Being Liked Is Overrated: Advice from a Feminist

Being Liked Is Overrated: Advice from a Feminist December 8, 2012

Jessica Valenti used to respond to every commenter on her blog, no matter how nasty they were. She doesn’t anymore, because she realized that being liked isn’t that important:

Jessica Valenti

One of the questions I get asked most often from young women who are just discovering feminism is how they can maintain relationships when the people in their lives see feminism as so confrontational. How can they talk about the issues that matter to them when they are constantly seen as the bossy bitch at the family dinner table? How will they ever have a boyfriend if they object to the sexist movie he wants to go see on Saturday night? How can they get their roommate to stop telling jokes about man-hating and Birkenstocks? What they’re really asking is how is it possible that they will be understood, liked and loved when the world is telling them that they’re actually a huge pain in the ass.

My answer generally consists of tips on how to strategically talk with people without putting them on the defensive—ask them their stories, meet them where they’re at, find entry points in a conversation that will resonate. I still believe this advice is helpful, but I wonder if I’ve been doing these young women a disservice by not telling them the full story. Because if I had to choose between being likable or being successful, I’d choose the latter every time.

Yes, the more successful you are—or the stronger, the more opinionated—the less you will be generally liked. All of a sudden people will think you’re too “braggy,” too loud, too something. But the trade off is undoubtedly worth it. Power and authenticity are worth it.

And in a world where women are told to be anxious about everything—that we can’t “have it all” but will forever be searching for it—saying that ambition and success are actually pretty great can be a radical message.

Besides, being liked is overrated. Wanting to be liked means tempering your thoughts as to not offend. Wanting to be liked means not arguing vociferously with a female peer—something that could improve and add to your ideas—for fear that they’ll be insulted or that they won’t want to be friends. Wanting to be liked means agonizing over every negative comment in an online thread, even if they’re coming from people you don’t care about and don’t think much of.

Read the rest: She Who Dies With the Most ‘Likes’ Wins? | The Nation.

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  • Walking on eggshells is a pretty shitty way to live. From years of experience, I highly don’t recommend it.

  • Tracy

    Yes, of course. That’s right. If you have to choose.

    But for most of us, the question is how far should we go in any particular situation, how much we should try to be heard and attempt not to offend before we throw in the towel and say a sort of “Here I Stand.” Its just not an easy either-or. Every situation, every person, really deserves some analysis.

    In this whole conversation about speaking styles I went back to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s now famous Atlantic Monthly article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The penultimate paragraph says a lot to me. (She and her husband are professors at Princeton.)

    “I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. ”

    I watched my adolescent son recently answer a question — when he really had no idea what he was talking about and was dead wrong. He was corrected, and it seemed not to faze him at all. I was partly proud and happy, but also quite reflective about how I would feel in his position. I would have been mortified. I just wasn’t socialized to be as assertive, to answer confidently when I really didn’t know what I was talking about. The question then, is whether we should get our daughters to question themselves less, to ride in with similar confidence, or to get our sons to hold back a little, to practice a little self-doubt. Which does the world need more?

    • Phil Miller

      On an individual level, my observation has been that self-doubt is much more crippling to people than too much confidence. Over-confidence has its dangers, too, but if we’re talking about people trying to attain some goal or get somewhere, self-doubt is a killer. Also, after spending time around people who are successful in just about anything, I almost think that having a somewhat inflated vision of how good you are to actually be good at it.

  • We wouldn’t be reading Tony’s blog if he “tempered his thoughts so as not to offend.” I know that’s why I like it here.

  • Craig

    That’s quite a crafty move Tony.

    • right? it’s posted without comment, so shall we infer, “stop whining ladies about how the big boys don’t play nice or like you, cuz it doesn’t even matter! (wo)man-up!”?

      valenti doesn’t say that being liked doesn’t matter; she says that seeking to be liked is a game that women can’t win without major concessions. there is a giant difference, and tony’s quote takes it out of the context that women are frequently punished socially for the kind of strength or assertiveness for which men are rewarded.

      yes, it may behoove women to care less about what others think. and men could stop writing off women off as angry, bitchy, emotional, or haters for expressing their ideas or experiences.

      this is an interesting piece (related to recent discussions here) about the gendered ways in which people’s ideas are received and the compromises women make to be heard:

      • Re: inference about whining
        Huh. I had a totally different take on it. When I read it, I thought it was simply stating that anyone who has a strong personality/message can’t worry about pleasing everyone. I didn’t take it as directed towards women in a negative way at all, and I learned a couple of things from it (since I’m one who does want to please people).

  • nathan

    So vociferous arguing isn’t just a “pissing match”?

    huh, who knew?

  • Keith Rowley

    How much of actually putting arguments out here on a blog is by default an attempt to make people like us? If we were truly confident in ourselves we would not need to try to convince others we are right.

    • Craig

      If by “we” you mean “Frank”.

  • Luke Allison

    Yeah, Frank….but also about 70 percent of the other folks too.

    I’ve found that you could say “I like pho soup” on this blog and someone might lecture you on the implied imperialist power grab in your statement.

    • Craig

      Is it plausible that Frank’s driving motivation is an attempt to make people like him? I suppose it’s possible, but is it really plausible?

  • Luke Allison

    Or that it’s actually just called “pho” and that adding “soup” implies white privilege wherein the oppressor demands to be served a concoction from his childhood rather than submitting to the cultural norms of the oppressed restaurant owner.

    Also…while I appreciate the big idea of this blog post, where does “it shall not be so with you” and “blessed are the meek” and all that fit in? I mean….I have to assume that Jesus has to play SOME part in even the most post-Christian Christian’s assumptions about life.

  • The biggest problem with this particular discussion is how the big, complicated problems are being given such small causes.

    Feminism typically oversimplifies issues to the essentialist gender identity, and that is abundantly true here. Gender isn’t the root — while there may be typically male and typically female perspectives, this dichotomy doesn’t explain everything. Rather there are personality types that muddy the water that’s being called clear — some men manifest so-called feminine values, and some women manifest so-called masculine values.

    Then again, personality types aren’t even the root of this, but rather merely inform how vastly fluid culture has become.

    Ultimately, the root of this whole discussion is in the one thing not being considered — the very definition of success. The assumption here is that success is objective, and therefore universal — and, paradoxically, it has been established by the patriarchy! Probably the largest concern I have is that this piece gives no room for the definition of success to include ‘being liked’. This sets up a false dichotomy between “being liked” and being “successful”, which, in my opinion, undermines the whole feminist ideal.

    Finally, someone who puts no value on being liked will most likely never achieve success, in anyone’s definition. That applies to women and men alike.

    • Evelyn

      I was a little concerned about Valenti’s definition of “success” too. She seems to define it when she says:

      “We need to tell young women that not being liked, as hard as it may be, is often as sign that they’re doing something right. That letting go of ‘likable’ frees them up to focus on who they want to be, and where they want to be, in their lives. And that getting to that place is infinitely better than anything a ‘like’ could bring us.”

      But then her prime example of a successful woman is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg whose experiences are anomalous to most women’s: female leaders of companies are the exception – not the norm – and it takes a certain mixture of innate intelligence and, shall I say, “blindness to the pain of others” to get to where Sandberg is professionally.

      Valenti addresses this issue to some extent in the second sentence of: “The answer, of course, is bigger than the individual—we need to shift the broader culture so powerful women aren’t automatically seen as bitchy or undeserving. There are structural inequities that impact how realistic abandoning likability is for different women depending on their identity and circumstances. But we can’t change the culture if we’re not changing ourselves, too.” But this entire statement asks the majority of women to sacrifice themselves, in a sense, so that corporately-successful women, the tokens, aren’t seen as “bitchy”. Not all of us consider being COOs or CEOs to be a measure of our success so why would we sacrifice for the paths of women who obviously don’t need nor even appreciate our sacrifices?

      • Well put, Evelyn. That last question is the zinger!

        I’m going to make this probably controversial statement: in our time, only bitchy women are seen as bitchy. We’re no longer as influenced by systematised notions of power or our preconceptions of the powerful.

        There are as many paths to success as there are individuals. Let’s not shrink either of those artificially.

        • Evelyn

          I’m going to have to go on the record as disagreeing with your statement that “in our time, only bitchy women are seen as bitchy. We’re no longer as influenced by systematised notions of power or our preconceptions of the powerful.”

          My main beef with the statement is that once we accept that a person can be labeled “bitchy” we then see fit to treat them in discompassionate ways. I don’t know Sheryl Sandberg personally nor have I ever been within a “business” environment so I don’t know how her personal success has come about nor what it takes to succeed in her environment. I know a number of “powerful “women and they make a lot of trade-offs for the “power” that they have and I try to be as friendly towards them as possible. I prefer the term “blind” because I believe that any person who is making more than an “egalitarian” amount of money is causing some form of slavery or oppression somewhere in the world and probably stepped on multiple people to get where they are. This does not mean that the person is “bad”. They are probably doing what they think is right and appropriate for them to do in our culture.

          In other words, I think we need to recognize the humanity of the “powerful” whether they be men (likely assholes) or women (likely bitches) and realize that their sense of entitlement comes from spiritual blindness and brokenness. A lot of times, power in the form of money and authority over others is used to obfuscate this blindness.

          I don’t fault anyone for trying to be successful. I do however find it annoying when people try to fit me into their mold of what they think is success (and suggest that I should be living my life differently) without knowing my whole story or acknowledging my maturity.

  • I think we agree on this. I’m not prepared to make any kind of statement about someone like Sheryl Sandberg because I don’t know her, and I’m not directly affected by her power or decisions. I’m pretty sure I get the point you’re making about blindness and brokenness, but I don’t know how to apply that to someone that I don’t know personally.

    I don’t make a default association between power and oppression. To an ever-increasing extent, power only comes from voluntary buy-in of followers rather than entitlement of the leaders. (This is a tough transition for leaders *and* followers. It isn’t a universal yet, but I believe that this is the direction we’re heading, and I’m all for it.) This makes it even more stark when a leaders steps away from empathy, which becomes reflected in the highly negative, derogatory labels that become applied to them as a result. (That is what I meant in my previous comment.)

    I appreciate your call for us all to remember our humanity. To me, this is the most important element to being human. Empathy is one of the most important elements in my own definition of success. And I appreciate your reminder that we must even extend it to those who can’t, or won’t, extend it themselves.

  • JTB

    I’m confused. Is this advice you want female commenters here to take to heart?

    • Jon Duns Scrotum

      That would be a yes.

  • It’s better to inspire people to think for themselves than to be liked.

  • LoneWolf

    I wonder how people would respond if you replace the word “feminist” with “Christian.”

  • JTB

    Thanks for the link, Suzannah!

  • Traci Smith

    I love this, and I also love that it is posted without comment. 🙂