Half an hour had passed and I sat in my car, waiting for my habitually tardy friend to arrive so I could help her move. Resentment and anger started to build. But when she texted, "So sorry, be there soon," I replied, "No worries! Take your time :) " I'd had it. I was really sick of this being nice shit.
Illustration by Sam Woolley
Agreeable Versus Too Agreeable
Over the years, I've developed a problematic habit of taking my agreeableness too far. Being agreeable isn't a bad quality. In psychological terms, being agreeable usually means you're an empathetic person who craves social harmony. That's great, but sometimes it manifests itself in a really disingenuous way.
Part of my agreeability has to do with empathy and understanding, but being understanding often goes hand in hand with the desire to be understood. In other words, we're nice to people because we want them to be nice to us. It's what we learned in grade school, after all. A big part of my agreeability is that I want people to like me and know that I'm a good person. It sounds sweet and all, but it's actually a narcissistic need: I even want people to like me when I don't like or care about them.
For this reason, agreeable people are often too nice. We agree to tasks we don't have time to do. We agree to call a truce when we're still hurt. We agree with opinions we don't believe. And we agree to it all in the name of being loved and understood because we think pleasing others, somehow, will make us better people.
In The Book of No, social psychologist Susan Newman explains:
We live under this misconception that saying yes, being available, always at the ready for other people, makes us a better person, but in fact it does quite the opposite. You get stressed and anxious; you're viewed as a patsy.
It's obvious to see how this becomes a problem. You get so used to pleasing the people around you that after a while, you hardly remember what pleases you. This is why too-agreeable people are also frequently indecisive. We don't know what we want because we overvalue what other people want.
When Being Too Nice Backfires
Ironically, most people are displeased by people-pleasing. It's a turnoff, and research like this 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology supports this. Researchers asked subjects to play a game that included both individual and group rewards. They looked at how people reacted to selfish moves versus generous ones. You'd think they would like the generous players, but they actually disliked them just as much as the selfish ones:
An initial study investigating tolerance of group members who abuse a public good surprisingly showed that unselfish members (those who gave much toward the provision of the good but then used little of the good) were also targets for expulsion from the group. Two follow-up studies replicated this and ruled out explanations grounded in the target being seen as confused or unpredictable.
Why did they want the nice players out of the game? The study pointed to two reasons. First, researchers suggested that the overly agreeable players made everyone else feel bad about themselves. Second, everyone else viewed the agreeable players as "rule-breakers," in a way, because they weren't sticking to standard norms for civility; they were overdoing it. And yep, the other members actually wanted to oust those players from the group. Trying too hard to be nice can actually make people treat you worse.
It doesn't just apply to hypothetical games, though. In 2011, University of Notre Dame researchers found that agreeable employees earned significantly less than disagreeable ones. Specifically, agreeable men earned 18 per cent less than disagreeable men while agreeable women earned 5 per cent less than disagreeable women (the study suggested that agreeableness is perceived to be a more acceptable trait in women, so the gender gap is wider between disagreeable men and disagreeable women). When you're too agreeable, you usually don't rock the boat too much, and that can lead to becoming a pushover. It sounds obvious, but it helps to have numbers to back it up.
When you're a pushover, you don't speak up. You sit on negative emotions rather than process them, and that backfires, too. Another study found that people with "high levels of agreeableness" were actually more judgmental than disagreeable people. Researchers called it the "Pollyanna Myth."
Across studies, agreeable participants judged prosocial behaviours more favourably, but antisocial behaviours more unfavorably, than did disagreeable participants.
Irony hits again: being too nice might actually make you kind of a judgemental jerk. Agreeableness is associated with empathy but if this study is any indication, too much of it can make you more judgmental instead.
Finally, being too agreeable can also make you more susceptible to something called "groupthink." This is basically a group's tendency to ditch independent thought in favour of collective agreement. Teams with too many highly agreeable people on them tend to fall into this trap more often. In group situations, being disagreeable can actually make you think more independently and look beyond the obvious for other solutions. This is probably why I don't work well in groups: I prioritise social harmony over innovation or creativity.
How to Stop
In order to succeed at pleasing anyone we must first accept the risk that we might well displease them through a candid expression of our being. Successful charm relies on an initial secure sense that we could survive social failure...we must reconcile ourselves to the risk of not making friends to stand any chance of actually making any.
After years of people pleasing, though, that's a lot easier said than done. At its core, I realised that my people pleasing had to do with feeling submissive. I felt like everyone around me was better than me and it was my job to convince them I'm good enough. That might work well when you're an intern, but at 30 dealing with day-to-day interactions, being submissive leads to all those aforementioned problems.
With this in mind, I made some rules. Ultimately, you may have to figure out what helps you, but this is what helped me.
Look at Every Interaction as a Challenge
It's annoying to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, but it's a useful exercise if you're submissive. Normally, I mindlessly agree with people, especially strangers or acquaintances I don't know very well, out of habit. To combat this, I took every interaction with a stranger as an opportunity to break that habit. For example, on a recent cheap flight, my seat passenger complained that our seats didn't recline and that the crew was rude. Instinctively, I was inclined to agree, "oh I know, it's awful." Instead, I looked for a disagreeable counterpoint: "True, but I guess that's why the prices are so cheap," I said. "We get what we pay for." She chuckled and agreed.
It sounds petty, but that interaction made me feel slightly more confident, slightly dominant. This must seem slightly nuts to someone who doesn't have this problem, but for a chronic people pleaser, disagreeing is a big deal. Taking on more of these "challenges" made me comfortable with speaking up in general.
Pay Attention to Language
Words are important, and as an agreeable person, I constantly used loaded language that prioritised others over myself. I was one of those people who constantly said "I'm sorry," even if I had nothing to be sorry about (or even when I wasn't sorry at all!) And when people would say "thank you," to me, I'd usually respond with "Of course! No problem! Whatever you need!"
I started to watch my language a little more. Instead of apologising for nothing, I said "thank you" instead. Instead of saying, "whatever you need!" I simply said, "you're welcome." Novel concept, right?
Another tactic that helped was remembering that no one really cares. Most people are in the same boat and worried about how they come across, too. Or they just have their own stuff going on. Or they just don't think you're that important! And that's actually pretty liberating. It means you can be yourself.
Of course, you don't want to take things to the other extreme and turn into a chronically disagreeable jerk. There's a huge grey area between these two extremes. The idea is to balance kindness and civility without sacrificing your own sense of worth and confidence.