- Our physical behaviors to appear nice can be about using other people as a mirror.
- "Nice" is different than "good."
- We often continue to serve ideals we no longer believe in.
I’ve realized I’ve been in service to an ideal that I never consciously consented to: The ideal of “nice.” And the cousins of “nice” as well: sweet, affable, agreeable, amenable, accommodating, pleasant, pleasing, charming—a sweetheart, a darling, a delight.
And I began thinking about what “nice” really is. And how it’s different than kind or righteous or magnanimous or even good. It’s easy—for other people. And I started looking at how I am physically in service of being pleasing, how on a concrete level I’ve ingested an aspirational niceness.
Here’s what I noticed.
Physical Manifestations of My Unconscious Need to Appear "Nice"
- I turn my head at an angle when I meet people. About a 45-degree tilt. I’m not alone in this. Holly Mandel in her talk “Good Girls Aren’t Funny” points out that if you look at pictures of older female movie stars, they all had this tilt, what I am going to call the “torque of demure.” It’s coy. It’s mysterious. It’s not threatening or intimidating or challenging. It says, “No trouble here. Don’t worry. I’m going to make things easy for you. Your ego will not come under assault.” This is not the stance of someone in charge. No general, no field commander, has ever said, “Send in the troops” with the torque of the demure.
- I was taught that ladies stood with their feet together (and I used to teach etiquette, so I’m a perpetrator of this one as well). This is great way to stand unless you want to…balance. Or move with any sort of alacrity.
- I have a habit of ducking my head just slightly when I meet someone. “Hi, nice to meet you.” Duck. And I started to notice other women do the “duck” as well. It communicates, “I’m not going to cause any trouble. You could pat me on the head, for God’s sake. How scary can I be?”
And then I noticed how all three of these behaviors seem to be about me using other people as a mirror, a mirror I’m hoping reflects back, “You’re nice.” Mirror mirror of my peers. Oh, I hope you like me, dears.
It’s like a fun house. Without the fun.
The Way Forward
The problem with stopping people pleasing is that often…people aren’t pleased. And that’s hard for me. It means I have not reached the holy bar of “nice.” But I am determined to stop reaching for this bar elevated by someone other than me, to move into a life without so much desire to please. My hero on the quest for greater authenticity is Patti Smith, often called the godmother of punk; a woman who never tried to be nice or pretty, who said once, “Ugly can be beautiful, but pretty never.” She didn’t care what other people thought of her because they weren’t her mirror. She was.
The first time I heard Patti Smith’s voice, I was sitting on the top bunk of the bed in a dorm room. I had just put a cassette in the player. And then these momentous organ chords sounded…dun dun dun dun dun dun. These notes heralded something big, and I knew it. And then it came: Patti’s voice growled, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. My sins only belong to me.”
In many an interview since the release of this song, "Gloria," Patti has said that this line is not a rejection of Jesus or of Christianity but, rather, a declaration of independence, an ownership of her own flaws and mistakes, and a determination to not outsource blame.
The cover for one of Patti’s most famous albums, "Easter," caused a scandal when it was released in 1978 because it pictured Patti with her arms lifted, revealing a mass of armpit hair. Patti was accused by many publications of deliberately trying to shock and offend.
But, it turns out, Patti wasn’t trying to make any sort of impression at all. Photographer Lynn Goldsmith, responsible for the scandalous image, told the Guardian in a 2019 interview that this wasn’t a posed shot. It was completely candid. Patti was stretching, working through an injury she had sustained when falling from the stage the previous year. She was just getting on with her business. For no one’s benefit but her own. As Sarah Silverman says, “Mother Theresa wasn’t worried about her thighs. She had sh*t to do.”
Patti Smith at 75: Bowing to No One—Not Very Nice
I’ve seen Patti perform many times over the years, most recently this September at the Wiltern, here in Los Angeles. Patti came out on stage, at 75 years old, with a sprawl of untamed gray hair, rolled up jeans, and partially tied boots, and rocked out. She put her weight on both feet, looked directly at the audience, did not avert her eyes, and never once bowed her head. She threw her arms up to the sky—invoking the dead, her fallen friends, the muses, the gods of poetry. And spit. It was not coy. It was not nice. It was not pretty.
She ended the night with a cover of The Who’s “My Generation” and rocked out hard. Then the band moved into an improvisational section and she rocked even harder. Until completely spent, she took her hands off the guitar. The rest of the band stopped playing their instruments as well. Patti said, “That’s all I got.” And she left the stage.
I thought, wow, this is an artist going to her edge. Fully marshaling her resources. With such boldness. And I wondered what it would be like if I were consciously in service of different words than the words I’d spent life revering. Words like bold, tough, intrepid, audacious, daring, frank, clear, cheeky, gutsy, nervy, solid, firm, flinty, irreverent, powerful, and even righteous.
I think we can all, at whatever age, throw off the shackles of nice, the fetters of sweetness, and the chains of pleasing and pretty. With some self-examination, we can notice the ways we are still pinned, still hobbled, and how we are still under the unconscious sway of ideals we never examined or consented to. And then we can marshal our resources and go to our edge. Even if it’s not very nice. Or pleasing.
That’s all I got.