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.”