On Being Nice

I’m in a moment when life is beautiful, stuffed full to overflowing with goodness. So many simple gifts, I don’t even have time to write the thank you notes. Today’s gifts: that, even when I’ve slept in, I have time and resources to get breakfast and coffee and still make it to work on time; that my job offers an outlet for my creative impulses and even leaves time for me to stop my on-the-clock work to jot down a word here and there as the muse strikes; and that my employer offered me the afternoon off work so I could enjoy the rainy afternoon at home.

Walking home, right around the corner from the job, through the deliciously cool air, a faint drizzle falling, I passed two men sitting outside a rowhome about 10 houses away from my own. One is a neighbor who practically lives in the plastic chair outside his house, the other a jovial man sitting on the neighbor’s steps. I walk past this neighbor at least a dozen times per week, and always say hello and sometimes make small talk as I pass; the jovial man is a stranger to me.  As I approached and passed the men, we had this exchange:

Jovial man: Aw, don’t look like that! You don’t have to put your head down!

Me: I’m allowed to look down. I can hold my head however I want to!

Jovial Man: But smile! You don’t have to look like that!

Me, stopping: I don’t have to hold my head the way you want; I can arrange my face however I want to. I can be smiling on the inside!

Jovial man, pouting now: Aw, you can’t be nice to anyone!

Me: I am being nice!

Neighbor: This is a really nice lady, she’s a neighbor, and she’s really nice!

Jovial man, still wounded: I was just being nice!

During this entire exchange, my voice was pleasant, my tone friendly, my face neutral. My head may have been tilted down to better divert the rain from running down my forehead, where it would have picked up tiny flecks of ground glass and directed them into my eyes (glass worker problem); or it may have been tilted down so I could look at the sidewalk, or it may have been tilted down because I was stretching my neck. It doesn’t matter – I am allowed to hold my body however I want to when I walk down the street and I don’t owe anyone an apology or an explanation, and I don’t have to change just because a “nice” man tells me to.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been told by well-meaning, nice men who are strangers, to smile when I walk past them on the street. Sometimes they say things about how I’m too pretty to not smile, or they say something about how “it can’t be that bad”, inferring that because I’m not smiling, something is wrong. Do they really think they are being nice? Do they want to connect with me but have nothing better to say? Because, as any woman who has had this experience knows, it does not feel nice to be told what to do with your face or body by a stranger.

Last month, the neighbor I mentioned made the mistake of telling me to smile, and holding out his cell phone, saying “Come on, smile, I’m making a directory of all of the neighbors.” It was a mistake because I was really not in the mood to smile, and I turned with a maniacal grin, and gave him the finger, saying “Here you go!” He was so surprised, he laughed, and so did I, pleased that for once I was in the moment enough to not just unconsciously do as I was told, but to respond cleverly.

Listen, guys: I know you just want to be nice, and that somewhere along the way you learned that it is okay to tell women what to do as they walk down the street. You were socialized to do that, and I’m not mad at you for it. But it is not my job to look a certain way; it is no woman’s job to look a certain way. The streets are not always a safe place, and there is a certain physical and energetic armor that we put on to feel comfortable walking alone. And if I am friendly enough to explain to you that I don’t have to arrange my face or my body in a way that makes you feel good about it, please take that as me being nice. The alternative is that I tell you to go fuck yourself for trying to control me, a stranger to you, who owes you nothing, especially not an expression of warmth and happiness as I pass you on the street.

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