with Lynne and Leslie

Amy Poehler and the myth of being nice

by SweetMidlife

yes please

This is Leslie, and I would like to talk to you about a four-letter word, one I have been sometimes proud to be called, and, at other times, wanted to slap people about the face in a vigorous fashion should it be tossed in my direction.


I do not mean the, well, nice definition of nice, which is cordial, courteous and personable. I mean the kind of “nice” that really means “pushover” or “selfless to the point of martyrdom” or “always willing to acquiesce to the requests of others, no matter how last-minute, unreasonable or inconvenient, for fear of people thinking you’re not nice.”

This kind of nice – and if you’re human, and almost certainly if you are a woman, you may have had thrust upon you – is almost a dare, a velvet cudgel that in the most sweetly inescapable way says (always smiling) “Can you do me a favor?” or “I know this is last minute but” or “I hope I’m not putting you out but” and then proceeds to put you out, all the while making it almost impossible for you to say ‘no’ at risk of the asker and other people not liking you anymore.

Amy Poehler has no use for such idiocy, and that attitude is all over the refreshingly blunt “Yes Please,” a combination memoir/life manual where she covers everything from her discovery of improv comedy to her “comedy wife” Tina Fey to the joys of faking inappropriate behavior with Justin Timberlake. But a recurring theme of the book, which I’m almost done listening to on Audible.com, is that you don’t owe anybody your dignity, and if a request is intrusive, unreasonable, presumptive or just something you don’t want to do, you get to say “No” and move on. And screw ’em if that’s not OK.

Poehler is probably most famous for playing  Pawnee, Indiana’s sincere-to-a-fault, people-pleasing public servant Leslie Knope on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” and she’s clear that she’s just acting – “I’m not that nice,” she writes candidly. And she’s not talking about being purposely rude as a mission statement, but about not allowing other’s expectations to color her life, in a way that a lot of us – especially, I think, women – have been raised to believe trumps all, even our own plans. You’ve been there, every time you’re asked to be on a church committee you know you don’t have time for, or that sweet last-minute request for bake sale items when you’ve gotta make dinner, or that “quick” favor of an errand that’s really not that quick. And you want to say “No.”

But you’re so nice.

From not accepting screenplays rudely dropped in her lap while she’s sleeping on a train (“It’s called ‘I Don’t Know Because I Threw It Away'”) to just saying “No” when strangers approach her on the street to ask her a question (“Nobody needs to ask me a question”), Poehler writes of the sometimes painful road to realizing that the older you get, the less it matters what other people think of you. And if people thinking you are “nice” is more important than the stuff you gotta do, you’re a sucker.

Poehler doesn’t exonerate herself from her own idiocy and the importance of being nice, as in a good human being, when it’s about owning your own stuff: In a particularly painful passage she talks of inadvertently mocking a real-life disabled woman in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that she assumed was fictional, because she was busy getting ready for the show and just never checked with her writers to find out. When she gets an emotionally charged letter from Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper and his wife Marianne, who directed the movie the sketch mocks, that mentions that the young lady was actually watching the sketch live, she attempts to rationalize her behavior by deciding they’re overreacting, that it wasn’t her fault, and then throws the letter away. It’s not until five years later that she attempts to contact the Coopers through mutual friend and director Spike Jonze, and hears back that they were disappointed it took so long and don’t need an apology at this late date, but offer contact info for the young lady she hurt. (She receives a gracious note from her.)

In that case, Poehler needed to have been “nice,” as in be an adult, and she acknowledges it. She even admits that sometimes in her candor, she lets that “niceness” urge put her in unfair situations, like the “creepy guy” producer who, unable to talk her into re-recording an entire speech that the tech crew messed up, asks her for a hug to make him feel better about being wrong, she submits, even though she doesn’t hug back, because it’s easier than saying “No.”

A great man I know named Pastor Dave Pinckney once told me that it is Godly to say no sometimes, meaning that you can’t be of any use to anybody, heavenly or otherwise, if you’re too overbooked to do your job well. Being “nice” or making people think you are isn’t worth screwing it all up. I’ve been there. Amy Poeher’s been there. And we both know that sometimes, the nicest thing, to yourself, is to say “No, please.”

14 Responses to “Amy Poehler and the myth of being nice”

  1. mlachance@x8brands.com' Maruchy says:

    My husband told me that “No.” Is a full sentence. No need to explain why ‘no’ is ‘no.’ It just is. They say that when a man says ‘no’ the conversation stops but when a woman says ‘no’ its the start of negotiations. And lastly – my personal favorite. When you say “no” to someone or something that you don’t want to do you are actually saying “yes” to yourself. 😉

    • SweetMidlife says:

      Maruchy, that’s so profound, and what I was trying to say. My sister points out that other women use that same thing against each other, the “are you sure you can’t?” and “It would really help me out” because we know what works on each other.

  2. what a day… to be mentioned by Leslie in a post revolving around Amy Poehler’s book “Yes Please”, being quoted as saying, “It is godly to say no sometimes”… what a day. Thanks Leslie. You are too kind!

  3. I agree with the person above and my husband told me the same thing: “No is a one word sentence.” I love it and I have become so much better over the years. Practice, though! 😉

  4. sarah@dayonebusinessservices.com' Sarah Day says:

    I live in the land of “Minnesota Nice” which is really just a way of saying we’re all passive-aggressive.

  5. adrianscrazylife@gmail.com' adrian says:

    In the business world, I have noticed this for years. Women who are bitchy get exactly what they WANT because people are scared to cross them. People don’t necessarily like them or want to be their friend, but there is always an edge of uneasiness when doing a task for them and it is always done extra fast because they don’t want to be chewed out. I don’t know if I really want to BE that person, but I would love to know how to get results like that and still be a nice person.

    It’s funny, I was at a fair today and I bought some very expensive moisturizer that I really didn’t want because the guy selling it was just a master salesman. I was so completely mesmerized by his sales technique that I found my wallet in my hand without even thinking about it. He wasn’t pushy and he wasn’t aggressive – he was just GOOD at sales. With technique like that, I’ll bet he gets a LOT of dates! #SITSSharefest

    • SweetMidlife says:

      Wow. I want to be that too, to get results, but not be so awful that people are afraid of me. And how funny about the moisturizer salesman. He was confident, and I am sure, didn’t apologize for getting you to buy. He did his job but didn’t make anyone feel bad in the process!

  6. Great review of the book! I’m looking forward to reading it as someone who doesn’t like being told I’m “nice.”

    • SweetMidlife says:

      This is Lynne, and I have always been told I was “nice” and I liked it, and I still do, kinda, but bent over backwards for people to still label me that even when I was hurting myself. Gotta stop that!! And we love your blog!

  7. lisa@squishablebaby.com' lisa Nelson says:

    I like to be nice. It feels good to be nice. I like to be kind to others because I want others to be kind to me. However, I’m not a pushover – for anyone.

    If I don’t want to do something, I kindly decline. If someone is pushing something on me, I explain my logical reasoning and I get up, turn my back, and walk away.

    In church, they keep on asking you stuff. When I joined, a member friend told me, you can always say no. I have taken that to heart, because people will make you seem obligated. I had one woman call me at 6 PM to say that she was going over to another members house to clean and that she would be there at 8 PM. I’m like, I have three kids, one on the way, I’m pregnant, tired and haven’t eaten . I got up at 5 AM to work out and blog.

    No thank you.

    Sorry but no. I can’t drop my life at the drop of the hat because you feel that it’s necessary to do this.

    Plus, I don’t clean my house. Why should I spend 2 hours of my life cleaning someone else’s house? Wrong attitude I know, but please. Have you heard of 24 hour notice?

    But, I am nice about it. Thank you for inviting me, but I must decline this time around. If you want to give me a little more notice in the future, then maybe I can work it in my schedule.

    The way I think, when I am open and available, I do the things I can do. When I’m not, I decline. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, do you?

    • SweetMidlife says:

      Not at all, Lisa. I think that sometimes, we do things for people even when we are tired, which is fine, but when you are depleting your own energy and neglecting what YOU have been given, that is no good. Pregnancy really brings that out, right? I remember being asked to do things and I would if I could sit down and do it, but other things, I was like, “Umm, I will be here in bed. Godspeed.”

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