I’m mean all the time

“You’re so nice.”

“No, I’m not. I can be mean. I’m mean all the time.”

“Oh…. Uh… I’m sorry?”

I have to admit, I was surprised when my new acquaintance launched into a tale of one of her most notorious mean moments. I wondered, why is she proud of this behavior? Because, in my experience, she is compassionate, patient, friendly, and considerate. Always ready with a smile and a supportive comment. Those things make her seem notably kind to me. But yet she felt the need to inform me of times when she has been uncivil. I asked myself, “When did being “nice” become a bad thing?”

Upon further reflection, I realized I do the same thing. I joke, “I’m such a bitch,” about something seemingly harmless. I will tell stories of how I got short over the phone with a rep from my cable company, or when I finally said what I was thinking to a guy I couldn’t stand (and it wasn’t the “polite” version, for sure). Truth is, I swear at inappropriate times, I say blunt things about other people that I would say with tact-or not at all-to their faces (some call it venting, I call it “spouting”), and I make careless comments without consideration for others. But unlike others who may delight in manipulating others or making their day more difficult, my usually accidental acts of incivility and brash or crude behavior are met with shame and embarrassment rather than pride. Yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t ever proudly tell a story of when I stood up for myself in an unpleasant way.

My aunt told to me this weekend, “When you put yourself down, you are giving others an indication of how you want them to view you.” She was pointing out the flaw in my statement that I was “a piece of shit,” which of course I didn’t mean. But yet there are times when I am inclined to promote a negative view of myself, much like my new acquaintance did with me recently. Why is that?

Sometimes it is a measure of bravado – or “talking big.” Telling stories to make one seem grandiose. But more often than not I think it comes from being sensitive or as a defense mechanism. When I think about myself, or my friend, I understand that we have both been treated unkindly. I imagine she may be sensitive like myself, and I bet she has been taken advantage of like I have in the past. I suspect she, like me, tells people these stories because we need them to be aware that despite our friendly demeanor – when pushed far enough – we will assert ourselves and it is typically not so pretty. I tell people this early on because I don’t want my heart broken or to experience the pain of a betrayal. Perhaps if they know I can be “mean” they will think twice before mistreating me. I believe it is an issue of trust in others, and – for me to be sure – an question of self-confidence. If I place a degree of self-worth in others’ perceptions of me, it would be easy to be abused, used, or manipulated. I will do what they want because I need them to be pleased by me if I am going to feel good about myself. Eventually though self-esteem breaks through the crust of insecurity and reminds me that this is no way to be treated, and I move on with another piece of emotional baggage to carry through my next journey. So after years of experience and hurt, a defense grows in the form of one simple statement: I may seem nice but I’m not always nice so don’t you dare cross me!

The frustrating problem with this warning is that I don’t want people to think of me negatively. I want them to like me for the confident person I am. I want them to say, “That Jen is a nice girl. Crazy sometimes, but fun and great.” I don’t want them to think, “She had one hell of a bark and a bite.”

As I learn to pay no attention to the esteem afforded to me by negative, callous, or unkind people, I am able to listen more intently to the affections of truly valuable influences in my life. I hear their praise for good deeds done, I see their delight in my kinder moments, I reap the rewards of my good treatment in their reciprocated benevolence. Perhaps through this process I will drop my “warning” once and for all, and – rather – adopt a quiet and confident assertion whenever I begin to be mistreated: You are not treating me right, and I will not allow this to continue any further. Treat me well, or be out of my life. Your opinions and behaviors are not essential to my happy existence. No, they run counter to it. I have no need to be cruel or unkind, as I am strong enough to draw this line and stand by it. Indeed, I am an even better person for disallowing such negativity to permeate my day.

Sounds pretty good to me. I guess I’ll be off for the evening – and work to mindfully monitor what comes from this mouth of mine! What about you? What would your “speech” sound like without a warning within it?

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Civility has its limits

About six months ago, journalist Liz Clancy Lerner asked me, “Can someone ever be too nice?” My short answer was yes, followed by a number of examples that were obvious, like in cases of violence, rape, and other extreme scenarios.

But recently I thought again about how complex civility can really be. There isn’t a fine line that designates when it is appropriate to be unkind and when it is necessary to play nice.

I typically err on the side of being nice or friendly. I do this to “save face.” That’s how I was raised. What will people think? How will it look if…? That was always the question and primary concern in small town Iowa.

As I grew older I began to embrace the side of me that was more forthright and more assertive – which often times made some family members uncomfortable. But it has been an asset to me many times in recent years, and I’m happy now to own it as part of my persona.

Even still, I have trouble putting my new “assertive Jen” mode to meaningful use. It’s great when I’m joking around, and it comes out full force when I am pushed too far. But what about those middle-gray times when it’s not black and white? I still play nice and save face. And I’m left wondering, “Did I react the right way?”

I work near a spot in town where an art event was going on Friday night. Needing to use the restroom, I knew I could just pop into my work building and use the facilities there. As I walked into the lobby, I saw some familiar faces – cleaning people and the security guard “George.” He is an older man, probably in his late sixties. Unlike a few of his security guard predecessors, George has been professional with me when we’ve interacted. Surprised to see me after work hours, he asked what I was up to, told me I looked nice, and then gave me the key to the ladies room. After doing my business, I returned to George’s desk and made a little light chitchat. I didn’t really care to visit much with him, but thought it was the nice thing to do.

George told me how pretty I looked again. I thanked him – I never mind a good complement. Then he said to me, “You should come back here and sit on my lap.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Could this sweet old man really be making a pass at me? I asked him to repeat himself to ensure I had heard him correctly. “I said, ‘You look so good. Why don’t you come back here and sit on my lap?'” he replied, with a chuckle.

Having been one of many women in that building who had received inappropriate looks and advances from previous security guards, I was well-practiced at my response. “George, you should not talk to me that way. I am a married woman and that is inappropriate. Don’t you realize you can lose your job? Other guards have been fired for this sort of thing.”

George replied, “No, no I doubt that. See, a man can say anything he wants to a woman. As long as he isn’t touching or raping her or holding her arms against a wall he isn’t doing anything wrong.”

“ARE YOU F*@&!#$ KIDDING ME?!” I thought. Did this man seriously just say that?! Yes. And he meant it. He seemed shocked that I thought making those sort of advances was inappropriate in the workplace. I replied, “Well, it’s not okay with me. Don’t talk to me that way again.”

So far so good. Assertive. Civil. Firm. To the point.

Then I did something I don’t understand, and it happens all the time. I reverted to a friendly mode, keeping the mood light but serious, and as I walked away smiling I said, “It’s not cool George. Not cool.” I shook my finger at him. “I’d like to see you try to say that with my husband around. He might not be so nice!” George laughed and I left the lobby.

When I arrived back to my husband I was furious. Furious with George, but angry with myself as well. Why hadn’t my anger been so intense when I reacted to the guard? Why did I feel the need to make nice?

It's hard to find relevant images sometimes. I picked this one because I liked it! Source: http://mystylishbump.blogspot.com/2011/04/think-happy-thoughts.html

I do this all the time – try to smooth things over after a confrontation. Even when I know I am standing on firm ground and am in the right, I still try to gloss over the situation with humor or smiles.

Of course, I was proud of myself for asserting that it was wrong to say those things to me. In the past even that response would be difficult to summon. Let me give you a comparison: 7 years ago my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. One of his family members (not his kids or grand-kids thank goodness) said it was his own fault for getting cancer because he didn’t listen to his doctors. I was highly offended and angry. That is not the sort of thing to say when someone has cancer metastasized to their bones.

But what did I do? I said, “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m sure he listened to his doctors.” Then I talked amiably for a few minutes, gave her a hug saying how lovely it was to see her, and I left (angry on the inside, smiling on the outside). Why? First, I didn’t want to start a family feud. Second? Well, that is what I thought was proper behavior. In 2004. But it’s not “proper” to roll over when someone bad mouths a person you love. And it’s not okay to mislead someone into thinking something is not as serious as you really feel it is by smiling or joking around after the fact.

In the end I am realizing there are times when being nice is completely inappropriate.

George needed to know that sort of behavior was unprofessional. My relative should have been told her statements were offensive. It was my responsibility to be assertive and call them out on their behavior with confidence and gravity rather than alleviate their guilt and discomfort with humor and lighthearted banter. However I may have been socialized as a child, it is my duty to address my fear of conflict, deference to others, and lack of confidence when asserting my perspectives. And maybe next time, I will be able to leave my offender with a bitter taste of honesty rather than the sweet flavor of pseudo-civility.