Last year we embarked on a little experiment: we stopped apologizing. Both in our professional lives and at home, we consciously worked to remove the word “sorry” from routine conversations where we were not actually sorry. Because it turns out we – along with many other women – apologized a lot. It’s a habit that diminishes us. It subtly changes how we are viewed by our families, our friends, and our colleagues.
Oh, and did we mention? By and large, men don’t do it.
Eliminating the automatic “I’m sorry” from daily conversation felt difficult, but it’s been a good practice. It’s changed the tone of our daily interactions in a positive direction.
We’re no longer undermining ourselves.
And so now we’re onto the next challenge: we’re going to stop worrying about likeability.
The idea sprung from a parenting book, which reads as follows:
Teach [your daughter] to reject Likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people. Please do not ever put this pressure on your daughter. We teach girls to be likable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be nice to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the feelings of those who are hurting them. This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Did you take a startled breath as you read this? Did you recognize yourself in these words? Both of us certainly did.
We bet, without thinking too hard, you can think of a situation where you worked to be kind and nice to someone who was actively damaging you, whether in your personal or professional life.
Here’s one from Erin, an oldie but a goodie: When I was a junior associate at a law firm, a senior associate directly and intentionally threw me under the bus. I’d been asked by a partner to write a research memo to support a client’s position on a case, and was maybe a quarter of the way through the project when the most senior associate on the case (who was effectively my direct supervisor) told me to stop work. The issue wasn’t going to be important to the litigation, and so I wasn’t to spend any more time on it.
Cut to three weeks later. That issue turned out to be central to the case, and the partner wanted the memo right that very minute. Rather than admitting he’d told me to stop work, the senior associate found the partial rough draft on the law firm’s document system and sent it to the partner along with a note that he was very disappointed with my draft given I’d had three weeks to work on it. (!!!)
When I found out what had gone down, I was appalled. And the way I found out was ugly: it was raised during my annual performance review. I had a bunch of glowing reviews…then one about how my memo-writing skills were seriously sub-par. It actually took me a few hours after the review to dig up what had really happened. It’s also worth mentioning that it impacted my annual bonus. And had I stayed and wanted to make partner, this would have been a black mark in my file that I would have had to explain away many, many years later.
Yet at the time, I was young and naive enough to spend the next several weeks trying hard to get that senior associate to like me more, maybe working on the misguided assumption if he liked me more, nothing similar would ever happen again.
Admittedly I’ve gotten less naive as I’ve gotten older, but I still allow smaller versions of this type of thing to play out on a regular basis.
Heather recently let someone steal her iPhone because she was so committed to being nice. What?? Yes. She recently left her phone in a bathroom stall, and realized her error just moments later. By then, another person had entered that stall (and was the only other person in the bathroom). Heather was so committed to being polite that she waited (for a weird, extended period of time) for the person to leave the stall before saying or doing anything. When Heather (politely) asked the woman if she had seen her phone, the woman denied it and walked away. Heather knew for certain that woman had snatched her phone… but didn’t want to make a fuss or speak up (despite the result being that her phone was now gone).
And like me, Heather has her own work-related stories too. A few years ago she was involved in a situation where a colleague failed to follow Heather’s directions, resulting in a major error. When that same colleague discovered the error, he ignored his own culpability, lectured Heather on why it was important to avoid “these kinds of errors” in the future, and proceeded to not-very-subtly blame Heather/her department for the original problem. Heather was incredulous, and complained privately, but didn’t clear up the situation publicly. She can now see she avoided the situation because she wanted to continue to be viewed as “a team player” and because she was uncomfortable confronting the colleague and deflecting blame.
We do not want this for our daughters. The constant worry about people pleasing and likability… it is poison for girls and women. Plus it is exhausting, the unceasing low-level buzz of analysis and mental gymnastics required to be likeable to everyone, at all times.
We have three daughters between us, and we do not want them to feel the never-ending pressure of being liked, of being popular. We do not want them to equate likeability with value. Instead we want them to be their true selves, and find their own tribes, and conduct themselves respectfully and authentically without worrying if they’re smiling enough, or funny enough, or charming enough.
And the first step to removing that pressure from our girls is modeling the correct behavior ourselves. Tricky.
It starts today. We’re buying these way-too-perfect pins from Emily McDowell (oh and this is not a sponsored post in any way, we just love Emily McDowell), screwing our courage to the sticking place, and dropping our concern over being liked.
Wish us luck.
And maybe…would you like to join us? We’ll be posting on Instagram for the next few weeks using the hashtag #EmbraceAuthentic where we will document how this little experiment is going. We’d love for you to use the hashtag and tell us your stories too. Or email us (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com), or just drop us a comment.
Sending you hugs and high fives.