If I See One More Woman Wearing a ‘Be Kind’ T-Shirt, I’ll Scream

By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC

At the height of the pandemic, I was in a store, dutifully wearing my mask, as was everyone else…except one woman. She wore no mask and an impossibly frozen smile that she made sure everyone saw as she walked about…and a t-shirt inscribed, “Be Kind.”

I imagine she was telling herself how “kind” she was being, given that broadly displayed smile and the t-shirt messaging. And yet the passive-aggressive nature of her behavior was something to behold. Just, Wow. And all the while she seemed to be telling herself how kind she was being.

So I’m kind of soured on the Be Kind Movement, because people seem to confuse Playing Nice (ie, being polite and smiling a lot)…with truly being kind. There’s nothing kind about exposing people to a life-threatening virus.

What, you ask, could possibly be the problem with a saying that advocates for people to be more thoughtful of one another? Bear with me.

First, let’s just put out there that more kindness in this world would actually be a good thing. There’s too much aggressive, thoughtless, and unkind behavior out there.

But what, exactly, is this Be Kind phenomenon actually about? I’m concerned it’s just more policing of women’s behavior (interestingly, by women) that puts us into stereotypical, gendered roles that hurt us…all of us. Not just women, but minorities as well. And that it’s part of how we don’t speak up when we need to. The deeply entrenched waters of niceness that most women swim in don’t exactly allow us to call out bad behavior, including racism.

I’d be less bothered by the Be Kind trend if it were men wearing the shirts…but it’s not.

And I’d be less bothered by it if it defined what kindness actually is…but it doesn’t.

I got a huge kick out of a ring I saw for sale—some wonderful kindred soul waging a little-noticed backlash alongside me—that said “Be Kind” on the outside…and “of a bitch” on the inside. Love it.

Ok, ok, before everyone freaks out let me just say that I use the “B-word” in the best possible way, one of empowerment, not one that demeans women but rather conveys, “We’re strong and we should own it.”

What worries me about the “Be Kind” slogan is that it’s largely displayed by and directed toward women, who are already suffering from internalized misogyny and societal expectations to Be Nice.

You might suggest that it’s not Kindness that hurts women, but Niceness, and you’d be right. I’m just worried that the two get confused, with women basically being shamed if they’re not “being nice,” that is, polite, people-pleasing, agreeable, and submissive. Women don’t need more of this, and we should not be policing each other to behave in ways that have harmed us in our careers, our relationships, and our very sense of ourselves.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe everyone immediately understands the distinction between Kindness and Niceness…that’d be great. But I fear that they’re being used interchangeably. So here we go, with some key differences.

Niceness is superficial, largely about having good social skills and being polite. The woman in the store with me likely was telling herself how nice she was being. Flashing a smile at people…Well technically speaking, that’s polite and therefore “nice.” Kindness, on the other hand, runs deeper and comes from a place of wanting to truly understand the experience of another and act on that with compassion. Flagrantly violating precautions that could prevent others from catching a life-threatening illness is definitely not kind.

Sometimes people automatically say “Oh, Be Kind” when a woman speaks up, voices a strong opinion, or disagrees. We’re thus silencing women, asking them to tolerate bad behavior, telling them they’re wrong for speaking up. We’re teaching them, Don’t assert yourself, Put others’ needs above your own, Be compliant, and Don’t have an opinion. Is it any wonder that women have issues with self esteem? Poor boundaries? Difficulty getting ahead in their career? Getting their needs met? Why should women “Be Kind” in the face of others’ bad behavior? Often when people say Be Kind, what they’re really saying is, You are causing me discomfort that I don’t like…and off we go to the races of women competing in a game of Let’s Not Go There, which serves none of us well. We do better in life when we can have the hard conversations and deal with some discomfort.

It’s neither kind or nice to silence women, and yet here we are with Be Kind.

It’s also not kind or nice to suggest that women who are direct, assertive, or asking to have their needs met…are unkind, not nice, or a “bitch.” It wouldn’t occur to us to use a pejorative term toward men exhibiting the same behavior, so can we please let go of the exhortations for us to stick with traditionally accepted “female” qualities that have so harmed us? It is absolutely a disservice to women who don’t fit traditional gendered roles to tell them they are wrong, badly behaved, or not good enough simply for being more thoughtfully clear and direct…like a man. It hurts them and hurts their self esteem, and so everywhere we look, women are suffering…either from trying to live up to society’s expectations of what a woman should be (kind and nice!) or from being shamed for being inadequate when they break free from that.

In addition, the expectation that women–white women in particular–Be Nice can lead us to remain silent in the face of some really bad behavior, such as hearing a racist remark. There’s nothing kind about being nice here. In their book White Women, Regina Jackson and Saira Rao state, “‘White nice’ can be the polar opposite of being kind…Your definition of nice requires you to remain silent in the face of, well, just about everything. When we don’t act according to your definition of being nice, namely when we speak up, we are rendered not nice, or worse. We are mean.” Niceness as exhibited by white women therefore upholds and perpetuates racism and white supremacy.

Women’s psychological health definitely suffers from gendered society expectations to be nice or kind. Are you being nice because you want to, or because society expects that of you? If the latter, you’re likely feeling conflicted or resentful, giving up boundaries, having self doubt, and feeling anxious, depressed, or both. But instead of playing according to “fake-nice” rules, wouldn’t you prefer to be genuine, true to yourself, and honest with what you’re feeling? Are you direct, and clearly ask for what you need? Wouldn’t you prefer true connection and authentic, grounded relationships?

In addition, when we’re being thoughtfully clear and direct—which is kind, I might add—we give the other person the opportunity to respond to what we’re telling them. We can then sort through the problem and get things resolved. Conversely, have you ever dealt with someone who was so busy being nice that you couldn’t figure out why they annoyed you so much? There’s an undercurrent of aggression to their niceness, a sense that there’s a complaint somewhere that you can’t address? This is because when you’re dealing with someone who “would never say an unkind thing,”—just please, omg, stop—you are often dealing with someone who has a problem dealing with anger effectively and has an indirect, passive-aggressive style that is really annoying. Meanwhile they’re displaying what might be called “performative kindness,” letting the world see how great they are when actually they’re being inauthentic and manipulative.

Niceness is often self-serving. We ingratiate ourselves to get what we want, and we’re therefore placing an expectation on others to be grateful to or admiring of us for our niceness. If you’re excessively nice, you might be resentful or upset when others don’t appreciate how great you are…You need their admiration, validation, and approval. And yet you’re being nice not for others, but to get these reactions from other people. It’s inauthentic, with people sensing that they’re being manipulated. White women being nice are often upset when people of color don’t appreciate them for how nice they’re being, causing them to judge, defend, and blame bipoc persons … the last thing we need.

Kindness is more difficult than niceness, requiring us to deal with uncomfortable feelings and issues and be able to verbalize them. Niceness avoids all this…and so nothing gets resolved and resentment and upset feelings continue.

OK, I’ve made a case, I guess, for why we should all Be Kind. I suppose we should wear the t-shirt. But I’m going back to my initial complaint: Let’s just stop with all this gendered messaging. Where’s my t-shirt that says, Be Thoughtfully Assertive and Clear?

Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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