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13 November 2018Last updated
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Nice girl syndrome

When it comes to women, ‘nice’ has become coded to mean ‘weak, submissive and pitiable’. But is this accurate, or can ‘nice’ and ‘powerful’ go hand in hand? Charlene Naidoo believes they can…

By Charlene Naidoo
1 Jan 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Getty Images Image 1 of 2
  • Source:Getty Images Image 2 of 2

‘What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails and puppy-dog tails…

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice and everything nice.’

Do you remember that cute little nursery rhyme? This modern version had its origin in a work called What Folks Are Made Of, which is believed to have originated in the 1700s in a manuscript by an English poet, Robert Southey.

In the lengthier version, the poet helpfully clarifies what babies, young men, young women, sailors, soldiers, nurses, fathers, mothers, old men, old women and, of course, folks, are all made of. What is interesting is how the qualities he ascribed to both sexes have come to more or less define us.

Indian, Arabic, English, Chinese – Nice Girl Syndrome is simply one of those universal ‘girl’ things that most of us grew up hearing, learning and practising. Which raises an interesting question – are women nicer than men simply because our parents taught us to be nice girls?

But genes might also play a part. A 2014 study published in Molecular Human Reproduction revealed that genes produced by the placenta are different in males and females. Researchers found that women carrying baby girls statistically have easier pregnancies than those carrying baby boys. “We found that with female babies, there is much higher expression of genes involved in placental development, the maintenance of pregnancy, and maternal immune tolerance,” said study co-author Sam Buckberry.

Whether this presents as niceness in adult females is a matter for further research, but the lore on female niceness is vast. Dubai-based clinical psychologist, Dr Saliha Afridi delves into the history of nice girls. “In some collectivistic cultures, women are encouraged to think about the group and obey authority and this can often require them to ‘be nice’ and not consider their own values and feelings at the expense of the group.”

Traditionally, she says, many girls were socialised to please others. “Their role in society was to be seen and not heard, to not speak until spoken to. Their sense of belonging was linked to how pleasing they were to others and how many people they serve.”

At its core, however, what’s wrong with being nice? Well, nothing, says Dr Afridi. “The problem is when being nice in a situation means having to comply with what is happening when it goes against your value system or what you believe to be true.”

What is unfortunate is how coded ‘nice’ has become – culminating in the idea that nice (particularly in relation to women) means weak, submissive and pitiable.

It is 2016. Isn’t it time to stop being nice for the world, and start being nice for and to ourselves?

Good girl gone bad

The nice girl does not drink, smoke or have sex before marriage, she always listens to her parents, and thrives on
being pleasant – even at her own expense. The conditioning starts early. In 2013, for instance, at the Book Expo America, a book publisher showcased two of its book samples. One book was titled Nice and Pretty, the other Brave and Smart. There was a place to insert a photo of your girl or boy so that they became the main character in the story book. 
No prizes for guessing which was meant for boys and which for girls.

So while, as Dr Afridi points out, there is nothing wrong with being nice (and most of us genuinely are), the trouble starts when ‘nice’ becomes the default setting for putting up with behaviour that makes us uncomfortable or that is not beneficial to us. It means abiding harassment, indulging offensive jokes, ignoring rudeness, and tolerating boorish behaviour. In many significant ways, those lessons have stuck and have an impact on women in almost every aspect of life from relationships to career.

Women are implored by men to “Smile girl, you’ll look prettier.” Or, “Hey girl, why can’t you be a bit nicer?” How many hundreds of thousands of women stay in relationships, have sex or put up with cheating as an ingrained by-product of Nice Girl Syndrome? A 2015 survey by American insurance company Privilege points out that women lie more than men – however, women lie to be nice, to spare feelings and to make the other person feel better.

Even in the workplace, as the gentler sex, the body of evidence of the exploitation of Nice Girl Syndrome is pretty damning. A report from 12 years ago by the Harvard Business Review found that women were treated unequally in the workplace; earning less for the same performance as men, and they were underrepresented in key positions.

In 2010, an American-based corporate, Citigroup, found itself at the centre of an internet storm after handing out laminated cards of dos and don’ts in the workplace to its employees based on ideas contained in Lois P Frankel’s book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. A blogger posted a photo of one of the cards on his site and once it was picked up, it went viral. The cards included tips saying, for example, women tend to speak too softly, sit too demurely, ask permission, and smile too often, among other gender-based gems.

It is worth noting that on the back of Citigroup’s social experiment, Dr Frankel posted a response on her blog saying the tips were taken out of context. She has also been quoted as saying women have been socialised to be too nice, but the solution to getting tough is not to simply mimic male behaviour. Instead, it is time to reclaim ‘nice’.

Taking back nice

Dubai-based leadership coach Fatima Nakhjavanpur believes that we are on the cusp of a change. Nice does not have to mean you are weak or scared of making waves.
On the contrary, plenty of women are showing that ‘nice’ and ‘power’ go hand in hand. It starts, says Fatima, with family values – a notion that Dr Afridi readily agrees with. “As parents we have a duty to emphasise the importance of living a life that is value-driven. If children are overly compliant, I would worry as that tells me they don’t know themselves very well and are afraid of the disapproval that comes with saying no.” And in the real world where ‘nice’ is associated so freely with saying yes, and readily exploited, it’s clear this is a lesson women need to learn.

Dubai-based business owner Jumana Al Dawish relishes being a nice girl – and finds it even works to her advantage. “Being nice is powerful and opens up many doors on a personal and professional level. It is possible to be nice while still signifying power and strength. In fact I have had many opportunities come my way that I attribute to my nice demeanour and ability to connect and interact with others humanely.”

In pop culture, icons like Taylor Swift are making it cool to be nice. And who can say it has hurt her success in any way? On the contrary. In between paying off a fan’s student loans and organising slumber parties with her most ardent fans, she still has time to break records. Sandra Bullock charmed her way to an Academy Award while never saying a bad word about her cheating ex-husband. Then there’s Lady Gaga who, despite revelling in shock tactics, is renowned for her niceness, supports various charities and is vehemently against bullying. Oprah Winfrey’s generosity is legendary and no one would say it has stumped her career.

Perhaps, it really is time to embrace the nice; the 2.0 version. Niceness expert and author Doug A Sandler frequently answers the question, “How can you be so nice?” with a succinct “I honestly don’t see that we have any other logical choice. I tell myself that nice is my only option. If you think that being nice means being a pushover, a ‘yes man’, or someone who is constantly getting dumped on, think again. Being nice is the best, most productive and most positive way to be. There is a tremendous amount of power in nice. As an added bonus, nice pays well too.”

Too nice? It may be the reason for weight woes

Have you struggled to lose weight your whole life? Do you find comfort and love in food? Put down the chocolate bar, back away from the ice cream and ask yourself, ‘Is my weight the result of being too nice?’

The book Nice Girls Finish Fat by Karen R Koenig believes so. The author examines the link, saying: “Think of these pages as guiding you through an annotated tour of Niceville, including the pitfalls of perfectionism, the hazards of food as self-care, the downside of doing everything yourself, the perils of having your needle permanently stuck in the yes groove, the masochism of trying to be all things to all people all the time, and the dangers of letting yourself get so stressed out that you’re killing yourself because you can’t stop worshipping at the altar of nice. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll understand how giving at your own expense encourages you to camp out in front of your refrigerator and skyrockets your risk of remaining overweight, unhealthy, and underhappy.”

By Charlene Naidoo

By Charlene Naidoo