The term “Nice Guy” was, at one point, a very useful term when it comes to discussing sexist dating dynamics. A Nice Guy is someone who has a crush on a female friend and believes that his friendship and his (superficially) good treatment of her entitles him to sex/romance.
If his crush rejects him, he often becomes bitter or angry and claims that he’s a “nice guy” unlike those other jerks she chooses to date and he’s done so much for her and so on and so forth.
Nice Guys may genuinely have been interested in friendship with the women they’re into, or the entire friendship may have been a ruse to try to manipulate her into a sexual/romantic relationship. What they all have in common is that they believe that if they’re nice enough to someone, then that person “ought” to reciprocate their interest.
(Obligatory “yes, this can happen between folks of any genders”; however, the term was coined to talk about what is arguably the most common version of it and that’s in a heterosexual context where the guy is the one acting entitled. While people of all genders and orientations may believe that being nice to someone entitles them to sex/romance, and while this is harmful no matter what, it seems to do the most harm when it’s got the combined forces of male privilege and heteronormativity behind it.)
So, “Nice Guy” is an important concept because it allows us to describe and discuss gendered patterns that might otherwise remain invisible. “Nice Guy” is how so many women end up in relationships they didn’t really want to be in, but felt obligated to at least try out. (Of course, pressure to start a relationship often turns into pressure to stay in the relationship.) It’s also how many women’s fear of rejecting men gets reinforced. Even if the Nice Guy never turns physically violent, his guilt-tripping and verbal coercion is scary and unpleasant enough for many women, and they learn to be very careful about letting men down easy. Sometimes, though, he becomes physically violent too.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the concept is still as useful as it originally was, because its meaning has become diluted to the point of uselessness.
The problem is that people keep referring to others as “Nice Guys” for having crushes on their friends and then being sad when those feelings aren’t reciprocated. That is not what the term originally meant. Feeling sad, disappointed, or even angry when someone you’re interested in rejects you is normal. While I’m sure some people would feel immediate acceptance (or nothing at all), I think that for most people it’s normal to have negative feelings. People want things! Sometimes those things don’t happen! That’s disappointing. It’s supposed to be.
I think the source of the problem is that people conflate feelings and actions. When you imagine someone feeling upset or angry about being rejected, you probably imagine that they would guilt-trip the person who rejected them or lash out at them or try to pressure them, like a Nice Guy would. And yeah, sometimes that’s what happens. But you don’t see all the people who get rejected and just quietly feel like shit or talk it out with a friend or write about it in their journal and then move on.
Furthermore, some people assume that if you’re upset about not getting something you wanted, then you must’ve felt entitled to it. That’s not the case. Wanting something very badly is enough to cause strong negative feelings if you aren’t able to have what you want, even if you never felt like it was somehow owed you. Just ask anyone who’s ever gone out on a limb to apply for a dream job that they doubted they’d get, and then were still pretty upset about not getting.
Weirdly, nobody seems to think that way about breakups. If you’re in a serious relationship and your partner breaks up with you, it’s considered reasonable to be upset. Few people would seriously argue that you must’ve been some Nice Guy asshole who felt entitled to your partner’s love and attention, just because you were upset that you were dumped.
Rejection can feel different depending on whether it’s a breakup of a preexisting relationship or a “no” from someone you just asked out on a first date, but it’s rejection all the same. It hurts. Those feelings aren’t wrong.
Here are a bunch of feelings you might have when someone rejects you that I think are valid and not necessarily coming from a place of entitlement:
- Feeling sad or upset that you were rejected
- Wishing the person would change their mind
- Thinking that you would’ve made a good partner for this person
- Thinking that you would’ve made a better partner for this person than whoever they’re interested in
- Feeling embarrassed that you were rejected
- Feeling like you don’t want to see them or talk to them anymore
None of these is the same as “I deserve sex/romance from this person because I was their friend.”
Here are some actions you might take in response to being rejected that are not okay:
- Pressuring the person to change their mind (which isn’t the same as saying “Well, let me know if you ever change your mind” and then stepping back)
- Guilt-tripping them for rejecting you (which isn’t the same as being honest about your feelings about the rejection)
- Cutting off your friendship with them because you want to “punish” them (which isn’t the same as putting the friendship on pause or ending it because it’s too painful; more on this in a future blog post)
- Saying nasty things about the person they’re interested in (which isn’t the same as expressing a valid concern about that person and then stepping back)
- Making them perform the emotional labor of taking care of your feelings about the rejection (although it’s okay to ask other people for support, or accept support that this person freely offers you)
- Becoming cruel to the person to get back at them (i.e. “Whatever, I never liked you anyway, you [gendered slur]”)
As you can tell by all the parenthetical caveats, each of those could probably have a blog post all to itself. This isn’t supposed to be the be-all end-all list of Appropriate vs Inappropriate Responses to Rejection. The point is that the problem with Nice Guys isn’t their feelings, it’s the actions they take in response to their feelings. Stigmatizing the feelings themselves isn’t helpful because you can’t shame people out of having feelings (and why on earth would you want to).
I understand that many non-male people are just fatigued of hearing men complain about getting rejected by women (not to mention the emotional labor that they’re often expected to perform around this) and may mentally categorize them as Nice Guys so that they can dismiss their pain and avoid having to deal with it. I also understand that when you’ve been surrounded by Nice Guys, you may hear Nice Guy-ism in statements that aren’t in and of themselves entitled, because that’s what you expect to hear next. (For instance, “I can’t believe she turned me down” might often be followed by “…after everything I did for her.”) It’s just classical conditioning at that point.
In fact, dismissing people’s feelings as invalid is a very common way that people cope with the limits of their own empathy. We tend to believe that if someone close to us needs support, we’re obligated to provide it–unless we can show that they don’t really need it, or shouldn’t. But that’s not how it works. The fact that someone needs something–support, a listening ear, whatever–does not mean you have to give them that thing. You are welcome to say, “I’m sorry, that sounds hard, but I can’t be the one you talk to about this.”
The misuse of the Nice Guy term falls in the same category as memes like “male tears” and “feefees,” which start off making a good point (some men get highly emotional in response to conversations about sexism and yet they accuse women of being the overemotional ones) but then veer into sexism themselves by perpetuating the gendered idea that men who show emotion are ridiculous, weak, and pathetic. The counterargument here is usually, “But I don’t mean those kinds of feelings, I mean these kinds of feelings!” But look, either it’s okay to have feelings or it isn’t. Maybe it’s not the feelings that are the problem, but the way some people choose to deal with certain feelings.
Mental health is a social justice issue too, and any social justice that focuses on shaming or ridiculing people for their feelings, which they did not choose, rather than for their actions, which they did choose, is not any social justice I’m interested in.
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