If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If I heard that once growing up, I heard it a thousand times. I have what some might call “nice girl syndrome”.
Growing up, it was imparted unto me that my imperative in life was to “be nice”. You know, to make people comfortable. Offer them a beverage. Laugh at their jokes. Agree with whatever they say. Compliment them. Smile a lot. It’s an American thing. And drilling down deeper, a WASP thing. We don’t express our true feelings, we just smile through them and drink later. A WASP disagreement, to an outsider, simply looks like mild tension and sarcasm. Maybe a furrowed brow or two. A clink of the silverware or glass that’s a little louder than it needed to be. We WASPS can win Olympic gold medals in grudge-holding and silent judging, we really can. But we are very nice.
My mother also stressed to me that honey attracts more flies than vinegar. If I am trying to assert myself with some kind of 1-800 person, about my telephone bill or credit card, I find that the person on the other end of the line becomes more flexible and human if I am “nice”. But am I being authentic? Not exactly.
Why should I be “nice” to the stranger on the other end of the phone whose goal is to get more of my money for less of their service? Isn’t being “nice” a charade? A means to an end?
In Israel, being a nice girl is not rewarded. I discovered that very quickly. Being “nice” is not a value in Israel at all. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that Jewish or Isareli values are not in line with kindness or giving. Of course they are. But being nice for the sake of being nice – not so much. And it makes sense, really. One must establish and maintain one’s boundaries immediately and THEN we can be nice. Business first, niceties second. There is a saying that an Israeli will run you over with his or her car, back up and take you to the hospital. While I have not yet been run over, I find this saying quite representative. But it’s a tough lesson for a nice American girl.
Living in Israel has forced me to confront myself. What is being “nice”, any way? A way of avoiding conflict? A way to make someone else feel in control? Is it more “civilized”, or a big cop out? That is what I am beginning to conclude.
I think it’s time to reinterpret “nice”, full stop.
I was raised to believe that being nice is somehow morally superior. But here’s the thing – it really isn’t. It is a passive/aggressive manipulative strategy, in the end. One that serves to make one feel somehow above reproach and out of conflict’s way.
In its most extreme, dysfunctional, life-long scarring form, being nice means one of two things:
1) An insincere, manipulative strategy.
2) A brand of martyr-like helplessness. Like rolling over and showing your belly, hoping that something good may come of it.
Either way – this is not a healthy way of living. Nice Girls need to be honest with themselves and ask whether their niceness is sincere, or whether it is a way of copping out and not owning their power. I have been guilty of both. But Israel is curing me of that, very quickly.
Sometimes I think that I need to start a Nice Girl Rehab Center in Israel. You know, maybe ten days or two weeks, during which time, women with Nice Girl Syndrome can unlearn their passive/aggressive ways and take charge of their decisions, assertions and choices – with sincerity and no apologies. The Nice Girl Rehab camp will start at the shuk.
I’m certainly on the road to nice girl recovery myself. It doesn’t mean I’m not nice. It just means that I am clear about what I want, and I make no apologies. I may have grown a lot more direct, but I tell you what – I am quite sincere. And it feels great.
Here are some situations in which I have learned, Israeli-style, how to act more effectively. It’s a shorthand way of living. And I like it.
You May Be Israeli if:
You go to the store – any store – and you are displeased with the product or service.
A) You suck it up and go away.
B) You politely ask to speak with the manager.
C) You YELL INDIGNANTLY for 15 minutes and include many hand gestures and you culminate with poking your chest and that of the clerk several times while saying lo? LO?!
You walk down a very crowded street.
A) You elaborately weave through the crowd, trying not to bump into anyone.
B) You bump into people and apologize.
C) YOU PLOW THROUGH ON A SINGLE PATH and don’t look back once.
When asked if you like something that you really don’t:
A) You politely wiggle your way out of the question and obfuscate.
B) You tell a white lie.
C) While making direct eye contact, you make a clicking sound with your tongue and change the subject.
When asked if you like your food:
A) You say yes, great recipe, thank you! Is that basil I taste?
B) You say it’s great, but I am not that hungry, but this was so nice of you!
C) You mop your plate with your bread and reply with an amused smile.
When shopping for a product, you feel the price is too high:
A) You stare at the product and wonder if it is really worth it.
B) You ask if the price can be lower? If there is a sale?
C) You use your most indignant voice and proclaim that this price is CRAZY, make many dismissive hand gestures, spend ten minutes arguing your point and then get a steep discount.
When riding the sherut:
A) You pay your fare, and sit down politely near the back.
B) You find a seat, then creep forward and put your fare into the cup and sit back down again.
C) You get on, find the best seat and wordlessly pass your money forward. Your change will be passed back.
Someone asks you advice about a problem:
A) You listen politely, nod, and murmur something supportive.
B) You suggest that your friend try this or that for a better outcome.
C) You give pointed advice, punctuated by many hand gestures and tongue clicks. You include in your advice at least two stories about King Solomon and some Torah portion in which it is CLEAR that the answer is THIS. You then stare at the person you are giving advice to and say lo? LO?!
Further, you may be Israeli if, after having had the discussion of some problem, your friend is having:
1. You show up at the friend’s house with a ton of food and a bottle of arak.
2. You offer to make phone calls on your friends behalf and make them and on these phone calls include MUCH INDIGNANT yelling punctuated by words like MA? LO?! KEN!
3. You solve the problem in less than 3 minutes.
4. When thanked, you shrug and smile.