Being “Nice” At Work

It’s Friday, so this space is reserved for talking about work. Women at work. Mothers at work. Fathers and baby daddies at work.  Single guys who are looking for a sugar mama at work.  Mothers who want to be at work, but aren’t.  Workers who want their mother coworkers to get their asses into the office.  Women who don’t want to work but show up and punch the damn clock every day because rent must be paid and babies must be fed (and for those of you, like me, who are complete assholes, well, private school costs money).

If you have a story about work you want to tell here, shoot me an email ( and we’ll work you into the busy circulation calendar.  It’s jammed until next Friday.

Let’s talk about being nice at work.

Guess what? Studies show that disagreeable people in the workforce  “earn substantially more” than their agreeable counterparts.  I was thinking this should be good news. I should be a freaking billionaire. You want disagreeable? I can be disagreeable about everything: the temperature of the office, the hours, the politics, the ambient light, the food in the cafeteria.

While the study showed that the gap between nice MEN and their contrarian counterparts was wider than the gap between nice and contrarian women, it still showed that being a disagreeable woman puts you at a slight advantage.

This is my assertive face. I am so getting a raise soon.

This is my assertive face. I am so getting a raise soon.

I am debating about how to use this information.  I am translating “disagreeable” into “assertive” to make it more palatable from a humanity standpoint. I’m not about to go around acting like a jerk just so I can earn more money.

But what if my idea of being a jerk is really just being assertive?

The truth is that half the time I don’t feel entitled to be assertive.  And not just because I am conditioned to be a people pleaser, but because I am grateful to have a part-time job and I don’t want to lose it.  To me, being assertive feels scary because it feels like it would jeopardize my reputation as a team player or someone who is good to work with (i.e., nice).  My logic is that if I am assertive, then people will have feelings about me, and they will not like me, and then my job will be in jeopardy.  It’s always seemed easier to be nice– to agree to fetch the coffee, even though you’re a salaried professional; or to take notes like a “secretary” for a room full of men who are presumably capable of taking notes as well; or to smile when your immediate supervisor throws you under the bus for a decision he insisted on; or to agree when the junior MALE associate gets to take the deposition even though you were on the case longer. 

I’ve done all those things, and I was too busy smiling and swallowing the rage and shame to even consider pushing back.  No man did that to me; I did that to me.

Yeah, sometimes it feels easier to be nice and poor than to stand up for myself and watch the money roll in.  But now that earning less money is getting harder to swallow, I might just step up.  Or at least for God’s sakes, stop smiling about all of it like it’s the greatest thing since Costco samples to undercut myself (or accept undercutting) at work.


24 thoughts on “Being “Nice” At Work

  1. When I’m assertive it feels bitchy to me. But I’m trying to speak up. A little at a time at work and everywhere. “Excuse me, Glass Ceiling.? Could you please get the fuck out of my way?”

  2. There is a fine line between being a bitch and speaking up to be respected. I’ve had your boardroom scenario happen a few times and it is enraging. Each of the men in the room knew my role and it was not a fucking note taker (no intended disrespect to the note takers of the world). I was, according to my job description, above at least three of the men at that table and I politely handed the pad and pen to one of them and sat down. Yes, it feels wrong when I do this, because I am conditioned to not speak up for myself, told that I’m not being a team player when I refuse to do something. But we can’t control how another person reacts to our words. As long as we are respectful and honest, if they take offense, so be it. I’m tired of biting my tongue just so no one labels me as hard to work with. That said, I am totally going to tell the stinky bike riding man that he’s the stinky bike riding man and that’s why no one wants to work with him. We have four individual showers here. You bike in? Find one after you get here.

  3. I’m grateful for all the women who walk that fine line between being assertive and bitchy. It is not easy, but it is so necessary. There is no way for women (people, really) to earn respect unless we are assertive. But none of us wants to be called a bitch. I read this article years ago and I have never forgotten it — some great advice here. (Head nodding is the worst for me. I try to avoid it, but I just seem to do it automatically, like breathing!!)

    • That’s a great article– although it was primarily aimed at women, I did see Ms. DiResta did address men a few times. Having grown up in a family of mostly women, I recognized pretty much every point in myself. Except #6; I did get a sense of fashion and dressing well, which I do credit to my mother and three sisters.

      One other thing: this is not just a men vs. women sort of issue. I’ve had a few discussions with a friend of mine, Jack Yan, who is a typographer and publisher in New Zealand. He is ethnically Chinese (but claims a British identity as well as a Kiwi one, as his family is originally from Hong Kong). We discussed a different article that addressed this issue from an East Asian cultural standpoint. The implication was that East Asian businesspeople (Asian Americans, etc.) should abandon their collective cultural behaviors and conform to this more individualistic, straightforward style if they wanted to succeed in the Western business world, particularly in management. Jack and I felt the author was a bit tactless, and that it was not accepting of what Asian culture contributes to the workplace. But anyway, this personality and communication style seems to be the norm in the Western workplace regardless.

  4. I love this – you are so making me think! Part of why I am a superstar at work is because I am assertive. I’m not afraid to inject my personality into my work (which was hard for a long time because PROFESSIONAL) and I find even something as small as that is assertiveness. However, I am struggling with something else I see and you mentioned — this idea of being invisible vs. being disagreeable. When I’m front and center I’m not withering flower. But when I’m not in teh spotlight I prefer to be invisible. I notice two other women in particular go out of their way to be in front of the important partners. Even if it just means complaining about the air conditioning or the lack of paralegals in our group or their desk chair, all things I would just “accept” and “get by” with, they use as opportunities to “be disagreeable.” I see these women edging ahead of their peers – men and women. In one way, being disagreeable gets you noticed more, keeps you in their mind more when they are thinking about who they want to head up their next deal. It’s interesting food for thought and I love the way you approached it with your nothing short of perfect humor.

    • Oh workplace invisiblity. This is a great topic. I love invisiblity but it always backfires. And if I was a boss, would I trust someoen who was invisible to take on great work? Not a chance. And using “disagreeableness” as a way to get in front of people, to remind them that you are there and you care (or so it seems) enough to invest and take the time to speak up….well, it makes sense.

      On Fri, Sep 13, 2013 at 10:59 AM, Outlaw Mama

  5. This is interesting. I’ve worked in two different places, behaved the same in both places (assertive as always), and one place I was rewarded for it, and in the other penalized. Based on that, here’s my opinion: smart people who want a job done well and efficiently embrace that attitude. In other places, where there’s a lot of “fat” and people aren’t that bright, you become the rogue employee that worries everyone. I say go for it and get your bitch on. At the end of the day more money is great, but feeling like you’re being true to yourself and being treated with the respect you deserve is even greater. You rock!

  6. I work in higher education and am second in command of a large administrative department. Of the twenty employees I manage, most are 10-20 years older than me, and most are very nice. My boss is also very nice, which is why I was brought in – she had let a lot of things go to pot, precisely because she is so nice, and other people take advantage of this.
    It’s not so much that I am not nice in the workplace, though I certainly was not hired for being nice, nor did I get my raises and promotions because I was the nicest gal in the building. However, my experience has been that people need to like you if you want to get ahead. They do also need to fear you just a little bit (or more than just a little bit, depending on how high up in the ranks you’ve gotten), but you’ve got to strike that balance. The women I know who have gotten into senior leadership positions are all hard as nails, but also quick to soften when appropriate.
    Sometimes I know that I’ve taken assertive a step too far, particularly when it comes to not letting myself be treated as less than the men in the room, and I’ve taken political hits for this. But at the end of the day, I find that it’s all evened out and worked to my benefit. I get to stand on equal footing with professionals who have been in this business for decades longer than me, and when difficult decisions need to be made I’m the person who gets the call.
    It’s not always fun being the bad guy, but I’ve got to say that it’s way more fun than being the good girl.

  7. “I’ve done all those things, and I was too busy smiling and swallowing the rage and shame to even consider pushing back. No man did that to me; I did that to me.”

    This is me, almost every single day. It’s so hard to say no when a male partner in a position of authority asks you to scan something to him, or to make him copies of a document, just because you happen to be standing right there, even though he has a secretary 20 steps away who is paid to do exactly that. Who do I bill for the time I’m standing at the copy machine? No client is paying $400 an hour for me to make copies.

  8. I think that my having been conditioned to please others is ironically EXACTLY why, when the time comes to be assertive, I often pass right over that to just being a jerk. I guess more practice would help.

  9. Just another quick comment– I worked at city hall in a department with two female and one male supervisor. Most of that time was as a volunteer, so I managed to escape a lot of office politics. The guy was the coordinator for the city cable channel, so he was a little more quiet and was a technical person. The two women: one was the manager for the department, and the other headed environmental education. The latter I still have a very excellent working relationship with, and she seemed to know the balance. She was poised, professional, and congenial– what I called “perky” at the time, but “bright and assertive” would probably be more accurate. I was there off and on for 3-4 years and have not worked there for a little longer, but… I am still in awe of her professional prowess, and she is still very kind to me. It can be done.

  10. I find being nice only gets me more work to do. It’s very frustrating. I am a team player, I always jump in when a problem needs solving. But my niceness means no one feels the need to do the same when I need help. At my new job, because I work from home and my position doesn’t really make it possible, I’m enjoying not having to do that anymore. It’s refreshing. Being a pushover (which I was) was exhausting.

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