You Don’t Have to be Nice: Advice for Young Women Scientists and Others

If nice has been working out for you so far, that is fantastic. High five, keep it up. Nothing I’m about to say applies to you. But feel free to check back in someday if you find that, despite all your efforts to be nice, something is troubling you. People around you aren’t acting like you’re a nice person. Maybe they tell you how nice you are, but behave as though that’s a weakness. Maybe you did something nice, but it made you feel sick.

If you want my advice, here are a few things you do have to be in order to succeed professionally, and/or to like yourself. You must be respectful, fair, honest, and generous. You need not, however, be nice.

Here’s the difference. Niceness comes not from your own integrity, but from your perception of other people’s perceptions of you. It locates your conscience in someone else’s feelings, which you can never really know, and certainly cannot control. Being nice is great when you can manage it, but it is not the same thing as acting right, because doing the right thing sometimes carries the risk of angering or alienating other people.


Nice means waiting your turn to speak, instead of interrupting the guy talking over everyone else. Nice means sparing someone’s feelings, instead of answering a question honestly when no one else is going to. Nice means smiling and nodding, instead of questioning a person’s expertise or authority to get her to listen to someone with less power. It means avoiding a painful subject, instead of giving someone a chance to confide in you. It means letting bad behavior slide, instead of hearing the awkward silence when you point it out. It means agreeing to help someone, even when you know the help he is asking for will really hurt him.

Nice interferes with your ability to work. It means never disappointing, and never showing people that their desires are less important than your needs. It means accepting the scut work that interferes with you doing your real job, because you don’t want to seem ungrateful to have been hired. It means letting someone else take credit for your work because you want to be a team player. It means not getting the support you need because you don’t want to ask for “special treatment.” It means constant distractions in the form of self-criticism and futile attempts to read other people’s emotions. It means wasting energy you could use for working, on presenting yourself as accomodating, unthreatening, and quiet–qualities that actually make it harder for you to succeed, unless success is defined as minimizing the number of people who dislike you.

The hell with nice. You know who’s nice? Todd Alquist is nice.*


If you’re going to do real work, you must give up the idea that it is your job to make everybody happy. I mean, friend, that is a very, very big job. People feel and act the way they do for very complicated reasons that most of the time have sweet Fanny Adams to do with you. Being nice enough to fix all that is a fantasy–literally, you would have to be the nicest, most powerful witch in the history of Beauxbatons to pull that off. It can’t be done.

So it also means accepting that someone, right now, might be calling you a bitch behind your back. It’s not the end of the world. I know someone’s calling me one, probably more than one person, and probably more than one insult. You can’t actually protect yourself from that. No matter how hard you try to hide your confidence, or keep your voice small and questioning, not even if you start every sentence with “Sorry, this could be way off but….” Yeah, you might reduce the number of people who think you are a narcissist, or a bitch, or an Angry Black Woman, or a Dragon Lady, or a man-hating dyke, or an ugly feminist, or whatever it is you’re afraid to be called. But some of them will still think that anyway, because you are existing in their space. And others will fall for your act, and start to believe you really don’t know what you’re talking about, that you’re a pushover, that you have nothing to say–assuming they actually notice you at all.

If somebody tells you you’re not being nice, it might mean you messed up, but it also might not. And it does not mean that you are a bad person. There is a big difference between discomfiting the occasional meanie-pants and treating the whole human race like garbage. If you and I know each other (and if you’re reading my blog, there’s a good chance we do), it’s quite possible that in the course of acting according to your own integrity you will alienate me. Big whoop. I’m highly likely to get over it. And if I don’t, there are lots of people in this world, and some of them like you a lot, and those people are just as important as I am–and so are you.

There are real costs to letting go of nice. The question you’ll have to answer for yourself is whether or not the alternatives cost you more. Personally, I am more willing than most to take certain kinds of risks. That means that I make more errors of commission than of omission, and that I screw up more than most, and have to make more amends. Add to that my distaste for indirection, and…people who later became my friends have described their first impressions of me (all of them, I suspect, softpedaling), as “Someone I wouldn’t want to mess with,” “Someone I wasn’t sure liked me,” or “Terrifying.” So there are probably great people out there I will never get to know cause they don’t think I’m a nice person. I can live with that.

I am how I am for a reason, and it’s got nothing to do with the impression I am making. It is because I want to be at peace with the choices I’ve made. The worst regrets of my life, and my true wrongdoings, are times when I failed to speak up, and someone who couldn’t speak up got hurt. And you know what else? It’s just as good a reason to speak up when the person who’s going to get hurt by your silence is you.

It’s cool to be nice, but it’s more important to be brave.

*If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad then this reference won’t mean a lot to you but just take my word for it both that Jesse Plemons can act, and that you do not want to model your professional relationships after those of the character he played on that show. Those of you who have watched Breaking Bad should definitely check out these mashups of Todd Alquist screenshots and Things Boys Do We Love. Those of you who are unfamiliar with that sexual-political-grammatical travesty should trust me when I call it the tumblr equivalent of an esophageal varix.


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