Years ago in a bar, we were bought drinks by Chris, a regular. Chris was a very inquisitive and intelligent man and he seemed misplaced in that bar, which is mostly patronized by testosterone-stuffed lunkheads who made comments about our bodies and tried to give us ultimatums to challenge us to go to bed with them. Total strangers they were, too.
But not Chris. He admitted to liking sex, admitted to wanting to have sex, but we talked about other things besides sex. We talked about authors, movies, happiness versus unhappiness, drug addiction, education, song lyrics, and politics. He would crack jokes that I thought were a little too dry to be funny. I didn`t not laugh because I was trying to make a statement. He asked me why I didn`t laugh and I said that I thought he was being cynical. He said that he was not cynical; he was a realist. Whatever, I thought.
He asked me again why I wouldn`t laugh at his jokes.
“Um, I`m slow,” I said, sheepish that that bothered him.
“Oh please. Don`t try to tell me that. You are not slow. If there is one thing I have learned about you from talking to you it`s that you`re anything but slow.”
I was humbled and embarrassed and full of gratitude. All I could get out was a quiet “thank you.”
“You play dumb a lot, don`t you? Maybe if you didn`t play dumb all the time, it would help you in life. You`re obviously a very smart person. I can`t believe you just tried to tell me you were slow.” He shook his head and laughed sadly into his beer. That was too generous for me to suddenly get my brain around and say something perky back, as you do in bar conversation. His saying that caught me off guard; it didn`t follow the logical progression of the social interaction or the conversation and I just kept looking for something to say.
“Don`t play dumb,” he said again. “Don`t ever feel like you have to do that.”
And then I started thinking about all the dumb things I`ve been doing lately, all the dumb things I say to people in social situations to try to make other people feel more comfortable. I thought that as a girl, I had to be pleasant. It’s irresponsible of me to not speak up as an equal. I thought about all the dumb things I let happen to me in feeling that I don`t deserve better. I thought about the fact that I`m comfortable in letting people believe I`m dumb and how selfish that is. Trying so hard to be a nice person instead of a good person had made me lazy. My being nice was an apparent “goodness” that I wanted people to believe and had chosen selfishly.
Listening too hard to that adage which states that good men are hard to find, misinterpreting that, had made me not even bother to look. Listening to that line had given me the impression that I was too good for them anyway.
One thing I learned that night: men and women can experience emotional truth the same way, but carrying out our respective gender performances made us into Others. Being a “nice” girl had made me into an Other. I was doing it to myself. Letting myself naturally just be, I found out that I wasn’t that bad.
Unfortunately, I grew up watching DJ and Stephanie on Full House be nice and polite, perfect daughters. I was made to think that Julia Stiles in Ten Things I Hate About You was what real mean girls looked like, because all the silly people in her character’s high school called her mean. Kat didn’t bully anyone; she wanted to be left alone to live according to what she believed in.
That was ten years ago now. Looking back, I wish I had just spoke up to him and told him what I wanted to: “don’t be cynical.” It was valid, because I would’ve been saying it because I cared. That’s all I could do. Instead of politely listening, I could’ve matched his pointer for me with one of my own. But I was so worried about being nice. It was actually pretty narcissistic of me.
I’ve since learned the difference between nice people and good people. Nice can mean pretty much whatever people need it to mean at the time. Good people have an internal locus of control. Nice people’s behavior can often depend on an externally-established idea of what goodness looks like. Good people would rather just say what they feel needs to be said, regardless of image.
When it comes to men, women always hear, “the good ones are all taken.” I’m guessing that the good men are taken by and stay with good women, not nice women. Good men aren’t that hard to find; they’re just busy if they’re any good.