Nicola Alpe: The problem with telling women to ‘be kind’

As a child I was told if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. On occasions, choosing not to speak to a person when I didn’t have anything nice to say has made me the mean girl.

My daughter brings home cute poems from school about being kind as her teachers are tailoring their messaging in a developmentally appropriate way for children learning social skills, and I’m all for this. Kids haven’t developed the filter we learn, or perhaps the muzzle, as we develop, only to be thrown out the window of our assisted living arrangement when we decide we are too old to care what anyone thinks anymore.

The “Be Kind” messaging has taken off. Ellen de Generes started it and we all know how that ended up, but New Zealand started throwing it around like a lolly scramble last year, admittedly at a time of extreme uncertainty and heightened emotions when our essential workers didn’t deserve any a**hole behaviour. They still don’t.

Since then, it’s become a firm part of the female vernacular. If you hear men saying it, then please forgive me for my generalisation, but it’s emblazoned across women’s T-shirts all over Etsy, written in brush lettering for quotes, and it adorns the ubiquitous coffee cups clutched in kitchens across Instagram.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I have a problem with this message being so female focused and with us being told how to act. I certainly don’t have a problem with treating people with respect and making people feel good about themselves and life.

The be kind message has been thrown out there prolifically by women and has been adopted at times with militant enthusiasm by women. With “be kind” being rammed down our throats, I can’t help but feel that women’s voices will again be quietened where it matters most; the classroom, the home, the boardroom, the streets. A woman pushing the envelope is sassy, calling out bad behaviour is stroppy, a woman demanding better is bossy or difficult. Now a woman risks being called unkind, and then there’s that nasty woman reference.

My dislike for the message stems from it once again telling women how to behave, how to speak, think, pressing us down, and I fear it will result in further stultifying women and girls into not speaking up for themselves, or women modifying their behaviours yet again in an effort to make other people feel good about themselves at the expense of our feelings, safety or equality.

We are told to be kind and act with compassion, to not make a judgement about someone’s actions until we walk in their shoes. I believe you shouldn’t judge unless you are in the situation, but women are still being conditioned to not call someone out on their behaviour or an unfair situation for fear of what problems other people are having, for hurting fragile emotions, or how they may be perceived.

By being told we must lead with compassion and kindness, we risk continuing to relegate our expectations and needs to the bottom of the heap. This in turn compromises ourselves, how we feel and what we will accept, for fear of seeming unkind or making someone else feel bad.

Men, while they have their own flaws, would never sacrifice their own emotional wellbeing, their professional development, their family’s values, safety, or their aspirations for someone else’s emotions. I can’t wait until all women feel they can do the same without judgement.

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