On being ‘nice’

On being ‘nice’

I am a nice, softly-spoken, introverted lady.

I am a happy and confident, nice, softly-spoken, introverted lady.

But we live in a society that conflates introversion with shyness, timidity, and dullness, and quiet femininity with dumbness, subservience, and passivity. I know this because I have had decades of people treating me as if these conflations were true. But they’re not.

I am a nice, softly-spoken, introverted lady who is assertive, determined, intellectually rigorous, audaciously imaginative, and resilient. I am a calculated risk-taker. I talk about, analyse, and learn from my own and other people’s failures. I always prefer to be gentle with people, but I abhor unethical behaviours and I will speak truth to power when necessary.

When these ‘stronger’ sides of my personality have appeared in the past, there has been much pearl-clutching from some of my colleagues and, especially, managers. Often, there has been hostility. I used to find this hostility puzzling, as I didn’t – and still don’t – think I am a hard person to work with. I am deliberately collegiate and supportive of co-workers, and diligent in my performance.

But then I realised that the diligence was the problem. My own personal concept of what it means to be diligent meant that I invested my ‘strong’ qualities – the assertiveness, rigour, and audacity – into my work. The idea of what diligence should look like in a nice, softly-spoken, female introvert, according to various past bosses of mine, was a doormat in a cardigan who needed to shut the f**k up and do what they were told.

John_Drew_as_Petruchio

They were confounded when I didn’t act like this. My long periods of quietness were not a sign of submissiveness, as they seemed to assume, but an act of turning inwards to reflect on my own values, ideas, and sense of integrity. As an introvert I did not hog the air-space at staff meetings. This meant that when I did speak it was something of an event. And when I spoke to offer alternative ideas or point out risk, the alpha types in the room were bewildered. They were not inclined to accommodate what they saw as challenges to their agendas, and were outraged when those challenges came from one of the quiet people in the room. To their way of thinking, noise-making was a sign of dominance. It shook their world view to have a quiet person break ranks.

“I thought you were NICE,” two different managers have hissed at me on two separate organisations in the past. I found this to be completely bizarre. What did this “nice” have to do with me doing my job properly? I had always been pleasant and polite. But I had been pleasant and polite even while I was highlighting risk, suggesting original ideas, or asserting my workplace rights. This is what they didn’t expect. This, to them, was unacceptable.

Nowadays, the word ‘nice’ is seen as a synonym for pleasant and likeable, but this word has an interesting etymology. On the Etymonline online website, ‘nice’ can be traced back to the late 13th century when it meant “foolish, ignorant, frivolous, senseless,” and this came from a 12th century Old French word meaning “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish.” The word ‘nice’ went through many shifts of meaning over the centuries, only arriving at the meaning of “kind, thoughtful” by 1830. In her awesome YouTube clip – ‘just be nice! (not)’ – Psychotherapist and grief advocate Megan M Devine also refers to this etymology of nice, and paraphrases it thus:

“(Nice) means timid or ignorant or pretending to not know what you know so as not to upset the social order.”

Those two ex-bosses wanted me to pretend to not know what I knew – to be schtum on the work issues that I knew had to be reported and discussed. The niceness they wanted was the silence of compliance, of being a yes-man to their dodgy agendas or slack management. Their mistake was to assume that the quietness of my introversion was the same as passivity or ignorance. But my introversion is my super-power. As an introvert I spend time with myself, constantly reconnecting with my personal values and priorities. As an introvert I find the space to reflect, analyse, and strategize.

There is nothing timid, silly, or weak about the quietness of the introvert. It is not an effacing of assertiveness; it’s a gathering of strength.