Is Too Nice Feminine?
Nathan Justus Clark
Utah Valley University
Has anyone ever told you that nice guys finish last in matters of love? If you are a girl, have you ever rejected a guy because he seemed just a little too nice? The majority of girls I have talked to confirm that this is a common occurrence. This idea is something that needs to be studied so that the guys that are constantly stuck in the friend zone can get out and have serious relationships. The real questions are: Why does this happen, what do girls mean when they say “too nice,” and how can the “too nice guys” modify their behavior and get the girl without becoming jerks? In order to understand this interpersonal communication phenomenon, I will ask girls on campus to define the behavior that is most common of the “too nice guys” and then I will apply Deborah Tannen’s Genderlect Theory (2015) to my findings. I will further discuss how the two different genderlects, or gender specific communication styles, provide a foundation for these findings and possibly a solution to the problems found therein.
Deborah Tannen says that the real communication problem between different genders lies in the fact that men and women do not understand each other’s communication style. They are like two different dialects with unique cultures. The masculine communication style is mainly concerned with solving problems, defining things, being efficient, and having status. The feminine style focuses more on creating meaning, developing relationships, and on understanding people with the purpose of making meaningful or intimate connections. Tannen goes on to say that some men may use more of a feminine communication style and some women may use more of a masculine communication style. She says that a potential solution to the problems, that come from these two styles not understanding each other, is found in teaching people to identify which style is weakest with them and then to strengthen that style (2015). In terms of where this theory falls on the spectrum of objective or interpretive, it is actually right in the middle. It starts with the scientific approach because Tannen observes conversations and puts everyone’s communication into two separate groups with certain rules that define the group’s goals and intentions. Later on, however she also broadens her view and adds some interpretive ideas to it by explaining the many exceptions to these parameters. She talks about the way people are raised and how it plays a bigger part in determining their communication style than their gender does. This theory is less concerned with defining rules for communication or with equalizing power between genders. Its main goal is to help the sexes get along and understand each other.
These genderlect ideas have caused me to hypothesize that the communication style that one was brought up to use can affect how attractive one is perceived by the opposite sex. For example, if little boys were mainly taught the masculine communication style and girls were taught the feminine each would most likely start to equate that style with how each gender is supposed to interact with other people. Therefore, it would makes sense that the majority of girls would become women that would equate a masculine communication style with manly attractive behavior. Hence, perhaps the “too nice guy” tends to use more of a feminine communication style and needs to switch to the masculine in order to be effective. This idea could be somewhat of a breakthrough for the men that have been told that they are too nice. These men often fall for girls but can never get passed the friend zone with them, and they need help.
I have investigated this idea in more depth by interviewing girls here on Utah Valley University campus and I received a wide array of responses. One of the first common descriptions girls gave for a guy that is too nice was that he seemed less genuine because he seemed to overdo it on compliments (Participants 3 & 5, 2018). This is an interesting definition for the “too nice guy” because complimenting another human being is a way of showing admiration or care. One could even say that it is a way to reach out in attempt to create a meaningful connection. Establishing human connections is one of the main things that the feminine communication style is most concerned with (Tannen, 2015). It is important however to distinguish that it is not the compliment itself that these girls were referring to. It is the excessive or exaggerated way of giving it that was the turn off. The Attachment theory does a good job of explaining that over-anxious behavior in dating often repels the target (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2010). And so, it’s true that a focus on making human connections is more feminine and if a guy seems to over-focus on making them it seems insecure and anxious. Therefore, the first thing the “too nice guys” need to know in order to move towards a more masculine communication style is that an occasional, simple, and sincere compliment is ok but that if it comes across like they are trying too hard, the girl will most likely be repelled.
Another commonality between participants was the comment that sometimes guys are too agreeable and that is what makes them too nice ( Participants 2, 4, 11, & 12, 2018). This was one of the most intriguing definitions of “too nice” because it backed up the results of the only study I have found that actually nails down a characteristic associated with niceness that girls find less attractive. The study surveyed men and evaluated how agreeable they were. Then they evaluated how successful they had been in many different types of romantic relationships. The results showed that the men that seemed a little too agreeable, timid, modest, obliging, or tender-minded were almost always a little less successful than the men that confidently asserted their opinions and needs (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2006).
The agreeable factor also fits in with the feminine genderlect because agreeing with someone is more often an action done to put two people on equal grounds so that they can connect and have a relationship. In fact, Tannen talks about how women often share stories of when they did something foolish in an effort to put themselves on the same level as someone else. She also explains that women want to prevent and alleviate pain (Tannen, 2015). Taking this into consideration, the fact that women know that a harsh disagreement might wound a man’s ego, might mean that they tend to agree verbally even when they do not agree mentally. All of this does a good job a showing how agreeableness can be seen as more feminine and therefore appear less attractive when too apparent in the communication of a man.
An interesting characteristic of the masculine genderlect is that those that use it typically use it to insist that others agree with them (Tannen, 2015). Therefore, when a man is overly agreeable with a women that he is on a date with, she will most likely sense that he isn’t as manly as the guy she went out with the night before that confidently, and somewhat playfully, asserted his opinions, even when in direct competition to her own. Competition is another main use of the masculine genderlect. The majority of men will use communication to win arguments and compete for status. They also tend to focus more on truth than on empathy (Tannen, 2015). When a woman sees a lack of these uses of communication in a man and, even more importantly, excessive use of their opposites, she will most likely label him as too nice and move on to a man that communicates like she feels a man should. Yet again, remembering moderation in this advice is key because it was the overly agreeable not the agreeable that were labeled as to nice. So, men that are trying to escape the friend zone should not focus on being disagreeable, they should focus on being confidently agreeable when they actually agree.
One of the girls I interviewed said that “too nice” is when the guy is too needy or always wanst attention (Participant 5, 2018). Another girl said it means that he is a leach and is constantly texting and calling to ask her how she is or to say how much he loves her. She also emphasized that he can over use terms of endearment like babe (Participant 7, 2018). Behaviors like these can be a turn off because they send the message that one is longing for an intimate relationship and Tannen specifically labels that as something that the majority of females use communication to convey (2015). In contrast, two of the main uses of the masculine genderlect were to demonstrate independence and freedom (Tannen, 2018). Again in finding the balance. The “too nice guys” should focus their communication efforts on making a girl feel wanted more than they make her feel needed. At least when it comes to initial dating encounters. This may change as relationships progress, but in relation to interview results and the Genderlect Theory men’s should remember to retain an element of independence and freedom in their communication towards potential mates.
To this point, I have highlighted many areas where the results of my interviews and the Genderlect Theory overlap very nicely but there are also parts to the theory that do not quite fit the “nice guy” stereotype. For example, another characteristic closely associated with the masculine genderlect is that of trying to solve the problem (Tannen, 2015). Men use communication to offer solutions, plan effective strategies, and to promote justice. These are limitations to my hypothesis that the “nice guy” stereotype can be explained by the genderlect theory because they have nothing to do with coming across as too nice. Another limitation to the study was that about a fourth of the girls I interviewed did not think that a guy could be too nice. My explanation for this was that these girls were taking the question literally and had probably never thought to call the overly agreeable, complimentary, and needy, as too nice. Which is understandable because I found many articles that reported on experiments that defined “too nice” as empathetic and considerate and all of these tests came back with the results that women love those quality. One study in particular defined “too nice” as altruistic, or selfless and extremely generous. The study showed that this was highly desirable and showed no clear signs of fitting the “too nice” stereotype (Barclay, 2010). Perhaps this is the type of characteristic that those specific girls thought I was talking about when I asked if a guy could be too nice.
Overall, the application of Genderlect Theory to my “too nice guy” interviews brought about an extremely substantial increase in understanding of why many women are turned off by men that seem “too nice.” It also did a good job of helping explain how these men can adjust their behavior. It showed that they should work on being less extreme and more genuine in areas like giving compliments, deciding whether or not to agree, and in how they pursue a woman’s time, attention, and affection. The reason for this is that communicating agreeableness, compliments, and a desire to be with someone are not exclusively feminine. And since they are more of a main focus in the feminine genderlec, men should be aware that anxiously communicating these things can come across as less masculine and in turn less attractive. As all the too nice guys start to do this, they will develop more of a masculine communication style and in turn will come across as more attractive specimens to those with whom they desire romantic relationships.
Barclay, P. (2010). Altruism as a courtship display: Some effects of third-party generosity on audience perceptions. British Journal of Psychology, 101(1), 123-135. doi:10.1348/000712609X435733
Brumbaugh, C. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2010). Adult attachment and dating strategies: How do insecure people attract mates? Personal Relationships, 17(4), 599-614. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01304.x
Participant 2 (2018, April 6). Personal interview.
Participant 3 (2018, April 6). Personal interview.
Participant 4 (2018, April 9). Personal interview.
Participant 5 (2018, April 9). Personal interview.
Participant 7 (2018, April 9). Personal interview.
Participant 11 (2018, April 9). Personal interview.
Participant 12 (2018, April 9). Personal interview.
Tannen, D. (2015). Genderlect Styles. In A First Look at Communication Theory(9th ed., pp. 432-443).
Urbaniak, G. C., & Kilmann, P. R. (2006). Niceness and Dating Success: A further test of the nice guy stereotype. Sex Roles, 55(3-4), 209-224. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9075-2