom and seeing her every day.  Hayla seemed to genuinely like me, and appeared to be hoping we might progress to being best friends before much longer.  But the more I got to know Polly, the less patience I had for Hayla; and the more I tried to edge tactfully away from Hayla, the more tightly she clung to me.  I remember a day when she wouldn’t let me go anywhere by myself – not even the bathroom.  This shadowing behaviour was the last straw for me.  I knew I wanted to end our friendship, but I had no idea how to go about doing such a thing.

The similarities between the common childhood drive to find an exclusive best friend, and the common adult drive to find a monogamous romantic partner, are really quite striking.  In each case we are looking for someone who will be the most important person in our lives outside of our immediate family, someone with whom we ‘just click’ and feel we can share everything.  The skills we learn in navigating these childhood couplings surely cannot fail to contribute to our lasting templates for managing our romantic relationships as teens and adults.  We schoolgirls were like fierce little kittens, tumbling each other around in a laundry basket, unknowingly preparing ourselves to be tipped out into a world where we would rely on such skills for survival.

Curious, then, that there are no accepted scripts for ending a friendship that isn’t working out, as there are for breaking off a romantic arrangement.  Standard dating endgames include such gems as ‘I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me’ and ‘I do love you, but only as a friend’.  We know that, much of the time, these lines are patently untrue and are simply platitudes.  However, we continue to use them because they’re polite and easy compared to the truth, and we don’t want to make our romantic rejections any more ugly and painful than they have to be.  If only we could have trial-period ‘dating’ arrangements for friendships, too, with similar socially accepted platitudes for saying ‘Thanks, but actually, no thanks’.  Alas, though, we do not; and especially not when we are eleven.  You can either lay the awkward truth all the way out there – ‘I’m sorry, I’ve realized I just don’t like you very much’ – which, at age eleven, will be the bitchiest thing anyone could possibly say ever in the eyes of all your classmates, and probably in your own eyes too.  Or, you can ‘just’ be a bit bitchy to her in a low-grade way, and hope your soon-to-be-ex friend takes the hint, unpeels herself from your unpleasantness, and attaches herself to someone else.

I might have plumped for this latter option with great gusto, if not for my concern that Hayla would run straight to a teacher with any hurt feelings, in high hopes that the teacher would see fit to be cross with me for being mean to a friend and pressure me into maintaining the status quo.  Try, if you can, to cast your mind back to what it was like to be eleven-going-on-twelve; to live in a world where ending a friendship was a thing that the teacher reacted to with stern disapproval or exasperated impatience, simply because the wailing of the wounded party made their day more difficult.  At eleven, I must confess I did not have the emotional maturity to process the concept of a teacher being self-serving; my response to any adult disapproval was to feel that I had done something dreadful and was a disgrace to myself, my family and my school.  I was an accomplished adult-pleaser (read as: keener) and had no ‘whatever face’ for being told off, although I desperately wanted to know how to acquire one.  I would usually feel tears pricking my eyelids at a mere sharp word from a teacher, and being taken aside and ‘given a quiet talking to’ reduced me to a blubbering puddle with a speed that the sermonising teacher probably found alarming (or amusing, or satisfying, depending on the teacher).  The circularised, self-reinforcing reason for and result of this fragile point in my character was that I required discipline very rarely.  My great fear was that a teacher would admonish me loudly in the middle of a wide-eyed and silent classroom, and I would not be able to hold back my tears, and I would shame myself by crying uncontrollably in front of the whole class.  That’s the kind of thing that schoolkids don’t ever stop trotting back out for laughs.

So, when I finally saw a chance to verbalise to Hayla my disinterest in continuing our friendship, in a way that was indirect and, better yet, outside of school property, I seized it.  I was still scared of the potential repercussions from both adults and peers, but things had reached the point where anything had to be better than continuing to be stuck with Hayla's controlling presence at my side day after day.  Mum and I were walking her home after a tedious evening she’d spent at our house, and I’d been trying to ignore her as much as possible the whole time, so I was talking to my mother instead.  That was when my brainwave came upon me, and I said to Mum, loudly, ‘I think I’ve finally found a best friend, by the way.  I think Polly and I are going to be best friends.  I really like her.’

My mother immediately glanced sideways at Hayla, who was studiously looking at her feet and scowling.  ‘Mmm-hmm,’ was all Mum said in that moment.  An awkward silence descended.  We dropped Hayla off at her door, she muttered her thanks for dinner without quite looking at me, and Mum and I started back home.  As soon as we were out of earshot, Mum said, ‘That wasn’t a very nice thing to say.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said, not meeting her eye.

I was given a warning look.  ‘You know exactly what I mean.  Talking about wanting Polly for your best friend, right in front of Hayla.  She looked really upset,’ Mum reproached me.  ‘You do realize, Hayla probably thought that she was your best friend?’

‘I know,’ I admitted, kicking a pile of frostbitten crunchy brown leaves.  ‘But, she’s not.  And I don’t want her to be.  She’s annoying.’

‘That doesn’t give you the right to be hurtful,’ Mum said.  ‘I raised you better than that, young lady.’

I withdrew into a sulky confusion, feeling that I had disgraced myself in some way but not understanding what I could have done differently – leastways not without committing myself to a friendship I didn’t want.  I reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that it was the very fact of my not wanting the friendship which had been cruel.  A nice girl would want to be friends with everyone who wanted to be friends with her.  If I were a nice girl, I would have liked Hayla, and there would have been no problem.  But instead, I had felt irritated and resentful, which were the feelings of a mean-spirited person.  I had selfishly prioritised my own desire to avoid spending time with someone whose company I found unpleasant and, in so doing, I had committed the cardinal sins of creating conflict and hurting someone else’s feelings.  And that was Not Nice of me.  If I were Nice, I would have been, done, said and felt as Hayla wanted.  I didn’t, so I wasn’t nice.  Her hurt feelings were my responsibility to prevent, and I didn’t prevent them, so I was bad.

At this point, I would again draw the link between learning to navigate childhood friendships and forming templates for romantic relationships.  I would like to pull your attention over to that clichéd scene where people tsk-tsk over their neighbourhood’s pregnant fourteen-year-old and say, ‘I don’t understand how it happened.  She wasn’t that kind of girl.  Her mother raised her very morally and she was always so nice.’

I did not get pregnant at fourteen.  I didn’t get the chance; I was far too hopelessly in love with the girl next door to look twice at anyone with a Y chromosome.  But I would venture a guess that a great many of those pregnant fourteen-year-old girls are precisely the ones who were told, over and over, that they must be nice, and who were shown every day in little ways that being nice means always giving other people the things they want from you.  Female children in particular are taught that nice girls always consider others first, and yet we are expected to suddenly have the skills of setting personal boundaries and being firm about them to hand, whole, as if by magic, when a boyfriend wants to have sex without a condom.  And of course, we are told to ‘just say no’ to drugs.

Having been raised in a family and a culture that rains down disapproval on girls’ heads any time they show a disinclination to serve the wants of others, I find the offhand ‘just’ in ‘just say no’ deeply enraging.  I am twenty-seven years old, and after being taught my whole childhood and youth that I must Be Nice at all costs, I am finally just beginning the necessary hard work to overcome my difficulties with the concept of saying No to people.  How on earth can we expect very young women to be able to do so, when we consistently train our girls to believe that having needs and wants, and setting personal boundaries with which they feel comfortable, makes them selfish, cruel, and unworthy of friendship and love?  When we train our girls to believe they must sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others in order to be considered Nice, what on earth do we expect to happen when they become teenagers and adults, in a world where there are people who would seek to take advantage of their enormous doubts about their own right to say ‘No’?  How can we possibly expect the next generation to develop healthy personal boundaries, an integral part of which is to make unpleasant consequences for those who seek to cross them, in a world where you can only be considered 'nice' if you consistently smooth the way for others and tiptoe around their feelings at your own expense?

If we want our girls to be able to say No to the kinds of things and people that we want them to be safe from, we need to be a lot more willing to provide a childhood space in which they can practice saying No comfortably from a young age.  If we can’t do that, if we can only tell them that they must always be nice and never consider their own feelings above those of their peers, lest their Certificate Of Niceness be torn down the middle, then we fail them terribly.  We teach them that we don’t consider their needs to be important, and – worse – that they shouldn’t count their own needs as worth anything, either.  We teach them to frame their needs as merely wants, and selfish ones at that.  We teach them to frame the wants of the people around them as needs that should be deferred to.  We teach them that their only route to gaining social confirmation of their true human value is through unending service to maintaining the comfort and happiness of others, and we teach them to downplay and disregard to themselves the personal costs of being a secondary priority in their own lives.

Really, as a culture, we should have moved beyond raising Little Cinderellas by now, don’t you think?


  1. Ne'er a truer word was spoken.
    Really enjoyed this post x

    1. Why thank you, kind stranger. I'm glad you agree. :)

  2. Thank you for writing this. I saw this linked at Captain Awkward. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Girls are constantly conditioned to be accommodating and to put their needs last, which causes them to grow up to be women who are too afraid to say "NO!" and are too afraid to defend themselves. Men are allowed to be assertive, but if a woman is she's called a word that rhymes with "witch." The double standard is so ridiculous.

    1. I feel your rage, sister. Gradually though, I'm becoming more accustomed to the ambient threat of being called a 'rhymes with witch' for having strong opinions on certain subjects. It's about learning to be okay with being framed as someone else's Bad Guy, I think. I'm finding it takes practice to take being called a bitch without feeling like I therefore am one, but practice makes perfect and I'm getting there!

    2. "Gradually though, I'm becoming more accustomed to the ambient threat of being called a 'rhymes with witch' for having strong opinions on certain subjects. It's about learning to be okay with being framed as someone else's Bad Guy, I think."

      Yup, that's how I am. I'm at the point where I don't care if I'm called names (I've been called so many names that I've become mostly immune to it), because I've gotten to the point where I'm too tired to take crap.

  3. "You run in a pack if you want to live."

    Thanks for reminding me why I'm so, so happy to be an adult.

  4. Found this post through Captain Awkward, and I really enjoyed it. I don't have children but I imagine this is something that I'd try very hard to avoid, i.e. teaching that niceness = sacrificing your own wants and needs in order to please everyone around you, instead of nice = be kind to other humans (and animals! And the environment!), but your boundaries are important and you deserve to be respected (and if people have a problem with this, they’re the ones who aren’t being nice. Not you).

  5. Another Awkward reader, bearing his own perspective: you are entirely and tragically correct that training girls to devalue their own desires cripples their defenses against people with ill intentions toward them, but it goes even further than that. I am a dude who bases his relationships with women on the principle that you say what you want, I say what I want, and we work together to make as much as possible of what we both want happen. (Late hour + wine = terrible phrasing, sorry) And I have been having various troubles with various partners' abilities to be forthcoming about what they want. I hope I am not someone with ill intentions toward them. I do everything I know to do to maintain the best intentions, without totally ignoring my own desires, and still we are limited by their proficiency at articulating what they do and do not want. I am not at all claiming that women's problems with saying Yes are as grave as their problems with saying No, but... the problems are there nonetheless.

    1. I agree. I can recall several occasions when I was younger where I would hold off on giving an opinion or stating a want, because I genuinely did not have the skill of reading my own desires, and had been so thoroughly trained in picking up on the subtle signs of what someone else wanted so I could give the 'right' answer, ie the one they wanted to hear. If I stated a desire or opinion that didn't line up with the desires or opinions of the person I was talking to, then that was the 'wrong' answer and it was time to backpedal like crazy. I got all the way to my mid-twenties before I even realised I was doing this. It was such an ingrained autopilot. :( Thanks for commenting!

  6. Hi, I too came over here from Captain Awkward. Great post, as a young woman I've made similar experiences and I SO agree with what you say.
    Now I'm looking forward to read more posts from you! :)

    (Your post also made me think of 'Cat's Eye' by Margaret Atwood; do you know it by any chance? It's a novel about a woman growing up in post-war Canada, and the friendships / relationships she has with other girls...)

    Best, Kay

    1. Hi Kay - no, I haven't read 'Cat's Eye', but I've been meaning to read more Atwood! 'The Handmaid's Tale' is one of my favourite novels. I will add 'Cat's Eye' to my reading list, thanks!

    2. Well, enjoy the read when you get around to it (but I have to say I also found the book somewhat disconcerting in places).
      I'll add the Handmaid's Tale to my list now, cheers!

  7. BOUNDARIES and SAYING NO are big issues of mine too, though something I've been working on. (And yes... another member of the awkward army!) I've never thought about it quite the way you've put it here though. Food for thought, a valuable perspective. Thanks!