Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, comedian Viv Groskop, explores why it is that women struggle to break free from toxic friendships. Too nice for your own good? Read on...
Is there such a thing as being too polite or too nice?
I suspect there is and that a lot of women step over the line a lot of the time.
I’m not just talking about being too British or saying sorry too much or saying “excuse me” when someone else has stepped on the front of your foot with their sharpest stiletto heel (although we do all these things too when we absolutely don’t need to).
No, I’m talking about women being too polite to each other.
For my podcast Dear Viv, which answers questions about life and the universe, one of the things that comes up all the time is what to do when you want to stop being friends with someone who’s making you feel rubbish.
People tell stories of friends who monopolise their time with no reciprocation, who call them repeatedly in the middle of the night just to moan and whinge, who expect them to change their plans whenever they demand it. I often find myself thinking: “Wow. This person wants to stay with a toxic friend just for the sake of being polite. That’s mad.”
I can’t believe how many women are doing this to each other.
It’s some kind of weird faux-sisterly doormat thing and it’s totally unnecessary. My answer is always the same.
Just stop being friends with that person. If they’re the kind of person I’m imagining them to be, they’ll be too absorbed to even notice that you’ve stopped calling. It is not impolite or rude or horrible to let go of someone who is making your life a misery.
The point is, the women who write in for advice all have the same fear.
They’re afraid that by cutting off ties with someone (even someone who treats them like dirt), they’ll be being mean. They’re scared of being unkind. They’re anxious - ironically - about the label ‘bad friend’. They’re terrified of being a ‘nasty woman.’ (Sound familiar? You even get that label if you run for president.) And so, instead, what they decide to do is be too nice and maintain a relationship with a ‘friend’ who is gently gnawing away at their self-esteem.
Being nice and kind and considerate and generous are all great things in life. And, in the most general terms, we should have more of this kind of behaviour.
But when it’s at the expense of speaking up for yourself, stating what you want and putting yourself first not in a pushy or aggressive way but just because you are entitled to feel however you feel... It’s not good enough. We need to treat ourselves better than this.
And it’s always women. Or at least we’re the ones who talk about this and admit to it.
When I brought this subject up on Twitter, lots of men said they felt the same way about difficult friendships too: they’re hard to let go but you have to do make yourself do it.
“I had to jettison a whole slew of friends a while back,” one man wrote, “Zero support, endless undermining. I ghosted the lot of them and my life improved 1000%.”
How many women are prepared to do this? Even if it’s for the sake of their own mental health?
A lot of feminist thinking has been centred on women’s place in the world, especially in relation to men. Germaine Greer hasn’t written much about female friendships but she did write this: “It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along.”
By image, she doesn’t only mean what you look like. She means what kind of person you want to be. And even now, just as at the time when Germaine Greer wrote it, we still have some crazy idea that society ‘rewards’ women who are nice to each other, who suck it all up without ever complaining, who stay quiet when they want to scream and who send Christmas cards to people they can’t stand.
I think we all know now that society doesn’t really reward you for doing any of this.
It just lets you stay in your place, stewing and simmering and feeling resentful for putting up with stuff that makes you really angry.
The point is: no-one is making you spend time with people you don’t like apart from you.
It’s OK to stop being polite. It’s OK to stop being nice for the sake of it. It’s OK to disagree with people. It’s OK to walk away.
Now, I’m not sanctioning vile behaviour here. Because often it’s vile behaviour that has caused the simmering and the stewing in the first place. There will always be a minority of people who want to manipulate their ‘friends’ and be the most important person in the relationship and suck all the air out of the room. But if fewer of us tolerated this kind of thing, it wouldn’t flourish.
So next time you find yourself late out at night in a bar biting your tongue and hearing out a ‘friend’ who is telling you for the twenty seventh time how hard done by she is at work even though you know that she took three sick days this month to go shopping and even though you told her you need to go home early tonight because you feel really tired...
Ask yourself whether you are being kind to yourself. Or you’re just being polite for the sake of it.