I have a female colleague who’s known for her niceness. It is true; she’s genuinely a very nice person. But the more I know her, the more I realize there is a considerable cost associated with her reputation; she might not feel it burdensome to pay the price because of her outlook on the world and her upbringing, but, to me, the cost would be too high.

A few years ago, on the blog, I wrote about who would take care of my kids if something happened to both DH and me. Some commenters were adamant that of course the kids should go live with the relatives back where I came from. Even if we forget for a second that the kids don’t speak the language, the main thing is — my kids are nowhere near tough enough to live where I grew up. My kids are wonderful; they are mellow (well, 2 out of 3 are), nice, well socialized, relaxed, and happy. Because of the naivete that arises from growing up in a functioning, well-structured society, within days of arriving in my home country with the intent to live there, my kids would get beaten, likely lose all their good clothes and definitely lose all their electronics, get swindled out of all their money and likely have their bank accounts emptied, have keys and documents stolen and subsequently their apartment robbed, and potentially be sold into slavery (okay, that last one is definitely an exaggeration; the rest — not so much).

Let’s just say that I grew up in what can be referred to as a low-trust society. There are many people in many parts of the world — most of the world, really — who grow up in similar cultures. Basically, from an early age I was taught to look out for people trying to take advantage of me; once learned, it is very hard to unlearn. By the standards of my home country, I am still quite naive, which is partly the reason why I am doing as well as I am here in the US — I am not as distrustful of people and all sorts of social structures as I could be, or as most of my compatriots are.

Part of my upbringing is not suffering fools lightly. Basically, the absolute worst thing is to allow someone to take advantage of you; if you catch someone trying to do that, you most definitely confront them because it’s a point of personal pride. Of course,  people there are also sensitive to hierarchies, but no one tolerates being made a fool of unless they absolutely have to.

Now back to my nice colleague. I recently realized that the key to her reputation as nice is that she grins and bears it when people are assholes to her, whatever the reason for their assholishness; I asked her how she does it, and she said she rationalizes it by telling herself that they must be stressed or have another good reason for the behavior. (She might be able to do the whole “turn the other cheek” because she is deeply religious.) In contrast, my impetus is always to call the person out if I feel they mistreated me, and people really really don’t like to be confronted about the things they might have done wrong. They always say that it’s an accident, a misunderstanding, that I’m imagining things. The fact is, most of the time I am not — when I run these scenarios by other people, most of the time what seems fishy to me seems quite fishy to others, too. It has taken me a long time to trust my gut again after years of gaslighting. The thing is, everyone here seems to expect to get away with being a jerk, and people really don’t appreciate being confronted with bad behavior. I know there will be people in the comments coming to tell me that I need to be more trusting and positive and what not, but the bottom line is that many people act as assholes, small or big, at least some of the time (me, too, of course). Sometimes it’s carelessness, sometimes it’s cruelty; often it’s something in between.

If you are nice and honest, I will be like that, too. But I am not your punching bag.

To me, the only way to have a successful long-term personal or professional relationship is to clear the air after a conflict. If I feel something is wrong, and I decide not to bring it up, that generally means I am done with you. If I care about continuing a relationship, I will confront you; if will be unpleasant, but we can move past it. In fact, one of my best collaborators these days is a person who, on account of foot-in-mouth disease, offended me several times early in my time here; there was a lot of friction as a result of that. Since then, we’ve gotten to know each other and he’s both relaxed around me and matured overall and I have learned to calibrate what he says with respect to his propensity for blunders, so we now work very well together. Had I pretended that what he was saying didn’t matter early on, I would have probably stopped speaking with him years ago and we wouldn’t collaborate today.

Why am I thinking and writing about niceness? In this society, and especially but not exclusively for women, being nice seems to mean being an eternally sunny person who won’t put up a fight if I am yelling or insulting them because I am tired/stressed/angry, and who won’t bring it up later either, so we can both pretend that I am not a bully.

There is a higher-up bad admin (Badmin); a very, very unpleasant person. Honestly, I don’t understand how we hired this person into a leadership position. Badmin does not tolerate being contradicted at all, he does not actually ever want input (it’s all just pretense), and he thinks we all work for him. Badmin has surrounded himself with a buffer of very kind, very mellow people, some male, some female. They act as a Maxi Pad for his bile, so less gets to the rest of us faculty than it would without them. Of course he likes to be surrounded by nice people, because he can bully them without any backlash. My nice colleague from above has spent some time as one of the buffer folks and I wonder how much toll it’s taken on her. As dedicated as she is about forgiving and understanding, it could not have been easy. I could not have done her job; daily interactions with this insufferable person would have been impossible for me.

I thank my lucky stars that I am a faculty member and don’t have a direct boss. I am doing my best to avoid the Badmin and I am not doing anything for him that I absolutely don’t have to (today I managed to sit for an extended period in a meeting led by him without saying a single word; I am quite proud of myself). Yes, I am taking the avoidance approach because I don’t care about having a good relationship with him and I am low enough on the totem poll that he likely doesn’t notice; my hope is he’ll soon move on to bully others elsewhere, but he better not try to interact with me directly, as I won’t hold my tongue. I just hope other faculty understand just how much shit some of our nicest colleagues take for the team.


  1. “Maxi Pad for his bile”–haha! Seriously, that kind of person takes a toll on everyone. It sounds as though you’ve hit a good balance between writing them off (your collaborator) and having to absorb the meanness. I’m apt to write them off at the first sign of rudeness.

  2. ^ Yeah, that’s a great phrase!

    I tend to write people off too. I also tend to believe they are just stressed and mistreated, or were decades ago in youth, and now they’re unthinking creatures of habit like most of us. I nonetheless do not suffer them either, but I guess I am not as confrontational as you. I will get very confrontational if I see people mistreating others, though.

  3. Did you grow up in Ukraine?? I’m from Ukraine (born there, came to the US at age 8). I feel the same dichotomy you describe: in the US, people view me as cynical and distrustful. When I visit Ukraine, family there calls me unbelievably naive and swears I would get taken advantage of like crazy if it wasn’t for them. The main result has been that I don’t really feel like I fit in to either culture.

  4. Interestingly enough, a lack of such “niceness” in girls can be interpreted as one (of many) sign of mental illness and/or autism. So, those of us who are “not nice” are mentally ill or there is a cruel double standard in psychology.

  5. Like you, I am an immigrant from a low trust culture, but unlike you, I moved to the US with my family when I was a child. Which means I think I am less trusting than the average American-raised person I encounter, but don’t really have the skills to be able to function in a low trust society. My mom used to (and occasionally stil does ) express worry that our being so pampered by being raised in cushy upper middle class America will limit our survival skills, and I can understand her concern. I’m not sure how well I’d do if I had to live in my home country, even as an adult.

  6. Well, this begs the question, is it? if our society is so full of “nice” people” (self-effacing softies, submitting to every aggression) – where the bullies and badmins are coming from?
    In my experience, highly competitive environments attracts bulling behavior; people are are determined to win by hook or crook (mostly the latter), and surface “nicety” often is just a battle camouflage, means to confuse the enemy. That applies to all Americans, native and newcomers, but natives (again, my experience only) made a high art of it. Maybe because they learned it in H.S.?

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