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personality style. What if instead we modeled for our children the ability
to name, address, and work through our differences? The desire to affirm
and nurture often trumps the deeper need for the tough love of confronting
misdeeds and injustices. Niceness frees us from facing the tough things: con-
frontation is a prickly thing. We all know that smiling and being nurturing,
selfless, and supportive help us fit in. We also know that confronting and
showing anger are tickets to ostracism. Who would choose pain?
Act Like a Lady
Okay, so I confess this is personal. I have gotten myself into all kinds of mael-
stroms for speaking out. Even my own father accused me of speaking like a
CEO. He meant I was too forceful for a woman. He raised me to act like a
lady; a lady in her white gloves would never rock the boat. Ladies who don’t
have something nice to say don’t say anything at all. Ladies don’t get angry,
or sweat for that matter. Ladies smile when their feelings are hurt. Ladies
also wear high heel shoes that hurt their feet and, at one time, had their feet
bound. Ugh! Did “Act like a lady” really mean “Be a good girl and you stand
a better chance of moving up in social class”? Were ladies ever told to act like
a lady? That seems redundant.
I wonder what the Oxford English Dictionary would tell me about the his-
tory of the word nice. Did nice originate with the move from rural life to
the cities, creating the necessity to coexist comfortably in groups? Did the
command to “be nice” grow popular when young women, in the quest to be
upwardly mobile, had to act ladylike? Did nice become a gender-coded word
warning women to skirt around conflict and smile at their rivals? As soon
as I finish writing this, I will research the etymology of that word. Regard-
less of what I discover, I know already that nice is not a pretty word for me.
Nice meant that being true to myself was unacceptable. I was a tomboy who
climbed trees and took off in the early morning on my bike to unknown
places. I wrestled with boys, and when I broke my wrist, I didn’t cry or fall
apart. I told my parents I needed to get to a doctor. I beat boys in sports. I ran
for class president. I challenged my teachers and, as a result, wore a path to
the vice principal’s office.
“Be nice” was a two-word reminder to pretend I was happy when I
wasn’t, sweet when the situation had gone sour, or conflict-avoidant when
I wanted to confront an interpersonal slight. Being nice went hand-in-hand
with acting like a lady. It was synonymous with keeping scrubbed and neat,
not offending anyone, not standing out, and above all, keeping your knees
together. In my day, acting like a lady meant white gloves, girdles, stockings,
8 C H A P T E R
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