Killing the Nice Girl

Reflections on speaking up and quieting down

Adora Svitak


When I was thirteen, I lost my voice.

It was the first day of tenth grade and my high school intimidated me, all big high-ceilinged hallways and glass and brick. More terrifying than the architecture of the place was the geometry of its social groups — the rectangles made by boys and girls crowding at those long lunch tables, the perfect radii of friend circles. I had never been good at math, yet these shapes seemed more impenetrable than anything I’d ever seen in a textbook. Maybe I was scared and unconfident because I was very young for 10th grade, even after turning fourteen that October. So I spent a lot of time in the library, where no one expected you to speak. I liked to talk in class, but always thought carefully about what to say before raising my hand. My questions and comments came out rushed. They had the sound of things I’d waited for a long time to get off my chest, because, in a way, I had been waiting. It was just the kind of waiting that nobody sees, the kind of waiting that twists your guts with second-guessing before you finally, torturously, raise your hand. A friend told me I “mumbled” in AP Psych. This week at the TEDWomen conference multiple people told to “speak up,” one woman confiding in my mom, “She was so quiet I could barely hear her.”

Me being quiet? I was never the quiet child. I demanded that people listen to me. There’s a home video of my fifth birthday party, and what I noticed immediately — aside from the bobbed hair and pink dress that made me look like the character D.W. from the kids’ show Arthur — was the fact that I sought attention. I was loud. I preened in front of the video camera. At three, I would clamber onto a boulder at the local park and start speechifying about politics and the environment, parroting what I’d seen from Al Gore and George Bush on TV during the heated election season. I presented to rowdy auditoriums of elementary school kids and gave a speech at TED, and you’d think that all my public speaking reflected a passion and gregariousness so innate that they would never go away.

My fifth birthday party.

Yet time had taught me that being liked and being quiet were one and the same. Not quiet in the sense of not saying anything, but quiet in terms of emotion, passion, duration of speech. Picture an impassioned speaker, bellowing words about liberty and justice and freedom. Run a Google search, as I did, for “great orators.” The first 9 people listed — folks like Patrick Henry, William Jennings Bryan, and Martin Luther King Jr. — are men. Imagine for a moment that Patrick Henry had been a woman. Imagine “Give me liberty or give me death!” in a woman’s voice. Were they women, some of the greatest orators of our history, and their greatest lines, would likely be described as “crazy,” “hysterical,” “hormonal,” or “overreacting”; these are all words commonly used to talk about women who commit the crime of being passionate about something.

In my dorm, there was a room the floor above me where I went occasionally to hang out or do work after my roommate had gone to sleep. It was in that room that I got into incredibly interesting conversations, about everything from racism and sexism to problematic language and freedom of speech. The boys there made irreverent jokes, humored my inability to make small talk, and frequently disagreed with me. I liked them, and I wanted them to like me too. I didn’t think they would like someone they perceived as a “paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista” (to quote Josh Lyman’s memorable comment to CJ Cregg on The West Wing, also known as the moment I decided I wanted to go to Cal). So I brought the volume down on my passion, a little. Sometimes, in my desire to be liked, I let the sticker on my laptop or the slogan on my shirt say more about my feminism than my words. Likability is a far harder bar than mere civility. It meant muting anger or sadness or frustration, because I knew that trying to be Patrick Henry would earn more ridicule than solidarity. I saved my soundbites for typed words on screens where a voice too loud, too high-pitched, too “screechy,” too woman, would not betray me. And just as I did in class, I thought too much about what I might say, trying to slice every last word so that I could say something concise and fast and jam-packed with information so that I would not have to open my mouth too soon again. I would try to respond to a paragraph with a sentence, a sentence with a word.

Patrick Henry’s RBF

I say “try” because often, I couldn’t. (Those boys will probably tell you that I talked a lot.) Interesting discussions moved too fast for me to write a monologue and rehearse this sorry player before she dashed onstage. The metaphor of acting is particularly apt because being in an improvisation class at Cal was my first experience getting a deliberate break from the normal performance of daily life. I played angry girlfriends, disappointed parents, screaming children. One day I launched into a vicious tirade at my “roommate” for being a freeloader who stole my drug paraphernalia, spitting curses and threats with clenched teeth and drawn fists. They were words I would never say to anyone outside of improv.

Afterwards, the teachers of the class gave us feedback. One of them told me, “Adora, you often tend to act these really aggressive roles…” It made me question — what was it about the actively aggressive, the loud, the all-up-in-your-face communicative, that attracted me so much? Perhaps it was my way of reclaiming what I didn’t have in real life. It was satisfying to have a space to be unapologetically angry. It felt like stepping out from behind the mask of the girl who said “sorry” every minute, so conscious of speaking too much or being perceived as “too emotional.” This mask was the generic Nice Girl mask. Nice Girl clung so closely to my skin that sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was a mask at all, but improv reminded me that I could switch it out for far more liberating disguises. I could be angry. Weepy. Clingy. The words I shied away from in life, I ran toward in make-believe.

Thelma and Louise (Source: HelloGiggles)

Life should be more than a series of masquerade balls, but we all force each other to wear disguises. Once when I was at a café with a friend, I started laughing uproariously, before I realized suddenly and self-consciously that he was giving me an odd look.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You were just laughing, like, really loudly,” he said tersely. I shut up.

I told him months later about that moment, and he felt terrible. I told him not to worry, and that it wasn’t the first time someone told me to be quiet. At a New Year’s Eve party my sister yelled at me every five minutes, “Be quiet!” That night had been like being five again, perhaps loud, perhaps obnoxious, but perfectly content and unaware that anyone could dislike me for being loud, and happy, and unapologetic.

Screw that. Let’s be who we are. Of course I want to be liked, but I don’t want to have to be a person I’m not in order to win your approval. At the end of summer camp, when I was fourteen, we talked about abortion on our last day of class (it focused on philosophy). I raised my hand and delivered an impassioned statement not only on the rational arguments for being pro-choice but also about how I didn’t want to live in a world where the fate of my body was not my own to decide. I didn’t hold back, and after the last loud, determined word left my lips, one of my classmates finally said, “Damn.”

I look back to that five-year-old at her birthday party, and that fourteen-year-old in a rare moment of un-muted emotion in a class, and hope to echo their voices a little more when I next open my mouth. That doesn’t mean I can be or want to be loud and outgoing all the time. What it does mean is this: I don’t want to apologize for taking up space, and I don’t want to renounce my emotions and beliefs as liabilities. We exact too high a price from girls for growing up when we start to condemn each other and ourselves for speaking too much or too strongly. We exact a price from boys, too, stigmatizing the narratives of weakness and doubt and vulnerability that chip away at the toxic veneer of the “real man.” Weakness, doubt, and vulnerability — all things that could be seen as feminine, but really, just the things that make us human. The masks we wear hide us, put painted expressions on our faces, and make us look at each other through narrower perspectives. It is all too easy to live life missing out on peripheral vision.

Don’t do it.

Saying that one is “finding their voice” implies that a voice can only be in only one place, in one time, existing in a binary of here or there, lost or found, loud or quiet. When I go looking for my voice I realize that it is in many places, doing many things, being many volumes. Bellowing atop a boulder “Vote for me to be president!” even though I’m only three. Shrieking down the hill where I run smearing mud on my face like war paint. Emerging fast as wheels flashing round a velodrome in a debate. Not limited to here nor there, lost nor found, loud nor quiet.

When I was thirteen, I thought I lost my voice.

But in realizing what it is not, I’m learning how to speak.