If you had to try and pin down exactly when it started, you might have trouble. Maybe it was because of a particular moment; something significant you said or did that started it. Maybe it was because of how you acted for a week when you were in a bad mood or had a good night’s sleep. Maybe your parents, teachers, or friends bestowed the moniker upon you.
Maybe you’re “the dumb one.” Or you’re “the responsible one” — that friend who’ll drive us home, feed us dry crackers, and tuck us all in after a night of tequila shots and dancing. (Okay, to be fair, that label is usually shorter — something like “the mom.”)
For a long time — in fact, to this day, I was and am “the nice one” — and so I have to be that way, even when I’m not feeling very nice.
It started in my friendship circles, and we all unintentionally do it. The amazing, intelligent, gorgeous women in my life — without meaning to — labeled me, and subconsciously conditioned me to model my behavior to fit their assumptions.
Labels are a very human way of dealing with the world. We like labeling things, because then we can neatly categorize them. A lemon is something yellow, sour and fruit-like — we label it “lemon” to encapsulate those senses. You cannot remove the “lemonness” from a lemon. Humans, however, are much more complicated than my favorite Gin and Tonic garnish.
When we are labelled something like “the nice one,” it can often reduce us to that, and that alone. And I have observed how these kinds of simplified characteristics become glued to our metaphorical foreheads, and we walk around performing them in order to maintain our footing in the rocky slope of interpersonal interactions.
To be fair, I am nice.
I won’t apologize for being nice (okay, I probably will), but it is not all that I am. That label captures something I am sometimes; a part of me that I show more than the rest since it’s so often drawn out of me by the siren call of friendship: “Oh Kris, you’re so nice.” Wanting to live up to the expectation, I bashfully bow my head and say something nice back.
We feed into the labels we’re given and become them, yearning to have a role to play in our social circle, to fit into a category so that we stay more easily on everyone’s mind. So that girl who is called “the dumb one” by her friends because she thought Greece was a mythical country in seventh grade? Well, nothing will get past those who know her as “the dumb one” now. Every slip of the tongue will add to a repertoire of quotable anecdotes about “the dumb one,” forming her identity even as she matures, grows, changes, and perhaps gets a degree in Geography.
It was only recently that being “the nice one” really got to me.
It was a hectic morning; I had just stepped out of an incredibly successful meeting, and while I was riding that high, beautiful motivation set in. Taking advantage of the elusive feeling, I settled into the library at school with a week’s worth of deadlines. That day, my work setting doubled as a social one, and a couple of well-meaning friends (with far less deadlines, apparently) were prodding and poking at me as I studied until I became incredibly flustered.
When I broke my facade of niceness and calmly strode out the room, dignity still intact, I felt relief. It took three seconds of being alone in a bathroom stall to break down crying. I wasn’t upset at the teasing. See, I quite like being nice — I’m okay with people knowing that I am emotional, caring, and all the other things “nice girls” are, despite how vulnerable that makes me.
I was angry at myself for sweetly smiling away their aggravation as I left the room.
That small betrayal, their act of using my niceness against me, highlighted exactly how much I had been performing my label. I may be nice a lot of the time, but when I’m angry, or tired, or hungover — I don’t want to be the nice one, and I don’t have to be.
I can be the complicated mess of labels that all humans are.
I don’t know if that seemingly insignificant moment in the library really changed me. I’m still nice, after all. But it did make me say “fuck you” a lot more. Unapologetically. I mean, I might say I’m sorry later, but for now — fuck you.
Kristine Botha, 21, is currently doing her postgraduate studies in Linguistics at Rhodes University. Her hobbies include writing lyrics to potential Lana Del Rey songs, realizing she’ll never be that edgy, petting strange dogs, and mixing the perfect Gin and Tonic. Her goal is to write a science fiction version of “The Princess Diaries,” featuring the coming-of-age of an Alien Princess. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.