To be a woman and speak your mind

In college, I worked as a peer writing tutor. Students made appointments through the studio and they’d get a half an hour or an hour session with a tutor to go over their academic papers. We’d read and offer feedback. My senior year of doing this, an invitation was extended to my best friend and I to present at a conference on the topic of peer writing tutoring, and she and I both jumped at the chance. We pitched a topic idea, and it was accepted. The studio was taking care of travel arrangements and registration, but we’d have to cover our own meals.

Being that we were both poor college students, we also applied for scholarships to attend the conference by writing essays about our topic and why we deserved the money. Both of us won the scholarships, which were somewhere around $200 each — not a lot, but certainly a lot for us.

(This is the part of the post where I admit to this being my most embarrassing moment ever)

The day of the conference, my friend and I were prepared. We’d had a really awful eight hour drive through sleet to the conference, and we were both miserable after it when we got to our hotel room. But we slept, and we’d gone over our notes enough to feel prepared. Except, when we went down to breakfast, my stomach started to hurt. I went to the bathroom thinking I was going to throw up. I didn’t. I ate, took some deep breaths, and I felt okay.

When we got to to the presentation center and we walking toward the room we were presenting in, I threw up. All over the floor, the walls, myself — totally mortifying. Even though the coordinators of the conference thought I was still good to present (yes, despite clearly being sick!), my boss took us back to the hotel and said she’d see us the next morning when we’d drive home.

I felt awful about it. But these things happen, and life goes on. I ended up sleeping all day to wear it off, my friend did homework, we ordered a pizza for dinner, and it was fine. The drive back to campus was no where near as treacherous the following morning.

A couple of weeks later, an email shows up in my inbox and in her inbox. We needed to fork over the scholarship money. My friend and I sent messages back and forth to each other. We agreed this wasn’t fair; the deal was that the department asked us to present and told us they were covering the expenses. We were told we didn’t have to apply for the scholarships. But we did it on our own time, with our own essays, and we earned the money ourselves.

For over a month, we were in meeting after meeting with our boss — a woman — and with various administrative bodies on campus — also women. We received emails that informed us that we should “do the right thing” and “give them the money.” We were each given fewer hours in the studio; they were, of course, not hours together, either. Further, we were told if we just gave them the money back and we didn’t make a “big deal” about it, if we “kept it quiet,” there would be no problems.

In other words, if we submitted to “what was right” and “kept quiet” about the change up in rules mid-way through the game, everything would be okay. What was clear to us was that there was a discussion about what happened after the event between different bodies and that there was a change in policy after the fact. It was expected we’d go along with this, not question it, and that we’d “do the right thing.”

We fought. We fought. We fought. After weeks of fighting, we came to a compromise to give them half the money. But even after that, we were never treated the same way by our boss. It became clear we were both a problem because we expressed our opinions, we spoke up about how we didn’t think this was fair, and we didn’t take their “be nice, be quiet, comply” to heart.

This is one isolated example of an issue that’s been bugging me for a while, that I’ve seen and experienced over and over again, and that’s the way women interact and communicate with one another. More specifically, the way having an opinion, of wanting to speak up about anything, comes with consequences.

It’s never easy to stand up for what you believe in or to express a concern, especially if it’s toward any sort of authority. But this is amplified further when you’re a woman. We could get into a discussion of gender and whether gender means anything, but I’ve talked about that before. Whether or not we believe in gender roles, there is still something ingrained socially about the roles and appropriate methods of behavior from men and women. This became brutally clear during this last political season, where women were a talking point (and in some cases, not a talking point) during debates among the candidates. It’s also not just an American political issue. It’s a political issue everywhere simply because being a women means certain things to certain people. If you have not watched this video of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaking out and up against sexism in Parliament, do so. Note not only what she says and how she says it, but note also that CNN comments that those who saw this called it “smoking hot.”

“Smoking hot.”

Also worth reading is this recent article in the LA Review of Books about Real Critics and book bloggers. It is, without question, gender coded. Look at the references to knitting circles, to feelings, to play dates, and so forth. Many men found this article to be witty and a humorous look at the world of reviewing. But that humor doesn’t really translate on my end.

No matter who you are or where you stand or what your reproductive organs are, you’re going to be judged on some level for what you say and how you say it. But there is something particularly tricky in being a woman and expressing an opinion. It’s difficult to hold your ground, to push back against what other people tell you or suggest you should do or say or think or behave. It’s risky to be assertive and stand up for yourself. Because no matter what, your words and your actions are scrutinized on the basis of your being a woman.

It’s not always obvious though. It’s incredibly subtle, and that’s why it’s so problematic. People who want to silence you don’t do so by wielding an ax. They do it by asking you to “keep quiet” so you don’t “cause trouble.” Code for, if you don’t say what’s on your mind, there won’t be any incident. Except, if you decode it, that actually means that the person maintains their authority. That they don’t need to defend themselves. That things can remain status quo.

Likewise, women are told to “be nice” all. the. time. “Being nice” is code for keeping your mouth shut, not sharing your opinion, and following along with what people want you to say and do. It’s pejorative. It’s degrading. It’s a phrase that is absolutely coded in gender politics — women should be nice.

Men do not get asked or told to “be nice.”

Nice is a way of downplaying opinion. It’s a way of telling someone that what they think isn’t pretty or kind and therefore, it doesn’t matter. Being told to be nice is one of the most condescending things you can say to another person or have said to you. It makes the person being told to be nice feel small. It achieves precisely what the person saying it hopes to achieve: power.

In the book blogging world and in the library world — both which are female-dominated realms — we’re regularly told we need to be nice. That being critical is problematic. That speaking out and up about things that matter to you can “hurt feelings.” What this means is that we’re being told to submit to someone or something in power, whatever it is. That since both of these communities are about being helpful and sharing (they are), we should continue to keep them thriving by “being nice.” Note that there is a significant difference in being nice and playing nice, as is illustrated well in Pam’s post here.

The thing about both these communities and about any other community is that it’s hard to speak up and out. When you’re part of a community, being a squeaky wheel is scary, no matter how much thought you put into something. When it comes to writing, when it comes to putting those opinions down on a blog or in print, you want to make sure you get them right. Words are powerful weapons. They can create fear in you as you write them, but they create just as much fear in those who read them.

Especially when they aren’t “nice.” Especially when you don’t just “be quiet” so things can be taken care of.

There is an added element of fear and power when it comes to words being written and spoken among women. They can come back in your face in unexpected ways and sometimes in inappropriate ways. Simply because you are a woman who is not “being nice.” If you’re not nice with an opinion, even if you are coherent and cogent and raise valid points, even if you’re willing to entertain counterpoints and alternative insight, the mere anatomical reality of being a woman is enough to make those points invalid, a problem, and worth muffling. You are told that if you don’t speak nicely, if you share your personal thoughts on a manner, that you don’t have the bigger picture’s best interests at mind.

Because that’s the thing: the role of a woman in society is to be nice. To play along. To nurture without question. To go along with those who are in charge. There’s no question this is what is central in political debates about abortion, about access to birth control, and so forth. You, as a woman, are not smart enough or informed enough to know what’s best for your body. It’s the responsibility of those in charge to make those decisions because they do know what’s best. Because if you were to share your opinion, if you were to follow through in what you think is best based on your experiences and your intellect, you’re not being nice. You’re not listening.

You are not being nurturing and you are not fulfilling your “role” in society.

Whenever I write a blog post I think could cause some sort of backlash — something where I have an opinion and I want to deliver it — I find myself not relying on my instinct. I have multiple other eyes read over it. I do the same thing with emails, with other means of communicating, particularly if it’s between myself and another woman.

Why is this?

I feel the need to check my tone. I feel the need to make sure I’m not coming off as bitchy or whiny or neurotic or hysterical. Think about all of those words for a minute. Is there an equivalent for any of them when it comes to the way men communicate?

There’s one thing to be said about checking to make sure something I write is logical or well-written. It’s a whole different thing when I’m wondering about how I am presenting myself as a person with an opinion.

As a woman with an opinion.

It’s unfair. It’s entirely unfair that I have to put myself under the scrutiny. But, it’s just as unfair that, as a woman, I’m told repeatedly that I need to “be nice,” or that I need to “keep quiet” and think of the best interests of others.

What about my best interests? I have every right to express them.

Opinions and feelings are two different things, but they work in tandem. Your opinions can be swayed by your feelings, just as your feelings can be impacted significantly by your opinions. But there is never a point when being a woman and having opinions should ever be conflated with being a woman and having feelings. They are distinct. They are both valid. They are both important and deserve to be expressed.

And I think the reason women have their opinions discredited, so often degraded, is that they’re being viewed as feelings and nothing more. That their feelings — those hormonal and feminine things — are being confused with their opinions — those things that come from being a well-informed, intellectual thinker.

Being “nice” is about the feelings.

Being “quiet” is about the feelings.

It’s not okay when it happens between a male and a female, and it is not okay when it happens between two women. We should be encouraging and supporting one another to have and to share opinions AND feelings.

How this relates back to the book world, to blogging, to librarianship and reading and to being a decent human being is simple: never, ever tell someone to “be nice.” ENCOURAGE inquiry. ENCOURAGE speaking up. ENCOURAGE thinking and feeling and having them together then separating them to see what is what.

Watch the tone you take when you speak with other women, regardless of your own gender. Do not read their words with any preconceptions of their feelings or of their intentions. Respond with measured care. Whatever your role of power, respect and acknowledge the legitimacy of other people’s thoughts.

Likewise, don’t back down if you’re pressured to behave or believe a certain way. Don’t blindly accept the rhetoric or the boxes you’re given. You have a right to your opinions and you have a right to expressing them the way you need to express them. If someone tries to tell you otherwise, you know exactly where they stand. It’s never about what you say.

It’s about staying strong.

Writing and sharing and expressing and creating are the greatest things and the most terrifying things. And as a woman, there are complications of gender. Speak your words as you need to speak them and stand by them. Don’t be bullied into changing your beliefs. That bullying comes from a place of fear because of just how powerful what you say and how you defend yourself in doing so is.

You’re going to burn bridges. You’re going to make tough decisions. But you’re also going to realize there are people who believe in you and — even if they disagree — they will defend your right to say them to the end.

And frankly, there isn’t anything more important than having people who have your back for being you, rather than for “being nice.”

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  1. Nancy Keim Comley says

    What a powerful post – it's making me rethink the way I communicate and the way I am communicated To. Thank you.

    • says

      I still catch myself thinking about how I respond for myself and toward others because it's not easy. Even if you think you aren't coding something, sometimes it comes out unintentionally.

  2. says

    I can relate to a lot of what you said, Kelly. I debated in high school and college, and an agressive female debater could be written off as "bitchy" even if her manner of speaking was similar in tone to a male colleague. There's a difference between being "civil" and being "nice."

    • says

      YES, this last line: There's a difference between being "civil" and being "nice." That's the perfect way to look at it. I believe in being civil and I believe in playing nice. But that doesn't mean I always have to BE nice.

  3. says

    I just finished reading Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons. She analyzes a lot of similar issues as you do, although it's mainly talking about girls in school. Not surprising that it continues into adult women's lives, since that's the way they're often raised and society/culture views them.

    • says

      I think it's just an unfortunate reality of being female, period. It takes different forms and shapes as you grow up, but it's still there. I don't get it.

  4. says

    That's unfortunate about your college situation with your presentation. I don't think that it was fair of the organization to ask for the $200 back. Yes, you wrote the essays, you drove the 8 hours to be there, and you got sick. You couldn't help being sick, and I think it was unfair of them to ask for y'all to cough that money back up.

    I've always considered myself a nice person. But like Molly said above, there's a difference between being civil and being nice. You've been stung by these women using the "be nice" card to get out of something you should NOT have been asked to be quiet about. But I firmly believe in being nice to others. Being nice to strangers, to folks you don't know but perhaps you want to get to know better. Because you don't know what others are going through. This is who I am. But I'm also a firm believer in saying what's on my mind — with tact. Some days are better than others. And I prefer to not take the asshole route.

    How do I plan on raising my kids? It's definitely not the asshole route.

    • says

      It was never about the money; it was about the way it was presented to us in terms of "doing the right thing," even though we had done the right thing all along. We agreed to the terms. They changed mid-game. THAT wasn't okay.

      And I'm (I hope) not saying be an asshole! I like to think I'm a nice person. But I am also firm in that…if something isn't going to gel for me, I'm not just going to take it. It SUCKS how much standing up for your own beliefs can be tough, but respect for self is important, too, you know? And you can totally be nice to people (and you should!) but you also shouldn't just back down at the first instance of someone telling you to "be nice" when you need to say what you need to say. Being thoughtful goes for miles.

  5. says

    "I feel the need to check my tone. I feel the need to make sure I'm not coming off as bitchy or whiny or neurotic or hysterical."

    I've struggled with this a lot recently, mostly I've become fed up with men telling me to "smile." It's my face and I'll be scowly if I want to. And yet, when I tell them this obvious fact, it's considered an inappropriate response. To not "shut up and be nice" is to "cause a scene."

  6. says

    Great post. People are all "Oh we're in a post-feminist age" but I don't think so. The messages that girls and women hear are extremely directive and often mean and very, very dismissive. Issues of power and the messages that say women should not wield it or have control over their own power are destructive.

    I was reminded of a photo going around FB where Jada Pinkett Smith was asked why she let her daughter shave her head. Pinkett Smith wrote, "The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power, or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit, and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It's also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes, and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be."

    • says

      I am with you that this isn't a post-feminist age. No way. There are still women — women who have big spotlights like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to name two — who are way too willing to say they aren't feminists out loud and with pride. That disturbs me on so many levels. So many blown opportunities because they're unaware what it even means TO BE a feminist.

      This quote is fabulous, but YOUR POST last night really hit it out of the park. I hope anyone reading the comments goes and reads it here:

  7. says

    I have a lot of thoughts on this topic (my brain has a long-standing internal debate on the idea of "niceness" dating back to grad school, where I studied Women's Studies and we would get shamed for being "too nice and therefore internalizing the male hegemony's expectations that women sit down and shut up"–it was the 90s, things were very black and white), but I really want to say that I so appreciate your thoughtful take on this subject.

    • says

      I hope you take it on, Sarah. I love your take on feminist issues so much.

      Liz last night brought up a very thought-provoking point, which is that maybe we need to take back NICE as a word. That it should mean NICE and not QUIET.

  8. says

    Kelly, I really like this post. As a woman priest who is more inclined to be direct than "nice," I am always having to make peace with myself and others over social expectations that are in tension with what I really value–constructive honesty that goes both ways. As a romance writer, I've slowly gathered the kinds of critique partners that can communicate that way. In the end, telling the truth about how something can be better is a much more profound kindness. This post reminds me that I am not alone out here, trying to be something more than nice. Thanks!

    • says

      You are 100% here: the truth is better and a more profound kindness. It's not easy, but it's important and valuable.

      I struggle with being direct when I want to be nice because it's EASIER. It is not in any way easy to say what you really need to say and in the way you need to.

  9. says

    I love this. I have this conversation with folks all the time. I am not nice. I am direct and I am friendly, but I am not nice.

    I've had to struggle with this my entire life, but a lot more since I had my daughter. I try to never tell her to "be nice", but rather to "be polite."

    After all, you can still tell someone about themself while being polite :)

    • says

      YES on direct and friendly. I do not in any way think those things are incompatible and I think a lot of people DO. You can absolutely be direct, honest, and stand up for yourself and do so in a thoughtful, friendly, conscious-of-others way.

      "Be polite" = so much better than "be nice." I think at times people can get trapped in the "be nice" mentality and just forget how important it is to be POLITE.

  10. says

    Thank you for posting such a fantastic post, Kelly! This actually gave me the strength I needed to defriend/block a Facebook friend who makes a lot of creepy comments on photos of me. My family has been telling me for months to deal with the comments because he's had a bad life or try to defriend him subtly, but he should know better in his mid-twenties. I'm tired of "being nice" when he makes me want to hide. I feel much better now.

    Thankfully, I've received very little sexist flak for my opinions as a female book blogger. I worry so much about being honest and getting my point across that I usually don't wonder if I sound -insert misogynist word like hysterical or bitchy here-. There was one person who called me a bitch and a cunt stuffer with a dildo up her ass because I wrote a negative review, though. Charming.

    • says

      Good on you for doing that! It's sort of funny how things like social media can really expose people for who they are, and it's tricky because then it's also hard to step back and remove people from your circles, even if you know you should. Because you DO get caught up in the being nice, being friendly, etc, even when it's not the best for you. But when you do take the steps to do it, it's always a huge weight off your chest.

      Being honest and thoughtful in presenting your opinion is important. Don't back down from saying it how you need to say it. If it offends people, then you're saying something. And that's not a bad thing.

      I've had my fair share of push back, but it is what it is. Saying what you need to how you need to is why you blog/write in the first place.

  11. says

    I've never thought about the connotations of the word "nice" before. My intention, when I tell students (girls and boys) and my own daughters to be nice, is that I really mean "be kind". Is that the same thing as telling them to be quiet? I'm not sure it is.

    Very thought-provoking post. And I'm not just being nice. :)

  12. says

    There is a difference between being 'nice' and being a 'pushover' – too often, when one is told to be 'nice', you're really being told to be the latter – be accommodating, give in, make it easier on everyone else, etc. It's no longer a word or admonishment – it's code for 'know your place' or 'you're causing waves'.

    I'd love to see the connotation of the word change from 'pushover' to 'polite, but fair.' And the 'polite' part is out the window if the other person is being unreasonable.

    I'll 'nurture' my family. Everyone else is fair game, and I'll treat them based on how they treat me. As Maya Angelou said, "The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them." Don't fall for the 'be nice' manipulation.

    Great post – I enjoyed reading it.

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